Overview of Brideshead Revisited
Evelyn Waugh was widely known to be a conservative man, a man who felt more comfortable with the warm burnish of tradition than with the bright shine of the modern. Most of his novels written before 1942 are considered masterworks of satire. So the critics' nearly unanimous howl in 1945 upon the publication of Brideshead Revisited—a collective complaint that Waugh had lost his spark and had gone soft—should not come as a surprise. The novel was condemned as a romance, even a fantasy, and the knock against Waugh became that he had done his best work before World War II.
But after getting over the expectation that every scene should poke fun at something or someone (while still experiencing the occasional pleasure of Waugh's wit in Brideshead Revisited), readers familiar with Waugh's earlier satires need only look to Waugh's life for an explanation of the change in his writing. Even a brief examination of Waugh's background makes clear that many of the elements in Brideshead Revisited are taken from his own experiences. Waugh's partiality to traditional institutions and patterns shines through the novel's protagonist, Charles Ryder. Charles is a lover of old buildings, ancient cemeteries, and old wine; he dislikes new styles, be they displayed in a piece of jewelry or through the interior designs of a ship, and he feels that young people are not as attached to their history as they should be. From that common ground, Charles's story can be read as a version of Waugh's story. Each is a story of a young man searching for stability in a world that seems turned upside down by war and the dissolution of established social institutions.
Literature and myth are filled with tales of young men finding their way in the world via circuitous routes, each man descending into a dark wilderness before emerging into the light of his destiny. While this book is certainly not an autobiography, it can be read as Waugh's reflection on how his search for love and constancy brought him through a rambunctious youth, an unhappy marriage, and ultimately to the Catholic Church.
Like Charles, Waugh attended a private English boys' school, then moved on to Oxford to study unsuccessfully for his undergraduate degree. Waugh fell in with a group that was much more interested in drinking and carousing than in studying—not unlike Charles' group of friends at Oxford, which included the charming Sebastian Flyte and the always clever Anthony Blanche. And, both the author and his fictional protagonist dabbled in the decorative arts while at the university, eventually quitting to attend art school.
But unlike Waugh, who expressed interest in religion at an early age and found it to be one of the primary themes of his life, Charles is baffled by the Flytes' Catholicism. Early in the novel, he asks Sebastian, who is no pillar of Catholic doctrinal behavior, about his religion. Sebastian tells him that he thinks about it all the time, even though it doesn't show on the outside. Charles is amazed and simply can't believe that his friend actually believes in what he perceives as myths and trickery. In fact, Charles comes from a family that has paid almost no attention to religion, except to warn him of associating with religious groups, especially Catholics.
Waugh uses a present-day, middle-aged Charles, serving as a captain in the British Army during World War II, to frame the story with a prologue and epilogue. Interestingly enough, when Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited, he was on extended leave from the British military, in which he saw quite a bit of action, especially for a man in his late thirties and early forties. Waugh was of the right age and situation to be thinking back on his life, much as Charles does as he narrates the novel. And, even though Waugh succeeded in completing a number of hazardous missions for the war effort, his early wartime encounters were remarkably similar to Charles's—waiting around the local countryside, cleaning up military encampments, always thinking the next move would bring him closer to the real action.
Sparked by his troop's new encampment near Brideshead Castle, Charles remembers his friendship with the Flyte family, a wealthy Catholic household whose wayward son, Sebastian, becomes the first real love of his life. Life before Sebastian was passionless and grim for Charles, and Sebastian's appearance offers him a more spontaneous and colorful life. Critics differ on whether their relationship is sexual or not, but the flowery language Waugh uses when the two are together during their first year of friendship (one of the novel's features that drives...
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