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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited has a lot of strikes against it. Most glaringly, that’s a pretty nondescript title, even once you figure out what the hell Brideshead is (it’s a large English country house.) Not to be sexist but the title makes the book sound kind of feminine, even after you find out Evelyn Waugh is actually a man. (I knew that beforehand, having read and greatly enjoyed his newspaper satire Scoop a few years ago.) Then there is the book’s reputation as a “Great Catholic Novel”, whatever that means. I myself have (not surprisingly) never much enjoyed novels which extol the Church.

Perhaps most damning, the novel is about a family of idle English aristocrats. I have never been one to put up with idle rich characters. Maybe I am envious of their lack of responsibilities.

The narrator and protagonist is one Charles Ryder, who becomes entangled with Sebastian Flyte, a resident of Brideshead, during their time at Oxford. This is one of those close male friendships which literary scholars are always trying to tell you are actually gay relationships, and while I usually object to those suggestions (Huck and Jim are not gay, people) the case for Charles and Sebastian being lovers is a lot stronger than most. Sebastian is a sensitive boy who still carries a teddy bear named Aloysius around campus. Their mutual friend Anthony Blanche is definitely gay, even if Waugh, because of the times, steadfastly refuses to explicitly say so.

Charles spends several vacations with the Flytes at Brideshead, becoming close with the whole family, which ironically threatens his relationship with Sebastian, who mistrusts his relations. The Flytes are all Catholics of varying fervor. Lady Marchmain, matriarch of the family, is devout, as is her oldest son Brideshead and her youngest daughter Cordelia. Sebastian and his sister Julia are lapsed, though they can never quite rid themselves of the Church’s influence.

After Sebastian’s fall into alcoholism causes a rift between Charles and the Brideshead clan he concentrates on his successful art career, only to be drawn back into the family a decade later through a chance encounter. In the last quarter of the novel, relationships intertwine and complicate themselves, and each character is forced to confront their belief or lack thereof. Charles, as a committed non-believer, is drawn into conflicts he is ill-prepared to handle.

As the book draws to a close Waugh displays a marvelous gift for crafting tension, but the resolution left this reader feeling uneasy. Judging not as a Catholic but as a fan of literature, I couldn’t help but feel like Waugh had sold out his character in service of his faith.

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