Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh

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I imagine when Brideshead Revisited was first published in 1945 it created quite a stir. Divorce, adultery, alcoholism, and alternative lifestyles, all take place in a Catholic family tortured with the conflict of trying to live within the confines of strict religious doctrine. And yet, they sinned.

Aside from exploring the theme of the declining moral values of upper class English society during the years between the two world wars, Brideshead Revisited also illustrates the decline and fall of the entire upper crust of English society.

The story centers around the family of Lord Sebastian Flyte – the Marquis of Marchmain: his wife (although they are separated and Lord Flyte has a mistress), their two sons – The Earl of Brideshead known as “Bridey”, and Sebastian, and 2 daughters, Julia and Cordelia.

One of the minor characters described the family perfectly. (pages 53 – 56)

“There my dear is a subject for the poet… who must also be a psychoanalyst – and perhaps a diabolist… they’re all charming, and quite, quite gruesome… Brideshead, who’s something archaic, out of a cave that’s been sealed for years…. he’s a learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian… Julia a renaissance tragedy, she is a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing ruthless killer… all she wants is power… The mother very, very beautiful, a voice as quiet as a prayer, and as powerful… Father fleshy, handsome, a magnifico, a voluptuary Byronic, bored, infectiously slothful. Sebastian simple and charming. He isn’t very well endowed in the ‘top storey’… of course, those that have charm don’t really need brains… But when he speaks it is like a sphere of soapsuds drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, full of rainbow light for a second and then – phut! – vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.” Only young, sweet Cordelia escaped criticism from this character’s acid tongue.

Charles Ryder was a friend of the family telling this tale through a series of flashbacks. Waugh named people so appropriately. From the moment Charles Ryder met Sebastian at Oxford, he was along for the ride wanting desperately to be part of the Flyte family. Charles was from a middle-class background and his only known relative was a withdrawn recluse of a father. So he was easily drawn in by the glamour of the Marchmain castle, mother Flyte’s charm, and sweet Cordelia’s warm personality. It wasn’t until after his heartless wife had a child with another man and expected Charles to continue the marriage as though nothing happened that he fell in love with Julia.

Even if you prefer action-oriented books and find the story moving too slowly or can’t relate to the characters and don’t find them likable people, the prose is beautiful, and the characters richly drawn, with vivid descriptions of the physical surroundings.

The Oxford crowd: effeminate Sebastian, with his “hate mommy” complex, carrying a teddy bear around the Oxford campus- and turning to alcohol to ease his troubled mind, and his stuttering acid-tongued gay friend Anthony Blanche.

Humor? When Julia’s fiancee is taking classes to convert to a Catholic, the Priest doubts his sincerity and asks him, “Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said, ‘It’s going to rain,’ would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes Father’. ‘But supposing it didn’t’ He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.”

Throughout the story Waugh presents extraordinary artistry in creating a melancholy atmosphere appropriate for the time and situation. Brideshead Revisited touched me in a very personal way. My father’s demise bore an uncanny resemblance to that of Lord Flyte. He too abandoned the Catholic church and had little regard for organized religion. And similar to the occurrence in Brideshead Revisited, my father’s oldest child (my sister) insisted on “saving him from an eternity in hell” whether he consented or not. After a lifetime of expressing an aversion for Catholic rituals and loathing false piety the similar ambiguity of the death scene is startling; a man on his death bed who has not the strength to speak nor the inclination to protest… someone hovering over his feeble body, reading the bible. What thoughts were going through his mind? What was he thinking? Two years since my father’s passing and I still ponder the mystery.

Faith is a beautiful thing. It’s just a shame that the children of this family were a bunch of hypocrites. They despised the mother for her virtuous devotion while collectively enabling each others sinful, immoral and destructive behavior, they counted on redemption for their free spirited father in one cryptic gesture. Depending on your own personal beliefs, you can view the outcome in two different ways: Hope and eternal light, or perpetual fallacious assumptions of achieving sanctity.

So much more can be said about this book. Without a doubt Evelyn Waugh was one of the greatest writers of his time. Brideshead Revisited is number 80 on the Modern Library list of best novels of all time.

Rated 4.5 Stars

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