Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Revisiting Brideshead

After recently finishing Put Out More Flags, I decided it was the perfect time to go on a slight Evelyn Waugh kick and reread Brideshead Revisited. The two books showcase vastly different sides of Waugh's style. The former satirizes a group of upper class Brits who will seemingly go to any length to hold onto their comfortable lifestyles in the face of the changes of war. Brideshead also looks at a way of life whose disappearance was accelerated by the war, but it does so in a much more nostalgic, bittersweet way. It was apparently written very quickly during a period in which Waugh himself was abroad during World War II and pining for the England home that he used to know. I've read that in his later years, Waugh would cringe and dismiss the work as overly sentimental. His self-criticisms weren't widely shared, though, and Brideshead remains his most famous work.

Brideshead Revisited  is divided into three distinct sections. Sandwiching the main action of the story, the novel begins and ends with protagonist Charles Ryder, a middle-aged officer in the British army, arriving at a lavish country estate that has been requisitioned for his unit. The estate happens to be Brideshead, a house that he was intimately familiar with in his youth. The memories that the house evokes for Charles first take us back to his university days, when he first developed a friendship with Sebastian Flyte, the flamboyant and eccentric youngest son of the aristocratic owners of Brideshead. Each subsequent year of their friendship sees Sebastian take his heavy drinking habit to increasingly destructive levels, until ultimately he goes abroad and falls out of Charles's life. The novel then jumps to a time about a decade after that, when a chance encounter on a cruise ship leads to an ill-fated relationship between Charles and Sebastian's sister, Julia.

To say that Waugh was Britain's version of F. Scott Fitzgerald would be a largely inaccurate analogy. I will draw one comparison between them, though, which is to say that both wrote imperfect novels that manage to perfectly capture feelings of nostalgia for very specific times and places that are drifting away from their characters, even while they are in the midst of living in them. In my mind, some of the most glaring imperfections of Brideshead are that the novel feels imbalanced, with the first half outshining the second, and that Waugh often tries to juggle too many elements, which results in somewhat awkward resolutions for certain themes and characters he introduces into the novel. I'd be forced to elaborate on these complaints if I had to dissect Waugh's writing from a critical point of view. Luckily, I don't have to, and I can continue to enjoying his work for the same reasons that I enjoy Fitzgerald's- for the broad ideas of nostalgia and memory that their novels evoke.


  1. A wonderful and insightful review. This one has been on my shelf for a while but someone recommended me "Vile Bodies" so I am reading that one right now instead, which also happens to be my first novel by this author. So far it's pretty good--I am digging his witty and satirical writing style. Have you read this one by any chance? If it ends up being half-decent, then I will definitely move on to Brideshead Revisited next.

    1. I have read Vile Bodies, but it was a long time ago and I actually don't remember too many details. I'll probably reread it at some point now that I'm rediscovering Waugh.

  2. It would be difficult to describe precisely why I enjoyed Brideshead Revisted, but I did and I am looking forward to my next by Waugh...A Handful of Dust, though I won't get to it for a while. You offer a nice review. My own review:



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