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Brideshead Manor

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Brideshead Manor. Imposing English country estate of the Marchmain family where troops are to be quartered in the early days of World War II and the location where this frame novel opens. The bulk of the novel comprises flashback memories of the house and its family of Charles Ryder, an army captain when the novel begins. Earlier, while a student at Oxford University, he befriends Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of Brideshead’s Lord Marchmain. From Charles’s first visit to Brideshead as a young man he senses the place’s importance to the Marchmains as he is drawn into their family circle. In addition to the home’s strong family associations, Charles comes to realize that it and its art nouveau chapel are emblematic of the strong Roman Catholic faith that guides the family even when their behavior is anything but exemplary.

*Oxford University

*Oxford University. Historic English university that is novel’s second great anchor. There Charles meets Sebastian and most of the friends he retains through the rest of his life. The heady charm of Oxford’s dreaming spires and intense friendships of youth influence Charles more than the university’s intellectual opportunities. The unimaginably wealthy and charming Sebastian introduces Charles to a new world of art and pleasure. Although Charles leaves Oxford without taking a degree and becomes a successful artist, Oxford continues to inspire him and remain a touchstone of his youth.

Ryder family home

Ryder family home. Charles’s childhood home and his life there with his widower father serve as a counterpoint to the glamour of Brideshead and Oxford. After blowing his allowance too quickly at Oxford, Charles returns to a dull life with his father. Eventually it becomes clear his father’s bemused detachment is the model for his son’s inability to attach to his own wife and children, as the glamour of the Marchmains becomes his only reality.


*Venice. Italian city in which Lord Marchmain has lived with his mistress, Cara, for years. After Charles escapes the tedium of his family home, he and Sebastian decamp to Venice, where he finds that Sebastian’s father and mistress are a sedate middle-aged couple who are received in the best homes. The wise Cara is a counterpoint to the manipulative and devoutly religious Lady Marchmain at Brideshead. Charles’s Venice sojourn, like his earlier experiences at Oxford and Brideshead, are important learning experiences. Moreover, the lush beauty of all three places helps form Charles’s sensibilities as an artist.


*London. Capital of Great Britain and cultural and commercial center of the British Empire. Charles spends much of his adult life in London, where his Oxford contacts help advance his artistic career. Evelyn Waugh depicts London and Charles’s friends there as stagnant and without the allure of Brideshead, Oxford, Venice, and exotic places on which Charles bases his art. The chief characters of Brideshead Revisited do not thrive in London.

Ocean liner

Ocean liner. Ship on which Charles and Sebastian’s sister Julia are reunited during a transatlantic voyage. At sea, attached to no firm ground, Charles begins an affair with Julia while his seasick wife is confined to her cabin.

*North Africa

*North Africa. After Sebastian becomes a confirmed alcoholic, he roams around North Africa, supported by family funds. He gains a sense of purpose caring for a German boy fleeing conscription by the Nazis but continues to drink. He finally turns up on the doorstep of a monastery in Tunis. Although he appears to be at the point of death, the monks nurse him back to life. He joins the remote monastery as a lay brother. The monks tolerate his alcoholism and come to believe him a holy man. Sebastian’s final fate and home in Tunis force Charles to ponder anew the connections between charm, religious faith, and a love of beautiful places in the Marchmain family.

Historical Context

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The Pre-War Years and World War II
The book's events take place between 1922 and World War II. Charles Ryder's generation at Oxford was one that found itself too young to fight in the first war, but well into its thirties by the time the Second World War erupted. Throughout the body of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh indicates that something is brewing outside the walls of the stately mansions and colleges where most of the novel's actions take place. Europe, between World War I and World War II, was a place of both great prosperity and dismal poverty, of social innovations and political disarray.

As an adult, Cordelia serves as a nurse during the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. This war was fought between the Nationalists, who were fascists supported by the Italian and German governments, and the Loyalists, who were supported by many thousands of volunteers from other nations. When it was all over, hundreds of thousands were dead, and a fascist regime held power in Spain. The Nazis in Germany took note that other European governments were reluctant to step into the fray; this isolationism indicated that Europe might not interfere in the Nazis' own plans for world domination.

Germany suffered great losses during the First World War and was in political and economic disarray after the war. By the early 1930s, Germany's military and economic might began to recover under Adolf Hitler. By the middle of the 1930s, Hitler's political party, the Nazi Party, was firmly in command. Germany began to make territorial claims on other parts of Europe in the late 1930s. European leaders, including those of England, desperately wanted to avoid another world war, so they capitulated to Germany's demands. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact, hoping that Germany would hold to its promise that the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia, would be its last aggressive territorial claim. The effort at appeasing the Nazi government did not work, and Germany continued to invade other countries. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France jointly declared war on Germany. The war spread to nearly every corner of the globe, including Africa and Asia, and ultimately involved the United States, Russia, Japan, Italy, and others. By the time the war ended in 1945, a year after Waugh finished writing Brideshead Revisited, the United Kingdom alone had sustained more than nine hundred thousand military and civilian casualties.

