Brideshead Revisited is arguably the masterpiece of its author, Evelyn Waugh. It is claimed so as well by the writer, but after he reread it years after its first publication date, he was appalled to find out that it isn’t as good as he initially thought it was. But isn’t that always the case? For us book bloggers, we think that we have just finished writing a wonderful review of a book after editing the typos and other errors, only to realize months later that it’s rather distasteful.
Anyway, the novel’s complete title is Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. I think that the subtitle is a little oxymoronic and intriguing: how can the sacred and the profane intermingle with each other? It must be blasphemous then, no?
True enough, one of the novel’s themes is Catholicism. Charles Ryder is drawn to the Flyte Family, a rich and opulent one, through his friend Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian, at first, is reluctant to introduce him to the rest of the Flytes lest they take away his only friend, but Charles is inevitably dragged to the very Catholic and very flawed affairs of the family.
The languor of Youth–how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth–all save this–come and go with us through life; again and again in riper years we experience, under a new stimulus, what we thought had been finally left behind, the authentic impulse to action, the renewal of power and its concentration on a new object; again and again a new truth is revealed to us in whose light all our previous knowledge must be rearranged. These things are a part of life itself; but languor–the realization of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse–that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it. Perhaps in the mansions of Limbo the heroes enjoy some such compensation for their loss of the Beatific Vision; perhaps the Beatific Vision itself has some remote kinship with this lowly experience; I, at any rate, believed myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead.
Brideshead is the name of the house, rather castle, of the Flytes. Charles Ryder, a fledgling painter, is checking out his ground-floor room at Oxford when Sebastian, out of nowhere, vomits inside through the window. The next day, Sebastian sends flowers to Charles’s room and invites him for lunch.
That is the start of the friendship between the two. They spend most of the time with each other, mostly drinking and basically having the time of their lives. This friendship is a hot topic of debate among literary circles. Is it a homosexual relationship? Is it a deeply platonic relationship?
On the surface, there are no homosexual acts, but one may be led to think that there might have been stolen kisses here and there, and even more, if one dives deeper beneath the text. And what did I think of it? Sure, Sebastian is queer. He cares so much for Charles, but I don’t think Charles reciprocated it in the same way as the former did. What they have must be a sort of bromance, something that fizzles out once the real object of desire comes along, which is Julia in Charles’s case.
Julia, Sebastian’s older sister, is very much like the younger brother in some ways. She becomes the love of Charles at the latter parts of the novel, but is she really what Charles wants?
The friendship between Charles and Sebastian crumbles slowly when Julia enters the scene. It ends when Charles was banished away from the family when he tolerates Sebastian’s uncontrolled drinking, opposing the wishes of Sebastian’s religiously oppressive mother. Years later, Charles and Julia are married but not to each other. The love between them that was thwarted earlier is rekindled as the two meet again. They go through an affair, but Charles wants more than Julia alone: he wants Brideshead.
So, why didn’t they marry each other? Of course, there’s Sebastian, but he isn’t the sole and main reason. Charles, an uncompromising atheist, cannot be accepted into the Flyte family because of the family’s strong Catholic foundation. In fact, it is too strong that the patriarch ran away for being stifled by the saintly matriarch. The latter’s admonitions to the Flyte children poison them as they grow older, and this ultimately becomes the reason for the subsequent unhappiness of Sebastian.
Religion is good, but is it good enough to allow people to base their happiness on it? There is no problem if people are utterly happy in performing their religious duties, but what if their happiness is something that religion forbids? What does one do: denounce his faith or succumb to it?
Most of the characters in this novel undergo a sort of conversion. From the adulterous patriarch even to the wayward Sebastian, they turn back to religion that they felt constricted their lives. That is something that bothers me. Are they fully absolved in accepting what they shunned away, or is this just another plain ritual that the society has to act out? And how about Charles? Does he have a reason to seek conversion? Is he guilty of something? Is he the hunted or the hunter?
These are all very coarse and incoherent thoughts on the book, but disregarding them, this a very satisfying read. Waugh is an adept writer, sometimes evocative, sometimes humorous. It’s also very nostalgic, and Charles, an outsider to a world of excesses and indulgence, becomes our eyes to the post WWI English high society.