Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Source of book: I own this.

In some ways, it is surprising that I made it to age 40 without ever reading any Evelyn Waugh. Somehow, he just slipped through the cracks. I discovered Wodehouse in high school, and E. M. Forster in my 20s. So I at least have some experience with British writers from the first half of the 20th Century. In some ways, I might place Waugh between the two. He has his humorous moments - although his wit is more biting and less good natured than that of Wodehouse. He also reminds me a bit of the sense of malaise and resentment of social change that characterizes Forster. In any event, Waugh was a true craftsman of words, with gem following bon mot, and pictures told clearly in an economy of words. His skill is apparent, as is his ability to see the cracks in people and society. 

Brideshead Revisited is one of Waugh’s more serious novels, rather unlike his early farces. It also is a book he intended to be expressly religious, with a theme of redemption and a defense, perhaps, of his Catholic faith. It also contains a number of autobiographical elements, as I discovered reading up on him after I finished the book.

The story is told in the first person by Charles Ryder, who at the time the story starts is in the British army in World War II - serving on the homefront due to his unsuitability to military life. After a brief introduction, the rest of the book until the epilogue is two flashbacks to his past. The first is of his days at university (clearly Oxford, although not named) in the 1920s, and the second takes place about ten years later.

At Oxford, Charles becomes fast friends with Sebastian Flyte, and thereafter becomes acquainted with his entire family, an aristocratic bunch with Roman Catholic faith and a whole lot of dysfunction. Lord Marchmain, the father, never came back from World War I, choosing to live with his mistress in Italy. Lady Marchmain has turned her pain inward and become a bit of a religious zealot, and a control freak regarding her children. The eldest, “Brideshead” (whose given name we never learn - just his title) is likewise religious, but socially and especially romantically inept. Sebastian has suffered the most from his mother, and he drowns his pain in alcohol, which nearly destroys him by the end of the novel. Julia rejects the faith for a while, marries a divorced Canadian who she will later divorce after a decade of unhappiness. The youngest, Cordelia, turns her religion into a life of service as a nurse. The family is fascinating for all the wrong reasons, as no one is really healthy. Cordelia is probably the closest to truly functional, but she has attained this by essentially rejecting everything about her family except for the faith.

Sebastian is essentially the focus of the first half of the book. Charles is smitten with Sebastian, and spends his freshman year running in his circles - which are rather obviously, to use Neil Gaiman’s delightful turn of phrase, “gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide.” Sebastian is a bit peculiar, to say the least. He has a teddy bear he takes with him everywhere, which he calls Aloysius, and treats as if it were a person. I would have thought this was a bit too silly for a novel, except that Sebastian was based on John Betjeman, who had a bear with an even sillier name (Archibald Ormsby-Gore), who not only went everywhere with him, but was in his arms as he died as an old man. That Betjeman eventually became a beloved television personality and Poet Laureate indicates to me that it is apparently possible to be eccentric to the point of absurdity and still find a place in the world.

But Sebastian is deeply unhappy, despite his appearances. The tears of a clown, you might say. Charles eventually notices the difference after Sebastian has a particularly bad drinking binge. While Charles tends to get carried away when he is happy, and overindulges in an exuberance of high spirits, Sebastian drinks hardest when he is unhappy. He is killing the pain. Charles eventually concludes that Sebastian is “ashamed of being unhappy.” This is, for what it is worth, why I intentionally do not imbibe when I am in a dark place. I prefer that the fruit of the vine (or barley) be a source and accompaniment to more joyful things. The psalmist talks of wine gladdening the heart.

Brideshead, who is not a drinker, explains thus: “I like and think good the end to which wine is sometimes the means -- the promotion of sympathy between man and man. But in my own case it does not achieve that end, so I neither like it, nor think it good for me.” As an introvert, it does indeed assist to that end. Just not when I am in a bad emotional place.

The relationship between Charles and Sebastian has been much debated, but there are solid indications in the book that it is fully homosexual. There have been claims that it was a close, but platonic friendship, but the reference to serious sin seems to indicate more than mutual interest. In any event, the way Charles describes Sebastian is clearly romantic, and even erotic, and I suspect most of the attempts to explain it away have been driven by the perceived need to reconcile Waugh’s Catholicism with his sexuality.

It is no secret that Waugh had at least two lengthy homosexual relationship during his youth, before he eventually married. The first marriage (ironically to an Evelyn - Evelyn Gardner) was short and unhappy, ending in divorce after she cheated on him with a close friend. Soon afterward, Waugh converted to Catholicism, in a move that rather shocked his Anglican family. He remarried eventually, after a long struggle to get the first marriage annulled. (Yep, complications from his newfound faith…)

Waugh, like Sebastian, would abuse alcohol and prescription sedatives throughout his life, which led to a mental breakdown in 1953, and poor health in general. By the time of his breakdown, his popularity had declined, and he worried he would fade into obscurity. History has been kinder, and his books have enjoyed renewed popularity after his death.

The first half of the book contains some delightful scenes. After the profligate Charles spends through his allowance and has nothing left for the holidays, he is forced to return to his father. (His mother was killed in World War I.) His father, who is a bit peculiar, makes the holidays a living hell for Charles - without appearing as if he intends it. But he certainly does. He invites dreadfully boring people over, has his cook make only bland and tasteless food, and generally embarasses poor Charles. These scenes showcase the Waugh wit quite well.

