The action of Brideshead Revisited describes providence, grace, and the redemption through suffering of a jaded, often hilarious modernism. Evelyn Waugh explores these themes in the memory of his fictional narrator, Charles Ryder. In the prologue, Ryder prepares to move from the military camp where he has been stationed for several months. At the age of thirty-nine, he reflects that he has begun to feel old, and his love for the army has died. His company travels to camp on the grounds of Brideshead Castle, a name that evokes Charles’s memories and propels him into the narrative, which comprises the body of the novel.
Charles first remembers his experience of college at Oxford, which essentially begins when he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte, a Roman Catholic of eccentric habits, endearing innocence, and a love of beautiful things. As an apology for his drunken behavior, Sebastian invites Charles to a luncheon in his rooms, and the two quickly form a deep friendship. On one occasion they travel to Sebastian’s home at Brideshead Castle, stopping on the way for wine and strawberries in the countryside. Sebastian explains that his mother, his older brother Lord Brideshead, and his sisters Julia and Cordelia live in the house, while his father lives with a mistress in Venice. On this first visit, Charles begins to note stirrings in himself of his own love of beauty, which will later develop into his artistic career and his religious conversion.
The friends spend the term in decadent misbehavior, which elicits a remonstrance from Charles’s cousin Jasper and a different kind of remonstrance from the colorful Anthony Blanche. At the end of the term, Charles returns impoverished to his father, with whom he engages in silent battles of will over the dinner table. Their relationship declines until a summons from Sebastian brings Charles to spend the rest of the vacation at Brideshead. There, Charles indulges his interest in art and aesthetics. He also discovers the central place the Roman Catholic religion holds in the family’s life. At the end of the summer, the two friends visit Lord Marchmain and his mistress, Cara, in Venice, where they enjoy the artistic beauties of the city. Cara describes to Charles the hatred Sebastian and his father bear toward their mother and warns him about Sebastian’s drinking habit.
In the following term, Sebastian begins to exhibit symptoms of alcoholism. Charles realizes the gravity of his problem at Easter, when Sebastian becomes drunk in front of his family. When the two are arrested for Sebastian’s driving drunk, the family responds by treating Sebastian like a child, having him watched and stopping his allowance. Charles sides with Sebastian against the rest and gives him money, although drunkenness and family tension strain their friendship. Finally, Sebastian is sent down from Oxford, and Lady Marchmain sends Charles away from Brideshead.
Charles leaves Oxford for art school in Paris but returns to London for the General Strike of 1926. There, he learns that Lady Marchmain is dying, and the family sends him to search of Sebastian. Finding him in a Moroccan hospital, Charles stays with him until he is discharged and then returns to England alone. He paints the Marchmain family’s London house just prior to its destruction, a work that launches his artistic career.
Ten years pass, after which a growing feeling of deadness and an unhappy marriage provoke Charles to flee abroad in search of peace. Returning to England three years later, he meets Julia Flyte on board their ship. She tells him of her stormy romance and unhappy marriage to politician Rex Mottram. Charles and Julia begin...
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a love affair that breaks both of their marriages, though Julia becomes torn between her love for Charles and her conscience.
In the spring before World War II, Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead Castle to die theatrically at home. Bridey, Cordelia, and Julia ask that a priest be admitted. Although Lord Marchmain refuses at first, in the end he responds to the Sacraments with a sign of the cross. At this sign, Charles feels his last doubts about the reality of the supernatural world give way. He and Julia, still in love, choose to end their affair. At the same time, Charles learns from Cordelia that, despite his continuing alcoholism, Sebastian has entered a monastery in North Africa, where he remains as a pathetic and permanent acolyte. Cordelia explains to Charles that her brother has found holiness through suffering and infirmity.
