Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited was written during World War II by Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh. Brideshead reflects many aspects of his life, from experiences at Oxford, his friendships with the British aristocratic set, and his military service. He published his first novel in 1928 at the age of 25.  Also around that time he was married, then separated, converted to Catholicism, then annulled his first marriage and married again. He worked as journalist in the 1930s and served in the Royal Marines in WWII. After a severe injury, he started writing Brideshead and published it in 1945.

The novel opens with Charles, a battle-weary Captain in the British army in World War II. His troops are traveling to their next station, which turns out to be an old country mansion called Brideshead.  This stirs Charles’ memories of the place and the family he became close to. The novel then goes back to Charles’ youth in Oxford, where he meets a fellow student named Sebastian Flyte. 

Sebastian is daring, artistic, and also immature. In part, he’s the product of a family where he has little responsibility and no expectations to meet. Typical of old aristocratic families, his older brother is expected to manage the family’s finances and his sister Julia is expected to marry well.  Charles comes to love Sebastian, but that love is tested in their second year at Oxford. Charles settles down to take school seriously while Sebastian grows wilder and begins to lose himself in alcohol. This tests Charles’ relationship with Sebastian’s family as well, who see him as enabling Sebastian’s drinking. 

This book was quite different from what I expected, which was more of a love story between Sebastian and Charles. While their relationship has lasting impacts on Charles, it is not the primary focus of the book. I found it interesting that no one in the book frowns on Charles’ close relationship with Sebastian, though it is also never explicitly more than platonic. It seemed to be expected that boys in college will become this close. 

I also expected the book to be more about class differences. Charles seems like an outsider at first (he has a limited allowance) but is still a part of the Flytes’ high society world, and though there are allusions to money problems, Waugh doesn’t seem to be frowning on the lifestyle, only is perhaps sad that times are changing. 

I struggled a bit with the book’s focus on Catholicism and religious themes, since my understanding of it is limited and I wasn’t quite sure which direction the author was heading.  Charles sees religion as “bosh” and Waugh describes several members of the Flyte family as having turned away from religion after it didn’t seem to be sympathetic to their needs. But they keep coming back to it as a guiding element when times are difficult.

I learned after reading the book of Waugh’s own conversion, and yet he also married twice, initially filing for divorce and then obtaining an annulment. The depiction of marriage and parenthood in this book is both fascinating and troubling. Charles doesn’t even like his wife and can’t really articulate why he married her, other than that she supported his art career and is the sister of a friend. He refuses to be any kind of father to his own children. There at least isn’t too much of a double standard in the book; the wives as well as the husbands all have affairs (again, mirroring Waugh’s own marital experience). 

I found it interesting to see how alcoholism was portrayed at the time. It wasn’t particularly different from today, though we have more understanding today about addiction perhaps. I think most families probably go through the phases the Flytes did – first, he’s just a little too wild (boys being boys, etc.).  Then, they try lecturing and cajoling, then monitoring his drinking, and then trying to cut him off altogether.  They try religion and they try sending him to rehab, though Sebastian isn’t on board with any of those attempts. 

It was coincidental that I read this book around the same time as The Song of Achilles, as I saw a lot of parallels.  Both stories feature two boys who go to school together, who love each other and are dependent on each other (Sebastian needs Charles’ worship, similar to Achilles with Patroclus). And in both stories, male relationships of this type are considered normal in youth but are then expected to give way to traditional (hetero) marriage. In contrast, though, Madeline Miller tells an ancient story from a modern point of view, while Waugh is writing from his own time while actually in the midst of war himself. (Also coincidental, I’m currently watching Heartstopper and one of the characters has a giant Brideshead Revisited poster in their room.)

I did find the book slow to get going, despite fantastic narration by actor Jeremy Irons.  The whole prep school thing has been done so many times (maybe because of this book) that it felt a bit cheesy in the beginning and it took a while for Charles and Sebastian to feel real. 

This was a fascinating read and I can see why people keep returning to it, as there’s so much here to think about. I hear there’s a very good movie version with Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, so I’ll be looking for that. Thanks to the 20 Books of Summer challenge for prompting me to finally read this book. I’m always happy when I can take a classic off my TBR list.

  8 comments for “Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

  1. August 6, 2022 at 6:03 pm

    I reread this book a few years ago and found it so depressing it put me in a funk for days. I found it absolutely oppressive and my take on Sebastian is that he drank to escape the fact that he could never actually have an open, socially-accepted, Catholically-accepted relationship with the man he loved.

    Interesting that you read this in roughly the same time frame as Song of Achiles, which I absolutely loved. I can see the parallel between Sebastian and Achilles.

  2. August 7, 2022 at 2:03 am

    Yes, very interesting parallel with Song of Achilles! I have to reread that. It is a sad book with all its troubled relationships. I saw Charles as looking for the lost feminine that he was missing in his life — through the house Brideshead itself (with its significant name) as well as the family’s connection to Mother Church.

  3. August 7, 2022 at 5:46 am

    This has long been one of my favourites. It’s good to see another perspective on it and your comments have made me think it’s time I did a re-read.

    I do see Charles as an outsider looking in on all that glamour and easy way of life – he isn’t poor but his family life is so dull in comparison.

  4. August 7, 2022 at 6:20 am

    Wait… you read this in audio with Jeremy Irons narrating! Cool! I read this many, many years ago, and then later, in 1981, the TV series of it came out and it starred Jeremy Irons!!!

  5. August 7, 2022 at 11:38 am

    I really need to read this book. I’ve watched both the TV series and the 2008 film but never actually read the source material. The focus on Catholicism interests me as the Catholic half of my family is Irish, so aristocratic English Catholics seem quite exotic to me!

  6. lydiaschoch
    August 23, 2022 at 9:57 am

    This was a very good review!

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