The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
Approx. 110,000 words
THE NOVEL | THE TEXT
Last visit to Brideshead
Why do we still read Brideshead Revisited?
An account of aimless, upper-class, young men wasting their time at Oxford University in hedonistic pursuits. Until the story is swallowed by the larger theme of an intensely Catholic, intensely self-absorbed, aristocratic family. Presented nostalgically and somewhat ornately. Hardly the stuff of popular fiction that most of us could identify with now.
Why do we care? In part because Evelyn Waugh is such a clever writer.
The novel quickly gathers us into friendship and sympathy with the spoiled, dissolute students we would normally find without redeeming value. And we remain attached as the novel delves into the background of one of them, Sebastian, to uncover the even more alien world of the lordly Marchmains and their family castle, Brideshead.
How Waugh does this, I'm not sure. His first clever move is to deliver the story from the perspective of the Second World War. Charles Ryder is an army officer whose soldiers are billeted in the now deserted Brideshead. Ryder is jolted into recalling his time with Sebastian and later with the boy's relatives. It's hard not to be as Sebastian's family enmeshes everything and everyone it comes in contact with.
This deliberate positioning of the story before the war—seen from the war—is a kind of a signal to the reader that the author, like his narrator, is aware of the shallowness of much that transpires. It gives us licence to enjoy the young men's escapades and their oh-so-witty and ironical dialogue. At the back of our minds, we know a great reckoning is coming.
Ryder's voice is also wonderfully nuanced. As the character that was Ryder two decades ago falls under Sebastian's wayward influence and later into the family drama, Ryder the narrator seems both enchanted by those golden days and despairing of them. Much like Scott Fitzgerald's narrator/observer of great wealth (and at about the same time too) in The Great Gatsby.
This ambivalence becomes most clear in the recall of his final days with the family at Brideshead. By that time, a more mature Ryder had become an establishment figure, a well-known but superficial artist specializing in painting old architecture. But as the family's religiosity, which was absent in the early going of Brideshead Revisited and has been gradually filtering into the plot, comes to a head, Ryder still plays devil's advocate—before finally giving in completely.
The ending of that remembered episode and the book's epilogue, back in wartime again, tries to convince us the issue has been resolved in Ryder's mind on the side of the angels.
But, frankly, Brideshead Revisited loses me by then, at least in my latest reading of the novel. I find, to my surprise, I yearn for the earlier, more frivolous but startlingly engaging antics of Ryder's effete Oxford friends, Sebastian and the Oscar Wilde-ish character of Anthony Blanche. At least, in their frivolous ways, they were rebelling against social norms.
Sebastian is gradually sidelined as we get further involved in his family, until he disappears from the narrative altogether, except as a ghostly figure in people's stories, a broken, alcoholic man seeking salvation abroad. As silly and as maddening as at times he was, the early Sebastian is sorely missed as the novel takes a more traditional turn.
A character references Antic Hay at one point: Aldous Huxley's novel is called the "book of the moment" (apparently this is 1923). Like several Huxley novels, Antic Hay satirizes aimless young intellectuals and artists after the First World War, while suggesting more serious underlying—often spiritual—matters being worked out. It may be Waugh is attempting something similar in Brideshead Revisited, and this is to be appreciated. But moving into the embrace of the most conventional of religions at the behest of the dying aristocratic class is hardly a bold advance into relevance.
Waugh is supposed to have predicted a rough going for his novel due to its religious content. There may be something to this. But it's only part of the problem that makes this novel appear less relevant each time I read it.
Despite the nkvel featuring some great writing, uncanny dialogue, and engaging characters, I wonder how much longer we will still care to revisit Brideshead.
— Eric McMillan
THE NOVEL | THE TEXT