In a 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh notes, “It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house.” Given the current craze for the Royals, Merchant/Ivory productions, and shows commodifying nobility (like Downton Abbey or its less popular, rebooted cousin, Upstairs Downstairs), Waugh’s comment seems eerily prescient–like nothing has changed.
It’s the idea that nothing-has-changed-yet-everything-has-changed that drives Brideshead Revisited in the beginning. Centering on Charles Ryder, the narrator, we are first introduced to the Brideshead manor/estate when Ryder stumbles upon it with a company of his men in the Army during World War II. The novel proceeds to retreat backwards and forwards in time, establishing Ryder’s tenure at Oxford and his fateful meeting with Sebastian Flyte, a charismatic young man with a penchant for booze and carrying his teddy bear Aloysius around. This friendship comprises most of the novel, though it is never established or clear whether their friendship is purely platonic or carries a more subtle erotic element to it. Further complicating their relationship is Charles’s introduction to Sebastian’s sister Julia, a young woman intent on marrying well–though she marries Rex Mottram, she re-enters Charles’s life ten years later, when he is also married and has established a career as a painter.
As the story progresses, we learn that the Flyte family (the parents are the Marquess and Marchioness of Marchmain) is Catholic, and their faith thus provides the spiritual center of the novel. Sebastian’s descent into alcoholism is partially fueled by his own sense of mortal sin, while Julia’s complicated relationship with both Rex and Charles is torn between her sense of faith engrained in her as a child and her adult resistance to its confines upon her behavior. Charles, the doubting agnostic, explores these tensions of faith, and ultimately brings about the crisis of faith towards the end of the novel. While the novel initially seems to explore the coming-of-age after World War I, Waugh eventually directs it to the Catholic plot, which ultimately brings us back to question ideas of grace, faith, and religion’s significance in our lives.
Waugh’s prose is both elegant and eloquent, making such a dense novel so enjoyable to read. As someone with an interest in 20th century literature, I found Waugh’s exploration of the 1920s and 30s, the aristocracy, and Catholicism in England to be thoroughly fascinating. Further, situating his work between the World Wars provides a glimpse at the uncertain philosophical and cultural shifts happening in England and Europe. I am already trying to think of a way to teach Brideshead Revisited for future courses!