I began Brideshead Revisited with high expectations: I like British novels, and Brideshead seemed to be the stuffiest, most tradition-bound, most English literature from across the pond in the last 50 years. Plus, it was written by a man whom everyone assumes to be a woman. And it was made into a movie starring Emma Thompson. Very British indeed.
In many ways, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh didn’t disappoint me. As the back of the book aptly puts it, Waugh tells the story of one man’s love affair with an old, rich and illustrious family, all while the English aristocracy begins its inevitable decline. By becoming enamored with the son, falling in love with the daughter and finding himself trapped in the machinations of the mother, Charles Ryder leaves much of his youth and innocence at the family estate, Brideshead.
The revisiting part is in the present, when Charles returns to Brideshead as an army captain during World War II. Much has changed since he first visited the house when he was still a student at Oxford. An entire lifetime of change, in fact, leaving him (as he puts it) “homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless.”
Without revealing too many spoilers, the story of Charles Ryder and the Flyte family definitely touched me. At first, I believed I would merely be reading an account of the English aristocracy, told from the perspective of a wide-eyed outsider. I was looking forward to this because, like Charles, the world of the Flyte family is an elusive, but attractive, mystery. Unlike the United States, Europe is full to bursting with castle-like estates, as well as stories of the families who once lived there. Living in the modern world as we do, we find romance wrapped up in these mummified old homes, and are dying to know their shiniest, dirtiest secrets.
Halfway through the book, though, things take a turn for the dark side and Waugh shows readers how this way of life slowly disappeared. With Hitler on their doorstep and modernity encroaching on everyone’s way of life, England’s aristocracy couldn’t go on as it had before. The mansions were torn down or fell into disrepair. Ancient lineages were broken. Renowned names were forgotten among the heralds of war.
It’s easy to say these things about Brideshead Revisited because this is exactly what Waugh intended. I didn’t need to read the “About the Author” to know this, but as Time magazine so rightly points out: “Evelyn Waugh developed a wickedly hilarious yet fundamentally religious assault on a century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world.” Unless one is reading dumb, deaf and blind, it’s hard to avoid this message while making your way through the story of Charles, England, and one of the grandest families of them all.
We see this interpretation most clearly in Waugh’s description of Brideshead itself. Waugh must have had some cursory passion for architecture, because most of Brideshead Revisited reads like a love letter to the estate. Brideshead becomes not only a character, but a symbol; it is a shimmering beacon of Charles’ idealistic youth, golden days sunbathing and laughing with friends. It is no mistake Charles becomes an architecture painter, and earns his fame painting estates all over England. His entire sense of self is wrapped up in images of the ideal. Though they may seem dry to some, I particularly loved the passages where Waugh describes Brideshead and the surrounding grounds. My last semester in college, I took a class on landscape architecture, literature and the English identity, and Brideshead Revisited is chock full of what we learned. Everything about an English estate during the 18th century was intentional, everything had meaning. The layout of the lawns, construction of fountains and “ruins,” and mapping out various clumps of trees was just as calculated as the arrangement of furniture. Waugh clearly wrote Brideshead Revisited as an ode to this period in English history, as well as the literature that chronicled it.
My favorite part was when Charles observes a Doric temple on a far hill upon returning to Brideshead with the army. The house and grounds have been desecrated at this point, but Charles ironically observes how the temple’s builders intended for it to be viewed just at this moment—after 100 years had passed and time had lent it a properly “ruinous” appearance. Ironic, considering the inhabitants of 1945 (and later generations) don’t even care anymore.
I guess it’s easy not to care very much about these antiquated periods in the world’s history. How can you, when modern literature is so fast, new and exciting? But I promise you, Brideshead Revisited doesn’t feel too much like a book your English professor would assign (although I’m tempted to email my landscape professor about my revelations). Waugh has much to say on human nature as well, and though a bit long-winded, is able to perfectly capture the moments in our lives that are so elusive, fleeting and yet beautiful: the sound of the bells on a college campus, the wind tickling your skin on a hot summer day, the taste of your first kiss.
Image from here.