Book #81: Brideshead Revisited
Generally speaking, western civilization is fascinated with wealthy people—especially dysfunctional wealthy people.
That’s why reality stars like the Kardashians are so popular. That’s why television series like Downton Abbey have such a large following. And that’s why Brideshead Revisited is such a popular and intriguing novel.
What is it about rich people that we’re so fascinated about? Well, I guess it’s their money.
Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, can relate. He was born middle class. Not poor by any means, but nowhere near the level of wealth of the Flyte family, owners and occupants of the English property known as Brideshead (think of the Downton home with a plethora of staff, servants, valets, and so on).
While at Oxford, Ryder befriends a fellow first-year student named Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian is the equivalent of the alcoholic, crazy frat boy you knew during your freshman year—except for the fact that Sebastian comes from one of the most wealthy families in England.
After a vaguely described fling between the two, Sebastian brings Charles to the estate to show him around while hoping to avoid his family. Charles eventually meets Sebastian’s sister and there’s love and all that.
The beauty of the story is how the reader, through Charles, gets an insider’s view of an aristocratic English family—the divisiveness, family turmoil, failed relationships, and unrestrained bitterness.
Sebastian hates his family. So much so he wants nothing to do with them eventually. His sister, Julia, is a protector of the family and the family’s Catholic faith—which ultimately becomes a point of contention between her and Charles.
I can almost see Charles as a Nick Carraway of sorts, observing the lives of all these eccentric rich socialites from the outside. Except for the fact that Charles has his own issues—most of which have to due with being a poor father and husband.
The richness of Evelyn Waugh’s story here is in the characters. These are memorable characters. All of them. These are some of the most well-developed characters I’ve encountered in a novel.
But that’s no surprise from Evelyn Waugh. The man was a master of his craft. A Handful of Dust was a fabulous novel (currently in the top 20 of my meaningless rankings), and in my opinion Brideshead Revisited is even better.
I’ve shared a lot about this novel over the last month plus of reading it, but I had to share this passage again.
“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.”
I love that passage because of it’s poetic rhythm, the variation of sentence lengths. It’s just impeccable writing.
In all, I’m a big fan of Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead Revisited. This one is definitely worth a re-read some day.
The Opening Line: “When I reached “C” Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back on the camp, just coming into full view below me through the gray mist of morning.”
The Meaning: Brideshead is the name of the country estate where the Flytes live. The book opens with an older Charles Ryder, serving in World War 2, stumbling upon the estate while on duty. He’s been there before, but as a younger gentleman. It’s a literal title, but it also has significance because of Charles’ ongoing fascination with the estate, even moreso than the family who lives there.
Highlights: Amazing character development by Waugh. He’s a fabulous writer who has a way of drawing you in from page one. These are some of the best-written characters I’ve come across.
Lowlights: I wanted to know more about Sebastian. Whatever happens to him? Don’t leave us hanging, Waugh!
Memorable Line:“No one is ever holy without suffering.”
Final Thoughts: Wonderful novel. I can’t say enough good things about this one. Evelyn Waugh is one amazing writer. If you have any interest in this story at all, go buy the novel, borrow it from the library, whatever you need to do. It’s a good one.