There is also the farcical scene in which Charles, Sebastian, and a couple of friends decide to hit a brothel while rather intoxicated. The subsequent arrest and scandal is well written. The barbs at the English upper class and their obsession with “respectability” is targeted. After all, the fact that the boys were drunk, at a brothel, and driving while intoxicated is less the issue than that their names will be in the papers the next morning.

The second half of the book occurs ten years later. Sebastian has been living in Morocco, and has destroyed his health with his drinking. Julia, having married, is deeply unhappy. And Charles has become a respected painter, and is just returning from a long trip abroad, only to find his wife has been cheating on him. (Perhaps the most awkward - and brilliantly written - dialogue in the book is between Charles and his wife. Most remains unsaid, but both know what is meant.

Finding himself reacquainted with Julia - and discovering he is attracted to her in significant part because she resembles Sebastian - he has his own affair with her. And man, talk about a thoroughly unsexy sex scene. It is both shockingly graphic in a non-graphic way (if that makes any sense), and obviously awful sex. The affair seems to be unpleasant for both of them, even though they insist they are in love. When they eventually do break it off at the end (sorry about the spoiler), it is no surprise, just sorrow and relief.

Also mixed in with this is the return of Lord Marchmain after the death of his wife - and he has come home to die. And Brideshead has decided to marry an older widow - who his father hates - causing further drama.

As I noted, the central theme Waugh intends is redemption. And in a manner, I guess that is what happens. But I found this the least convincing part of the book. Okay, so it is at least plausible that Sebastian would end up working at a monastery. And it is more than plausible that Julia would return to her faith. But the conversion of Lord Marchmain seems contrived, and there is nothing to really suggest that Charles will leave his agnosticism for Catholicism. It just seems to happen suddenly without preparation.

Not only is it sudden and without a proper emotional foundation, it seems to go against Waugh’s many arguments against Catholicism earlier in the book. Perhaps this is because Waugh is much better at illuminating faults than he is at inspiring. He can lay bare the skeletons, but can’t draw the spires of the cathedral.

As an example, Sebastian talks of Catholic families early in the book:

“They [Catholics] seem just like other people.”
“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not -- particularly in this country, where they’re so few. It’s not just that they’re a clique -- as a matter of fact, they’re at least four cliques all blackguarding each other half the time --but they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people.”

Add to that the fact that the central Catholic family is deeply dysfunctional, the priests are naive and clueless, and the rest of the Catholic characters are hypocritical at best, and it is hard to see a good argument in favor of the Roman Church. (This isn’t because the task is hopeless: G.K. Chesterton, for example, gives a rather positive argument and example for Catholicism.) It’s almost as if Waugh never completely reconciled himself to his faith, and thus struggled to write a justification for it.

I can sympathise with this - as I can with a number of the things about Waugh that irritate me - mostly because I see them in myself. Waugh is a reactionary, openly pining for the old days and the old ways. He wishes the aristocracy was still in place - a trait he shares with Forster. He just about came unglued when the Vatican II council voted for the vernacular mass, rather than the Latin mass. In Brideshead Revisited, he pointedly objects to the nouveau riche, feeling the world is a much worse place with mere merchants being the new rich. And I get that one all too well. Being an American, it isn’t quite the same, but I too rankle at having a vulgar, profane, and tasteless boor in the White House.

But on the other hand, I have no great love for the old days either. I recognize that the rose tint is unrealistic, and that life is by most objective measures better today, even if I feel affinity for old music and old books.

Perhaps it is natural in all of us, to yearn for the feelings of youth, and expect that a return to the culture, values, and even injustices of those times will make the feeling return. There is a beautiful - and intentionally saccharine - line to this effect in the book:

The languor of Youth - how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth - all save this - come and go with us through life...

I guess that is one of the questions that I have after reading this book about Waugh himself. Just how much of his attraction to Catholicism was because it was old and venerable? Was it part of his general reactionism? Did it go deeper than that? Perhaps, and it is likely complicated. But it is hard not to feel that the same deep instinct which led to his veneration of the aristocracy even as he lampooned its foibles is also behind his attachment to Catholicism even as he illuminates its cracks.

And likewise, it is hard to avoid seeing Waugh as having much in common with the flamboyantly gay Anthony Blanche (based on Brian Howard, a classmate of Waugh’s at Oxford) as with Charles Ryder. Blanche is in many ways the most perceptive and honest character in the book, recklessly baring the souls of the other characters while making them all uncomfortable.

Waugh is a delightful writer - his prose seems so effortlessly good, never labored, and always fit to the purpose. Brideshead Revisited is a good book, despite its flaws. Perhaps best is the way Waugh complicates motives. Nothing is as pure as it seems, and we are all flawed, wounded, and damaged. Waugh may not be convincing in his proposed cure, but he poses the essential questions, creating memorable characters along the way.


In one scene, Anthony Blanche downs four Brandy Alexanders in short order. While that kind of inebriation isn’t my cup of tea, I did have one in honor of the occasion.


I miss the late Christopher Hitchens very much indeed, in part because of his delightful writing on authors like Waugh. From The Guardian in 2008. Enjoy.

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