Back to the Classics: Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945)

This was a reread for me, and I was already familiar with the plot — I’ll be discussing it here, so please don’t continue if you mind spoilers.

Subtitled “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder,” the novel opens with the Captain and his army troop moving to another base within Britain during the Second World War. Gloomy and depressed by the ruin of civilization and the uselessness of army life, Charles gets an additional shock when he comes to the estate they are occupying and realizes he’s been there before. Brideshead Castle was the site of his youthful dreams and longings, as he became deeply involved with the family years ago.

He proceeds to tell us the history of this involvement, first with Sebastian, who is in Charles’s year at Oxford, and later with Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom he falls in love when they are both married to other people. The Marchmains are upper-class, wealthy (though less wealthy than they think they are), and, somewhat unusually within this circle, Roman Catholic — at least the mother is; the father is living scandalously abroad with a mistress, and the children vary from devout to agnostic. Charles is enchanted by the family, by their extravagant lifestyle and by their great, elaborate house and its surroundings, which becomes an Arcadia to him.

The idyll is brief. Sebastian, hounded by his mother and her narrow expectations, becomes an alcoholic and loses himself in Morocco. Charles experiences a short time of happiness with Julia, but she decides their relationship is sinful and abandons him too. And so, with the flood of memories exhausted, we come back to the war, to the Baroque fountain that has been a symbol for Charles’s longings, now a repository for sandwiches and cigarettes. But a flame still burns in the chapel, and it seems to have ignited a spark within Charles as well.

There is much to be said about the book as a picture of the interwar period in England, of class consciousness, of sexual mores, and other sociologial and historical topics, but Waugh himself said it was about religion. What is he saying about it? What is sacred, in this collection of mostly very profane memories?

The search for living substance, and the absence and failure of the symbolically feminine sources of nourishment, is the driving impetus throughout. The motherless Charles, arriving in Oxford fresh from an all-male boarding school and with a distant, insensitive father, has no experience of mature femininity or nurturing care. So when he meets the beautiful and charming Sebastian, who is wracked by a love-hate relationship with his “Mummy” that keeps him in an infantile state (complete with teddy bear), he is irresistibly attracted. But it’s when he glimpses Brideshead that his love is truly sealed.

“Brideshead” is a feminine name; it combines elements of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and of the fountainhead of faith, the springing up of life in the dryness of a profane world. Charles’s great love affair, arguably, is neither with Sebastian nor with Julia, but with Brideshead itself — significantly, in adulthood he becomes a fashionable painter, not of people, but of buildings. Though he considers himself an unbeliever, he yet yearns after the harmoniously ordered, consoling, and protective edifice, which faithful Catholics find in their religion, and which has a motherly, womb-like quality.

A building can be restrictive, too — it shuts out as well as encloses. And so in the end, in Julia’s rejection of Charles, the conservative author seems to be pointing to the importance of rules, of structure, order, and obedience to a higher will. When Lord Marchmain dies and the old reprobate appears to repent at last, Julia’s belief in the sovereignty of personal desire is shaken, and the marriage aborted. But is it really a tragedy?

I don’t believe that Julia was wrong to leave Charles, though I can’t agree with her that loving him would be “sinful,” or get in the way of her love of God. To withhold love from a suffering human being can never be the basis for spiritual evolution. But there are many kinds and degrees of love, and Charles’s love for Julia was still of an immature kind. For him, she was part of Brideshead, of his longing for something higher, deeper, more essential. Even as he added her portrait to his collection of pictures, one wonders if she ever really became a person for him.

Perhaps it was for his sake, not her own, as well as her own, that she needed to leave him, so that he could potentially find his way past the symbols to the reality of living water. The ending of the book subtly suggests that he has made a step in that direction, even in the lifeless desert of wartime. What exactly that means for him is left quite open, but it helps to bring about a conclusion that hints at further possibilities, a story that goes on past the final page.

That sense of “opening up,” of possibilities beyond the page, is a hallmark of true religion, as well as of a great novel. And so one can see why Brideshead has kept its hold on our imagination over the years, and how it points toward the sacred elements hidden in a profane world. Through its vivid memory-pictures of a vanished life, it asks what is eternal in all of it, and perhaps inspires us to do the same for our own lives.

Among many editions over the years, the 2018 Folio Society edition, which I included in a video review when it first came out, is to my mind a brilliantly satisfying interpretation. The two-color woodcuts by Harry Brockway capture Charles’s double consciousness perfectly, evoking the stylized aesthetic of the twenties and thirties, but with a restraint and economy that forecasts the austerity of the war. This time around, I was impressed all over again by Folio’s beautiful presentation, which incarnates an iconic work in such an appropriate form. If you love the book, this is an edition to add to your pleasure.

And as for other visual interpretations, the famous 1981 television adaptation would qualify this book for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge…though in the end I opted for a different category. I haven’t seen the TV series in full, but the clips I’ve viewed are remarkably faithful to the book, with terrific acting and production values that still hold up today. A  film was also made in 2008.

Have you seen either of these, and/or read the book? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic about a Family


11 thoughts on “Back to the Classics: Brideshead Revisited

  1. To withhold love from a suffering human being can never be the basis for spiritual evolution is one of several thoughts that rang true for me in this review. This is a critique which clarified the novel for me better than any other synopses I’ve read, not having ever wanted to read the book and never having engaged with the TV adaptation when it was first shown.

    I loved the way you explained the symbolism, and the relationships, and the significance of little details, and you’ve done what no other commentary has done before — finally made me want to read it.


    1. I hope you will read it, and find it worthwhile. Writing this helped me to clarify my thoughts about the book — I definitely do not agree with Mr. Waugh about a lot of things, but I could appreciate his work, and its many layers. I had to keep thinking about it, and that’s one of the marks of a great novel, I believe.


  2. One of my all time favourite books. It withstands multiple re-readings which to me is the hallmark of a classic. The big question at the end of course is whether Charles is signalling his conversion to Catholicism – “a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words.” which is astonishing considering his strong aversion to it until then.

    As for the adaptations, the tv series is outstanding. The recent film version is ok but not as good


    1. Even if he has not become fully a Catholic, Charles clearly went through a conversion of some sort. I like that Waugh leaves this rather open at the end and doesn’t spell everything out. It’s part of what made the book feel more real to me, because in life we don’t come to tidy conclusions where everything is defined and wrapped up.


  3. I still don’t think I’ve ever read this in full! I have a very vague notion that I checked it out from the library once, a few years ago, but I am pretty sure I didn’t finish it, for whatever reason. One of these days!

    (My favorite joke in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia — well, at least one of my favorite jokes! — is when someone mentions a very posh character, and the other person says, “Ah, yes, Brideshead Regurgitated.” A+++)


    1. Indeed, there is a kind of snobbish attraction to the “posh” life that can be off-putting — but there is more to the book than that, I think.


  4. The 80’s tv series is tremendous. I’m not sure I would have ever read a book that was so heavily religious in tone, if not for this production. The actors were spot on, and the costuming and locations felt authentic. It is one of the rare cases where the adaptation was as good, if not better, than the book. But it has been at least 20 yrs since I read the book or saw the show – I’m curious to see if I’d still like it or not.


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