Economic Depression
After World War I, England suffered serious economic decline, yet the privileged classes continued to consume at a fever pitch. The Flytes are a fabulously wealthy family, although, by the late 1920s, Rex reports that the family is having some money difficulties.

England's coal, steel, cotton, and shipping industries were in serious financial trouble by the mid-1920s. Coal miners initiated incidences of labor unrest and struck for improvements in their working situations in 1925. The following year, England's General Strike involved some six million union workers. This event prompts Charles and several fellow English art students to leave Paris for their homeland, to see how they can be of help. However, the strike lasted only six days. The economic bad news continued, however, and 1929 brought a stock market crash. The crash and the resulting Great Depression had global effects, and the misery spawned by the worldwide economic downturn contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.

English and American literature from World War I to 1944, when Waugh finished writing Brideshead Revisited, was very diverse. Authors experimented with a variety of forms and styles and dealt with subjects formerly considered risqué, such as sex; D. H. Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, is one example. The horrors of the First World War and the Great Depression prompted writers to consider a world where the old rules had failed, and many traditional religious, political, and social institutions no longer held the authority they once did. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck were two American writers who captured these feelings of disillusionment, and, in 1932, British author Aldous Huxley published his futuristic novel, Brave New World, in which he expresses a deep-seated suspicion of totalitarian government and societal uniformity.

In Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche, as a student at Oxford, recites a passage from T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Waste Land." This work, published in 1922, focused on loss of faith and on the destruction of civilization as previously understood. It was a huge hit with the post-World War I generation that had witnessed how far human nature could degenerate. The poem questions the premise that civilization is progressing. So ingrained did this work become in that generation's consciousness that college students everywhere, like Anthony Blanche, memorized its lines.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Brideshead Revisited is written completely from the first person point of view; that is, solely through the eyes of Charles Ryder. Charles is the only one telling the story, so the reader must decide whether he is a reliable or an unreliable narrator. Are his impressions of the events and characters in the story to be believed?

In general, Charles is a trustworthy narrator. He does not obviously exaggerate or provide unbelievable information. But, when only one person is telling a story, that person's background and experiences color the telling of the tale. In Charles' case, his childhood was a serious one, with very little happiness. His mother died when he was young and his father pays little attention to him. The absence of his own family may have made it easy for him to become intimately involved with the Flyte family, and, because of this closeness, he may be blind to some of their faults. A number of times other characters refer to the less-than-wonderful characteristics of the Flytes, including Sebastian, and this either confuses or upsets Charles.

Charles tells the story of his relationship with the Flytes and Sebastian with the benefit of hindsight. He has had time during the intervening fifteen to twenty years to reconsider events. The story is framed by the present, with a Prologue and an Epilogue, but takes place primarily in the past.

Waugh is well-known for his satirical novels, books that make fun of social customs and the people who participate in them. While Brideshead Revisited is not truly a satirical work and marks a change in Waugh's writing style, he does not completely abandon this favored technique. Satire is found in the book, particularly where religion is concerned. Depictions of priests are not always complementary. For example, the priest who visits Brideshead during Charles and Sebastian's summer vacation can't seem to understand that the two friends know nothing about cricket, even though they tell him this repeatedly. In addition to making subtle fun of Rex Mottram and his eagerness to be an important political player, Rex is made to look dim-witted when he takes classes to convert to Catholicism. And when issues of Catholic doctrine are discussed, such as how the final rites should be given to Lord Marchmain, everyone in the Flyte family seems to have a different and confused impression as to the correct way.

Romantic settings and events are prevalent in Brideshead Revisited. Romantic technique in a work of fiction refers to the use of language that is flowery, or characters and events that are idealized. Waugh employs what critic, James F. Carens, calls "purple" language, and draws almost fantasy images of a number of characters.

Charles's two most serious relationships, with Sebastian and his sister Julia, are pursued in the countryside, in idealized pastoral settings. Charles and Sebastian have a picnic early in their relationship, and, at Brideshead, they spend a summer that is described as "near heaven." He and Julia move to Brideshead to continue their love affair in the country. In book two, chapter three, for example, one evening at Brideshead is remembered as "tranquil, lime-scented," and Julia is pictured "in a tight little gold tunic and a white gown, one hand in the water, idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset." Waugh's language here is almost dreamlike.

Setting in Time
The novel's main action takes place in England between World War I and World War II. While international events barely impact the story line, Waugh drops numerous hints in the narrative to help the reader know what is happening outside of the characters' immediate surroundings.

The Prologue and the Epilogue take place in a wartime encampment in the English countryside. When women are part of an event at Oxford early in the novel, Charles's servant comments that such a thing would not have happened before World War I. Numerous hints are given that war with Germany and Italy is on the horizon. When Rex returns to Brideshead with his political friends, the conversation is filled with references to running into fake tanks in the Black Forest and to leaders such as Franco and Chamberlain. One of the reasons Lord Marchmain gives for moving back to England is the "international situation."

Augmenting the relatively rich language in Brideshead Revisited, Waugh occasionally uses similes. These are phrases that compare two seemingly unlike things. For example, in book one, chapter five, Charles compares Sebastian to "a Polynesian," happy when left alone, but threatened when "the big ship dropped anchor beyond the coral reef." In book two, chapter one, Charles remarks that bats in a cave "hung in the dome like dry seedpods." These images contribute to the nostalgic and lush tone of the novel's language.

Literary Techniques

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Brideshead Revisited makes excellent use of the techniques of close observation and parodic brilliance so prominent in Decline and Fall, but it also introduces a stylistic tint new to Waugh's literary palette. The lush, elegiac passages in which Charles Ryder remembers his days at Oxford and his love affair with Julia Flyte are constantly in danger of descending into sentimental romance, and the reader comes to eagerly anticipate Waugh's periodic returns to his earlier crispness of expression. These romantic sections also display an excessive reliance upon metaphor, and often very stale metaphor at that, which is again uncharacteristic of the author's previous work.

Since sentimentality and metaphorical extravagance are also absent from Waugh's post-Brideshead Revisited writing, one may speculate that he chose to experiment with them in the attempt to develop more serious themes and a deeper level of emotional involvement between the two main characters. Waugh believed that Brideshead Revisited was a major departure from the kind of thing he had done so well in the past, and he may have felt that a more conventionally portentous style would convey this to his readers; and even after many of his friends had commented adversely upon this surprising romanticism, he defended it as a necessary component of his intentions. His abandonment of this style in his subsequent books, however, suggests that he too recognized its inappropriateness to a literary method that depends upon sharpness of focus rather than prettiness of presentation.

Social Concerns

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Brideshead Revisited is in some respects a continuation of the cynical view of English society so effectively expressed throughout Decline and Fall. Brideshead itself is the beautiful estate of an ancient and noble family, and its glory in the early 1920s is powerfully contrasted with the downfall of both the family and their home over the next two decades. But in the seventeen years between the two books, Waugh had come to feel quite differently about the misfortunes of the aristocracy: where Decline and Fall treats them as an occasion for satirical comedy, Brideshead Revisited views them as a tragedy which brings to a close a glorious era of English history.

On the reverse side of this romanticization of the upper classes, Waugh offers some very strong indictments of both the nouveau riche and the emerging middle class. Two characters epitomize Waugh's elitist social stance: Rex Mottram, a colonial wheeler-dealer whose energetic vulgarity has catapulted him into the political establishment, and a young officer identified only as "Mr. Hooper," who represents the ignorance and ineptitude of a bourgeoisie attempting to take on responsibilities for which it is completely unfit. Although some of his criticisms are expressed in humorous terms, Waugh is more often mercilessly abusive towards these examples of the sweeping changes affecting English society. There is, however, one force which holds out the hope of resisting this disastrous leveling of all values, and it is the potential salvation offered by religion that sounds the major theme of Brideshead Revisited.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1920s and 1930s: The African-American singer and dancer Josephine Baker creates a sensation in Paris with her risqué nightclub show in which she wears an outfit made primarily of feathers. When Anthony and Charles go to a jazz club in London, Charles alludes to having gone to such clubs in Paris, where this kind of entertainment is more accepted than it is in London.

    Today: African American Queen Latifah is one of the most prominent performers in the world. She has starred in a television series, hosted her own talk show, been featured in television commercials, and produced top-selling albums.

  • 1920s and 1930s: Art Deco is the primary artistic style. The name is derived from a 1925 exhibition of decorative and industrial arts in Paris. Art Deco style incorporates straight lines and symmetry using manufactured rather than naturally occurring materials. Charles's art is not influenced by this modern style; he prefers more traditional subjects and styles.

    Today: Art Deco is considered a "retro" style but is still widely appreciated and collected. Web sites devoted to preserving and studying Art Deco buildings and decorative objects number in the hundreds and are based around the world, from New Zealand to Washington, D.C., to Miami.

  • 1920s and 1930s: The period between World War I and World War II is marked by both prosperity and economic crisis worldwide. European nations are working to rebuild after the First World War. After the stock market crash of 1929, much of the industrialized world suffers through record high unemployment and inflation. Wealthy families like the Flytes are somewhat insulated from the devastation by their inherited land and capital.

