Review: Brideshead Revisited

I’ve always liked a heart-breaking sort of a story, probably a result of many hours listening to The Pursuit of Love when I was a child. I like books which make me feel. Life doesn’t often have the ability to move me to tears or cause me to care, but fiction?

There’s nothing more powerful than good fiction, and while I do enjoy a happy-ever-after ending, a well-written heartbreak is much the more satisfying, emotionally.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, with all the complications of an aristocratic Catholic family in the 1920s and ’30s, I find very satisfying, emotionally, much as I would also like for there to be a happy-ever-after for the narrator Charles Ryder.

The story, of his friendship with the younger Marchmain son Sebastian Flyte, is told years afterwards, when Ryder, drafted as a captain for WWII and disillusioned with the army, is unexpectedly stationed in the Marchmain family home: Brideshead, somewhere he hasn’t returned to in years.

Ryder and Sebastian meet at Oxford, and Ryder is drawn inextricably into Sebastian’s life as the undergrad eccentric (Sebastian’s teddy bear Aloysius goes everywhere with him), and then into his family when he meets Sebastian’s sister Julia. The only problem, for Lady Marchmain, is Ryder’s lack of religion. Specifically, the fact that he isn’t a Catholic, although even she allows he has some influence over troubled Sebastian.

Any hope of a happy outcome for this story, for Charles, for Sebastian, even for Lady Marchmain, is doomed from the beginning of their association, Sebastian already unhappy and trying to drown his sorrows.

Given the role of Catholicism in this novel, and Waugh’s theme of divine grace and how it operates on a group of diverse but closely connected characters (taken from his forward to my edition) I admit to some surprise to learning that he was himself a Catholic. It is not what you might call a favourable depiction of the Roman Catholic Church, or of divine grace.

There is a quite wonderful adaptation of this, done about 2008, I think, with Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Matthew Goode as Ryder, and Ben Whishaw as Sebastian. I actually saw this before I read the book, and neither spoiled my enjoyment of the other.

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