It’s been a while since I read Evelyn Waugh – though the first few novels I read were from his earlier period, when he was still writing satire about the decline of the English aristocracy. Brideshead Revisited, though, is a far more major work, yet it still touches on similar themes.
Charles Ryder comes to Oxford University from a middle class family, and meets the wildly flamboyant Sebastian Flyte. As he becomes more and more enamoured with Sebastian’s way of life, he is introduced to the Flyte family, a relationship that will shift and move over the next twenty years, and make sure that Charles’ life will be changed forever.
This is an exceptionally sad novel. Not in the sense that you’ll be crying all the way through it, but the fact that it is relentlessly depressing in its portrayal of English society of the time means that there is little to find in the way of humour or light comic relief. It is certainly, then, a departure from Waugh’s earlier works, which dealt with similar themes, but in a far more humourous manner. perhaps Waugh thought satirising the crumbling British Empire was no longer the way to go.
Instead, Sebastian’s family – the Marchmains – are portrayed as being at the end of their tether. It is as though they are living out their final days on planet Earth in some kind of bizarre stupor. Lady Marchmain is slowly dying, her husband having run away to Venice with another woman because their marriage simply didn’t work. The children aren’t much better – Brideshead, the eldest boy, is strangely distant and asexual, caring more about matchboxes than continuing the family line. And Sebastian himself is a drunk, a layabout, and probably more concerning to his family, a gay. This is very much only alluded to, but when he shacks up with an attractive German man, the allusions are less than subtle.
Charles, the representative of the middle class, the people about to inherit England, does not understand just how much disconnect can exist between himself and this family. While he clearly fell hard for the romantic and attractive Sebastian, the more and more he learns about this life, the less he seems to want to participate in it.
Another of Waugh’s earlier occupations is in full swing here, too. Waugh’s own troubled history with religion – starting out as an Anglican, and later converting to Catholicism – has permeated into his literature, and his own views of the Catholic Church, are clearly presented here. Having Charles as a non-Catholic (indeed, an atheist) provides a sounding board for the other characters – the Marchmain family are, to varying degrees, all Catholic – to try to explain their views on this way of life, and how it interacts with everyday English society.
I quite liked the first thrid or so of the novel, when Charles and Sebastian’s relationship dominates. Sebastian is clearly the novel’s best invention, and he is in turn both charming and terrifying. Charles’ desire to be his friend (or something more) is easy to understand – we all know people like him, who we think are absolutely fantastic, but seem to be far beyond us. The fact that Charles’ dreams come true, and he becomes friends is, of course, the beginning of the end of his dreams. He knows he can never truly be a part of this society, and his disillusionment forces him to leave England, and go travelling in far-flung places to improve his painting abilities.
Unfortunately, I think Brideshead Revisited loses something when Sebastian leaves the stage, and instead we are left with Charles, who just doesn’t appeal that much. He’s so insufferably beige that you can’t help but want to shake him and make him do something. Even at the end, when he divorces his wife to be with Sebastian’s sister – Julia – there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly exciting about him. In fact, he seems to treat his wife quite badly – he has run off to the jungles of South America to paint, leaving her to raise the children he barely knows. It’s no wonder she has an affair with a younger man and wants to run off with him.
There’s a sense of disappointment when you come up against a classic and it doesn’t fulfill you the way you think it should. Alas, I got this sense when reading Brideshead Revisited. I prefer the satirical nonsense of Waugh’s earlier works, where everything is hurtling towards the end, the wheels coming off, plates crashing around you. Instead, the slower pace of Brideshead Revisited is dull in comparison – though by no means boring. If that makes any sense at all.