The past few books I’ve read have left me feeling much the same way I feel around three o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Day; that time when, slumped in a feeble plastic chair on the back lawn of my parents’ house, my stomach bulging, I swear to everything I hold sacred that I will never eat again.
I’ve read some truly brilliant books lately. It’s just like having Christmas dinner every week. It’s great – but I’m left feeling overwhelmed, overindulged…as if I couldn’t possibly consider ever reading another book on my life.
I am bloated with books.
In fact, if this was the last novel I ever read, I think I’d actually be okay with that…
The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
by Evelyn Waugh
Published in 1945
Quite simply, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has to be one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read. It’s remarkable, a work of such undeniable brilliance. In its wake, I feel awed and breathless.
For quite some time, I’ve been grappling with this enormous, complicated, emotional novel in my thoughts. It’s a struggle I know I’m not winning – but somehow, I don’t mind. Brideshead is more profound than I suspect I’ll ever understand. It has depths I’ve only glimpsed from where I paddle in the shallows, so shimmering and distant. Brideshead is intense; so beautiful that I find myself surrendering to it entirely.
Brideshead Revisited opens in countryside England, somewhere in the middle of the Second World War. Our narrator, Captain Charles Ryder is a jaded, tired soul, bored with the pointless routine of army life. When Ryder’s unit set off for their new base; an old country house, taken over by the military, Ryder is astonished to realise that he’s been there before.
In flashback, Charles takes us back to a time before the war, to tell the story of Brideshead castle – and the two loves of his life.
Charles meets Sebastian Flyte as a student at Oxford. Immediately, the pair form a close bond; an uncertain romance blossoms. When, reluctantly, Sebastian takes Charles to Brideshead, his family home, Charles is instantly drawn to the Flyte family and their grand old house.
Even in the Twenties, the Flytes are like a relic from another, even grander era. They’re strange, extravagant and intensely Catholic. As a self-described agnostic, the Flytes see Charles almost as a challenge. As Charles is accepted into the Flyte family, his relationship with Sebastian slowly wanes. Sebastian falls prey to his own personal demons, and moves further and further from the reach of his family and Charles.
Years flash by, and Charles, now unhappily married with children, encounters Sebastian’s sister, Julia on a transatlantic cruise. Suddenly, he sees her in a completely different way.
Brideshead is imbued with a flawless, poetic sense of determinism. We know from the first page of the novel that Ryder ends up alone and defeated. But watching his story slowly, hypnotically unwind is so very entrancing…
Waugh has so much to say, and he says it with such disarming eloquence. Honestly, Brideshead is so thematically complicated that even just touching on some of the novel’s preoccupations threatens to derail this poor, overwhelmed wannabe critic completely.
For me, Brideshead centres around mortality and decay. Brideshead Resvisited – especially the idyllic first half – is a love letter to the past, composed in a golden, nostalgic key. By the novel’s conclusion, everything has become unbearable. The English countryside has been cut into ditches; Brideshead’s fountain has been turned off, barricaded to prevent troops throwing their cigarette butts into the water. Ryder is the only one left who appreciates Brideshead’s former glory. Youth and idealism are things of the past. War and meaninglessness are all the future holds.
Catholicism is another of Waugh’s Big Themes. For the Flyte family, Catholicism seems a source of guilt, rather than comfort. Presumably, it’s Sebastian’s guilt over his homosexuality that drives him to alcoholism. Sebastian’s father lives in Italy with his lover, but Sebastian’s mother cannot bring herself to ask for a divorce because she’s a Catholic. Religion, for Waugh’s characters stands in the way of freedom, of love. It’s illogical, complicated and unforgiving.
I have to say, I’m impressed by the courage Waugh shows writing about gay characters back in 1945. While it’s not explicitly stated that Sebastian and Charles are lovers, it’s easy for the reader to fill in the gaps. Anyone who’s ever been in love will recognise Charles and Sebastian’s relationship for what it is. While Sebastian’s guilt seems to paralyse him, as an agnostic, Charles doesn’t seem to even give his sexuality a second thought. Charles is an absolutely fascinating narrator. He’s profound, honest, and you can’t help but empathise with him…even when he doesn’t necessarily deserve empathy.
There’s simply not enough space left for me to enthuse about the sheer genius of Waugh’s writing. I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me when I say that reading Brideshead Revisited is an overwhelmingly intense experience, in the best possible way. This isn’t the kind of book you merely read – it’s the kind of novel you experience. Waugh’s writing is so rich and lovely it’s difficult not to lose yourself completely in his words.
Brideshead Revisited leaves me full of aching regret – regret that I waited until I was thirty-three to experience this novel for the first time. If only I’d read this novel when I was twenty! Already, I’m itching to pick up Brideshead for the second time, and huddle over its warmth like a campfire on a cold night.
Something true and beautiful lies in these pages, and I’m determined to find it.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Read it now. Don’t walk – run to your nearest bookshop and get yourself a copy. Do it. I don’t care if you’re on a budget – some things are more important than food.
In a word: