I just finished reading Brideshead Revisited, and one of the things that I found funny about reading this book was different people’s responses. They ranged all the way along the spectrum, from, “One of the greatest Catholic novels of all time!” to, “The story of a couple of guys boozing around at college.” It’s a marvelous story, both about hitting rock–bottom and redemption, so I guess you could say both descriptions fit. I loved it. You get way too many religious stories in which all the characters are perfect. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the struggle, I ask you? Who’s going to relate?
There’s something for everyone to relate to in this story, I think, but most notable is the doubt that pretty much every character experiences, whether it be about their marriage, their place in their family, the religion they were raised in, their own goodness and worthiness. Deep stuff, people.
The jacket cover of the book boldly proclaims that “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.”
Eloquent words, but the common man of today cannot help but say, “What?”
It really depends on what you consider to be the dear things of the world, I suppose. As I read Brideshead Revisited, I began to see that these “dear things” are past days and simpler times. The theme of memory is very clear in the story, and in fact, the entire book, except for the first and last chapters, are the memories of the narrator Charles’ life ten years past. “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared above me one grey morning of wartime.” You can’t express your theme much more clearly than that.
The character who interested me the most in this story was Sebastian Flyte, a character closely connected with the theme of memory. From the moment he appears, he stands out, and the narrator Charles says as much. “I was struck less by his looks than by the fact that he was carrying a large Teddy-bear.” This image, at least for me, influenced the way I would see the character for the rest of the book. Sebastian has a wistful, childlike air to him, and his holding on to the Teddy-bear he becomes a visual representation of what people all tend to do in holding on to their past. Sebastian is a very nostalgic person, and it shows in his wistful way of speaking. “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy, and then when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”
Most of the other characters in the story don’t share his nostalgic, childlike outlook. Of all of his siblings, Sebastian is the only one who visits their estranged father, and he holds on to childhood habits like his affection for his nanny, calling his mother “Mummy,” and carrying his Teddy-bear. He stands out as a black sheep in his family from the start, and in a way he puts himself on the outside, when, approaching Brideshead, instead of saying, “it is my home,” he says “it is where my family live.” He’s a flighty, brightly colored character who sees the beauty in things and the fun in the moment, but as the story progresses he falls by the wayside, and his family and friends see him as a burden and an embarrassment. As I read this book, I thought of him as the personification of the “dear things of the world” that the century uprooted.
Gosh. That was depressing. But, by his own admission, Evelyn Waugh got his pleasure from “spreading alarm and despondency.” And now, a blatantly stated theme in the style of Evelyn Waugh: My theme is despondency… that cloud that shuffles across the brain like a snail on a bedewed drainpipe one lackadaisical morning in the twenty-first century..