Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953

The reviews of Brideshead Revisited ranged from adoring to condemning when the book was first published in 1945. James F. Carens in The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh notes that while the magazine Catholic World raved about the novel and called it "a work of art," critic Edmund Wilson (as quoted by Carens) was less positive. Even though Wilson was an admirer of Waugh's earlier, more satirical works, he called Brideshead Revisited "disastrous" and declared that the author "no longer knows his way." John K. Hutchens, reviewing the novel in 1945 for the New York Times, wrote that the novel "has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime."

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Carens encourages readers to weigh the book carefully, advising, "A novel that has provoked such diverse views deserves consideration. It may be an imperfect work; it can scarcely be a vapid one." Indeed, despite many critics' disappointment with the book's lack of satirical sharpness, Brideshead Revisited is the book that introduced American audiences to Waugh.

Much of the negative criticism of Brideshead Revisited has charged that in this book, Waugh leaves his earlier empire of hard-bitten satire and wades into the gentler world of romance. Some critics, such as Paul Fussell in the New Republic, appear to suggest that Waugh has become soft in his middle age. Comparing Brideshead Revisited with Waugh's short stories written in the 1930s, Fussell argues:

If, in that overripe fantasy, manufactured in the grim 1940s, he seems at pains to register his worshipful intimacy with the aristocracy, in these stories of the 1930s, he exhibits for the unearned income set an intellectual and moral disdain hard to distinguish from that of a contemporary Marxist-Leninist. If he'd conceived Sebastian Flyte in 1935, he'd have little trouble discerning from the start the selfishness, cruelty, and fatuity behind those expensive good looks.

For many critics, Brideshead Revisited marks a change in Waugh's style that continues for the rest of his writing life. Richard P. Lynch, in Papers on Language and Literature, remarks that Waugh's later novels, except for The Loved One, "are more reassuring to readers of conventional romance." The fact that the novel is completely created from the mist of Charles Ryder's memories gives it a certain wistful quality that his earlier novels lack. In fact, Lynch says in his criticism that it is "atypical among Waugh's novels in its triumph of sentiment over satire."

But others argue that Brideshead Revisited still has some of the satire and sharpness of the earlier novels, but it is done in a more mature and learned way. Hutchens argues in his New York Times review that the story of Charles and the Flyte family contains much of the "deadly use of detail, the scorn of vulgarity, the light summary touch with minor characters," such as Anthony Blanche and Charles's father. But, in this new novel, there is now "one sentence and one paragraph after another of reflection and description, [which] could have found no place in the staccato atmosphere of his other works." In Hutchens's eyes, Brideshead Revisited is a more fully-grown novel, benefiting from the narrator's years of distance from the story's events and characters and from the author's own maturity.

This assertion of maturity does not sit well, though, with some critics. Barry Ulanov, in The Vision Obscured: Perceptions of Some Twentieth-Century Catholic Novelists, cites Brideshead Revisited as evidence of Waugh's mid-career decline. Echoing Lynch, Ulanov argues that most of Waugh's books after 1945 "are blighted by the disease of Brideshead, an egregious inclination to take religion seriously, accompanied by a marked distaste for the world that does not share that inclination—the modern world."

In fact, Waugh's own worldview can be seen in such novels as Brideshead Revisited, in which there is a sense that the past is preferable to the present and that the current generation has lost touch with the values and graciousness of its history. According to Ulanov, Waugh, in his own life, "became a furious partisan, fighting for the survival of ancient values, ancient worlds, ancient rituals." As a Catholic, he worked against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which promoted such changes as translating the Latin of the Mass into English.

Waugh's Catholicism and how it is reflected and used in his novels is a continuing subject for critics. Most agree that the author's conservative and traditional outlook is revealed in his work, but while Carens notes that Brideshead Revisited is the first of Waugh's books where his interest in Roman Catholicism is so broadly exhibited, he declares that the novel is not an apology for Catholicism. "It is not a preachy book," he asserts. As Carens points out, readers can see evidence of Waugh's past satiric craftsmanship; satire is blended with religion in the book, specifically where the confused Flyte family is discussing whether the dying Lord Marchmain should receive last rites from a priest. "Over this entire scene Waugh has cast his satirical irony; the scene exists for novelistic purposes rather than dogmatic reasons," writes Carens. And the difficulty of Catholicism in Britain, as portrayed in the novel, might well erase any critic's concerns that the book slips into romance, according to Frank Kermode in Encounter. To the Flytes, their religion is a burden to shoulder, for "only in misery, it seems, will the Faith be restored in the great families of England."

Whether Brideshead Revisited is a book without any teeth or evidence of a writer's development is a topic that critics will continue to debate. But the novel has withstood the test of time, as it was recently cited by the editorial board of the Modern Library as one of the 100 best English language books of the twentieth century.

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Brideshead Revisited


Essays and Criticism