Brideshead Revisited

May 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

BR3Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh
published by Penguin Books

Waugh’s magnum opus is a rich, sensuous tale. As Waugh explains in the preface: the luscious language and voluptuous metaphors are a result of the austere times and privations experienced during the Second World War. It is this ornamental use of language that makes the novel so thoroughly compelling. Brideshead Revisited was the literary equivalent of digging into a rich chocolate cake after having subsisted on steamed vegetables for days.

The intricacy of the language is mirrored in the plot. Brideshead Castle represents the old; the traditional; a focal point to which Charles Ryder is constantly drawn despite all the changes in his life. “It is offered to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War…” (Waugh). A theme common to many of the novels and memoirs dealing with events as calamitous as the First or Second War, is that of a yearning for life as it had been. For Charles, Brideshead is associated with Oxford; summer; Sebastian; strawberries and champagne; Lady Marchmain’s stifling piety; Julia; the Painted Parlour. Even in the end, hardened and weary, Charles finds some solace upon returning to Brideshead.

Religion is a pivotal element in the story; it poisons Charles’ relationship with Sebastian and later Julia. Both feel suffocated by the piousness of their mother, forcing one to drink, and the other to leave the man she loves. The decline of the Marchmain’s resembles that of society around them; its descent into what would be six years of suffering. There’s a particularly moving passage towards the end: as Julia bursts into tears, and Charles wraps his arms around her, she breaks into a distraught monologue: “Living in sin, with sin, always the same; when I was trying to bear his child, torn in pieces by something already dead; putting him away, forgetting him, finding you, the past two years with you, all the future with you, all the future with or without you, war coming, world ending – sin…Nameless and dead, like the baby they wrapped up and took away before I had seen her.” The anguish of a woman whose suffered a miscarriage, who sees the war looming ahead, and the constant guilt she suffers as result of her religious upbringing are beautifully captured in those broken sentences. 

Charles finds success in art, but this is in contrast to his failure in love: “Perhaps that’s one of the pleasures of building, like having a son, wondering how he’ll grow up. I don’t know; I never built anything, and I forfeited the right to watch my son grow up. I’m homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper”.

Brideshead Revisited is an evocative, nostalgic, decadent novel embroidered with magnificent prose and a plot so intricate and rich, you’ll always discover something new.

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