Brideshead Revisited: The Secular and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
© 1945 Evelyn Waugh
Some time ago after finishing off a season of Downton Abby, I queried Goodreads: is there a Downtonesque book? Its readers recommended, among others, Bridehead Revisited. After learning about it, of course, I seemed to hear it mentioned incessantly and decided to give it a try. Glad am I that I did, because Brideshead proved to be one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever taken on. It is a sad, wistful novel, one man’s recollection of his time spent with a noble family in decline, provoked when his battalion is ordered to take over their home during the Second World War and he realizes he has tread this ground before. Brideshead is a love story, but without the kind of resolution expected of one. The tale is saturated in beauty; characters linger over rich meals and fragrant brandies, and bare their souls in sunlit salons and gilded smoking rooms. The sensuality would please a Dorian Gray. It helps that the narrator, Charles Ryder, is a painter of architecture and relishes it for its timelessness, a created work that combines the efforts of generations.
Beauty was the main attraction of Ryder to the Marchmain family, exhibited strikingly in the person of Ryder’s friend Sebastian and his sister Julia. The Marchmains are the main source of interest to the reader, beside the writing, for Ryder himself has only a superficial presence. Religion permeates the book, as the Marchmains are Catholics; their religion creates an identity for them as ‘others’ within England. The religious sense is innate, not outwardly pious. The main characters describe one another as half-heathen, even at their most cavalier there is a seriousness to their foibles, a sense of wonder. They may act merrily cynical, but there are convictions at the root of their characters that have the ability to produce fruit at the right moment. A sense of grace ties the two halves of this book together, separated even as they are by years. A tale of one character’s slide into alcoholism, to his family’s grief, and another tale of discovered love, are woven together by it. While much of the story is sad, most of the characters find relief for their private burdens, and Waugh cuts the emotional intensity with comic scenes and descriptions. Some of it borders on silly, other mingles the laughs with some woe, like the description of a father greeting his son with “the usual air of mild regret”. There are surely depths to the story that can’t be plumbed in one read alone, but there will be others, for Waugh’s writing here, bordering on the lyrical, is beautifully arresting itself.
“Two wives despaired of him,’ he said. ‘When he got engaged to Sylvia, she made it a condition that he should take the cure at Zurich. And it worked. He came back in three months a different man. And he hasn’t touched a drop since, even though Sylvia walked out on him.’
‘Why did she do that?’
“Well, poor Charlie got rather a bore when he stopped drinking. But that’s not really the point of the story.”
More even than the work of the great architects, I loved buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation, while time curbed the artist’s pride and the Philistine’s vulgarity, and repaired the clumsiness of the dull workman.
The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.
“Light one for me, will you?”
It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked this of me, and as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers I caught a thin bat’s squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.
“Oh, Mummy, must I see him? There’ll be a scene if I do.”
“Nonsense, Julia, you twist that poor man round your finger.”
So Julia went into the library and came out an hour later engaged to be married.
The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde.
A Seperate Peace, John Knowles