In the epilogue, Charles returns from his memories to his dismal present, when the beautiful Brideshead Castle has become a soldiers’ barracks. He tours the house and finds its artworks ruined and its Baroque fountain dry and filled with cigarette butts. Nevertheless, when he enters the chapel, he sees its sanctuary lamp lit and feels peace and hope despite the prospect of a bleak future. He realizes that he has played a role in a divine plan that will transcend the war and destruction now surrounding him.
Brideshead Revisited first appeared in a limited edition in December, 1944 (Waugh often published small, sometimes specially engraved and illustrated limited editions for his friends). The regular edition followed in May of the next year. For fifteen years, Waugh had been acquiring a faithful but not a huge audience. Brideshead Revisited made him a best-selling author for the first time. It also alienated a number of critics.
To some, like Edmund Wilson, the richness of the language is the novel’s chief sin, causing it to tend throughout toward romanticism and sentimentalism. For others, the structure of the novel is at fault. James F. Carens argues that too much of the novel is devoted to the Oxford period and too little to Charles Ryder’s love affair with Julia Flyte. For still others, the protagonist himself is the chief problem. Ryder is a snob who seems clearly lacking in generosity of spirit. Moreover, Waugh, so these critics argue, compounds his difficulties by choosing Ryder as his narrator. So strong is the suggestion, even if it be erroneous, that the first-person narrator is a mouthpiece for the author, that for the first time Waugh was personally identified with his unsympathetic hero.
The novel is a framed story. It begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue, both set in wartime England. The flashback, which is the bulk of the novel, constitutes The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (the subtitle). This flashback is divided into two books: “Et in Arcadia Ego,” which deals largely with Ryder’s Oxford years, and “A Twitch upon the Thread,” which chronicles the working of the divine will upon the Marchmain family and, through them, upon Ryder.
As the novel begins, Ryder, a thirty-nine-year-old captain of infantry, is transferred, along with his battalion, to a new camp. The troops arrive in the middle of the night, and Ryder does not realize until the next morning that he has returned to Brideshead, once the elegant country home of the Marchmains. As he looks out over the familiar vista, the nostalgic memories that make up the novel proper are triggered.
In book 1, set in the Oxford of the 1920’s, Ryder meets and becomes infatuated with charming, irresponsible Sebastian Flyte, second son of Lord and Lady Marchmain. Lord Marchmain has been separated from his wife for many years and lives with his mistress in Venice. Sebastian takes Ryder to Brideshead to meet the rest of his family: Lady Marchmain, beautiful and enigmatic; Brideshead (Bridey), heir to his father’s title, as stolid as Sebastian is animated; Julia, with whom Ryder will eventually fall in love; and Cordelia, the youngest child, devout in a natural, unaffected way. The Marchmains are a Catholic family, and Brideshead Revisited is often called a Catholic novel. Sebastian is attempting to escape the demands of his religion through drink and is rapidly becoming a hopeless alcoholic. Julia is rebelling by marrying Rex Mottram, a Canadian adventurer and wheeler-dealer. This far-from-ideal family is a curious device if, as some have charged, Waugh’s novel is a Catholic apologia.
In book 2, Ryder becomes an architectural artist; he paints the great houses of England, often just ahead of their dismemberment or destruction. Thus, two of Waugh’s recurring motifs, the artist-as-hero and the great house, come together in the character of the protagonist. Ryder marries Celia Mulcaster, whom very quickly he cannot abide. He is glad to learn that she is unfaithful, for he is then free to dislike her. Ryder and Julia encounter each other on an Atlantic voyage and become lovers. Lady Marchmain has died, and Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die. His deathbed conversion (in a scene roundly condemned by some critics) profoundly affects Julia. The smoldering coals of her Catholicism are fanned into a raging blaze. She breaks off her affair with Ryder and declares that she will remain married to the loathsome Rex.
In the epilogue, Ryder never states but strongly implies that he has become a Catholic. He enters Brideshead’s art-nouveau chapel to find a lamp burning before the altar there. Although he has lost most of what he desired in life, for the convert Ryder, the faith, to him both ancient and new, lives on.