Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547
In 1943, Captain Charles Ryder, a successful architectural painter turned soldier, finds his company stationed at Brideshead, the country estate of Lord Marchmain. As overpowering memories of the previous 20 years arise, he begins an account of the family. The memoir is highly selective, omitting the 10 years between the decline of his friendship with Sebastian Flyte, son of Marchmain, and the beginning of his romance with Julia, Sebastian’s sister. Charles accounts for the emphasis and imbalance by explaining that with the Marchmains he had felt most alive and inspired.
When Charles had gone to Oxford 20 years earlier, after an unhappy, lonely childhood and adolescence, he gravitated toward the group of English Catholics surrounding Sebastian, a group known for their eccentricities, hedonism, and aestheticism. Surprised by their warmth and kindness, the agnostic Charles found their way of life novel and appealing.
When he became close to Sebastian’s family, he observed that as members of a small Catholic aristocratic minority they were alienated, socially and psychologically, from the mainstream. For Charles they became a kind of substitute family, and they helped launch him into a successful career in art. Yet he drifted away from them after his friend Sebastian sank hopelessly and inexplicably into alcoholism.
Years later, returning by sea from a tour of Latin America, Charles encounters Julia Mottram, Sebastian’s sister, and they begin a romance. Having recognized his mediocrity as an artist, Charles views marriage to Julia as his best chance for happiness. Although she wishes to marry him, her religion prevents it in a way he finds difficult to understand.
The novel, tinged with sentimentality, portrays the Catholic aristocracy in England between the two World Wars. Much more than a class novel, it probes the psychological effects of religious affiliation upon adherents. Written in an ornate and poetic style, it depicts in a compelling way the vulnerability of human beings.
Cook, William J., Jr. Masks, Modes, and Morals: The Art of Evelyn Waugh. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. A valuable source because Cook analyzes the point of view employed in each of the novels. It is a commonplace observation that Waugh’s style changed in mid-career (just before publication of Brideshead Revisited); Cook argues that the altered point of view accounts for the stylistic change.
Davis, Robert M. “Imagined Space in Brideshead Revisited.” In Evelyn Waugh: New Directions, edited by Alain Blayac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. This essay confronts the problem of a sometimes unlikable narrator who is at the center of the entire novel.
Lygon, Lady Dorothy. “Madresfield and Brideshead.” In Evelyn Waugh and His World, edited by David Pryce-Jones. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. An essay by one of Waugh’s intimate friends. Discusses the country house that was the model for the fictional Brideshead.
Quennell, Peter. “A Kingdom of Cokayne.” In Evelyn Waugh and His World, edited by David Pryce-Jones. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. A reminiscence of the Waugh whom the author knew at Oxford. Provides excellent background information for the Oxford segment of Brideshead Revisited.
Wilson, Edmund. “Splendors and Miseries of Evelyn Waugh.” In Critical Essays on Evelyn Waugh, edited by James F. Carens. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. After having praised the young Evelyn Waugh as a comic genius, Wilson in this essay reflects his disappointment with Brideshead Revisited.