    Today: Most of the industrialized world has enjoyed at least four years of unparalleled economic prosperity. Among the wealthiest individuals in the world are those who started innovative companies in the high-technology industry, which is fueling economies worldwide.

Literary Precedents

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The scope of Brideshead Revisited's portrait of a family in decline and an individual in search of spiritual conviction reflects Waugh's lifelong interest in Thackeray, whose novel The History of Henry Esmond (1852) offers a comparable breadth of incident and character. Although Thackeray's perceived snobbery, like Waugh's, has led many critics to condemn him as hopelessly elitist, it is probably fairer to say that both writers are conscious of the faults of the upper classes at the same time as they are irresistibly drawn to them as subjects. In more general terms, Brideshead Revisited's concentration upon Catholic issues owes some debt to the novels of Graham Greene, whose Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940) had established that such matters could constitute the stuff of serious literature.


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Brideshead Revisited was made into an eleven-part television series by the U.K.'s Granada Television in 1982. The adaptation was done by John Mortimer and featured Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, Diana Quick as Julia Flyte, and Anthony Andrews as her brother Sebastian. A strong supporting cast included Claire Bloom, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier. First shown in the United States in January of 1982, the series was a great success with viewers and critics alike, and was given a repeat showing later that same year.

Media Adaptations

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  • Brideshead Revisited was adapted as a television miniseries in 1982, starring Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, and Laurence Olivier, and produced by Granada Television. A six-volume VHS tape set of the series is available from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
  • Harper Audio has produced a cassette recording of Brideshead Revisited, and Chivers Audio Books has produced a compact disc recording of the unabridged novel. Jeremy Irons narrates both versions, which were released in 2000.
  • In 1994, Roger Parsley adapted the novel into a play entitled Brideshead Revisited: A Play.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Burdett, Paul S., Jr. "Author Evelyn Waugh Served Honorably in the British Army as an SAS Commando." In World War II, Vol. 14, No. 1, May 1999, p. 16.

Carens, James F. The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh. University of Washington Press, 1966, pp. 98-110.

Fussell, Paul. "The Genesis of a Snob." In New Republic, Vol. 187, No. 3542, December 6, 1982, pp. 38-39.

Hutchens, John K. "Evelyn Waugh's Finest Novel." In New York Times, December 30, 1945.

Kermode, Frank. "Mr. Waugh's Cities." In Encounter, Vol. 15, No. 5, November, 1960, pp. 63-66, 68-70.

Lynch, Richard P. "Evelyn Waugh's Early Novels: the Limits of Fiction." In Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall 1994, pp. 373-86.

Ulanov, Barry. "The Ordeal of Evelyn Waugh." In The Vision Obscured: Perceptions of Some Twentieth-Century Catholic Novelists, edited by Melvin J. Friedman. Fordham University Press, 1970, pp. 79-93.

Further Reading
Allitt, Patrick. Catholic Converts. Cornell University Press, 2000. Waugh is among a significant group of British and American intellectuals who, during the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, converted to Catholicism. This recently published book is an account of the impact these converts had on the Catholic Church.

Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Vintage Books, 1999. This book tracks the British aristocracy from its supremacy in the 1870s to the 1930s, when it had lost a generation of sons to World War I and much of its wealth as well.

Stannard, Martin, ed. Evelyn Waugh. Routledge, 1997. This text is one of the major biographies of Waugh, covering his life from the 1920s through to his death.

Wykes, David. Evelyn Waugh: A Literary Life. St. Martin's Press, 1999. Wykes's book explores how Waugh's life affected his writing, but this is more a work of literary criticism than a biography.


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Sources for Further Study

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 Murray. Brideshead Revisited: The Past Redeemed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Summarizes the novel’s historical context, importance, and critical reactions, analyzing Waugh’s style and narrative technique. Includes chronology of Waugh’s life, bibliographical references, index.

Davis, Robert Murray. “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.

Ker, Ian. “Evelyn Waugh: The Priest as Craftsman.” The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Discusses Waugh’s practical understanding of Catholic life, including the portrayal of Catholicism as a lived faith in Brideshead Revisited. Includes index.

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.

McCartney, George. Confused Roaring: Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987. Explores Waugh’s place among authors of the modernist tradition, discussing metaphysical, aesthetic, epistemological, and other themes in Waugh’s collected works. Includes bibliographical references, index.

Patey, Douglas Lane. “Brideshead Revisited.” In The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. A concise study that addresses the novel’s autobiographical aspect as well as its Catholic and aesthetic themes. Includes bibliographical references, index.

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.

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Critical Essays