Brideshead Revisited is a novel known by many, and when a piece of literature has been so read, so well understood, so analysed, it becomes more difficult to compartmentalise. I approach Brideshead Revisited as a novel of contradictions; at its best it is a terrifying encapsulation of sin and the vices that prey on those who so try to avoid it. At its worst, Brideshead is a novel of sheer, unapologetic gluttony: consisting of twilight frolicking and a life that is “reflected in a dapple of light on painted ceilings.” Such gluttony was described by the author, Evelyn Waugh, as being “distasteful” on a full stomach.
There may be a case to be made for Waugh’s observation; the descriptions of three course meals and cigar smoke can lie heavily on the gut, feeling so rich that they can often appear sickly, but they are nevertheless a crucial part of Brideshead Revisited. For the novel as a whole clings to a nostalgia that constantly aches for something, be it the understanding of love, the simpler days of Oxford undergraduate study, or the presence of the nobility. Brideshead’s narrator, Charles Ryder, spends the entirety of the book reflecting on his enchantment with the Marchmain family; an infatuation that begins with his meeting of Sebastian at Oxford, and trickles away in the final pages as the love affair between Charles and Sebastian’s sister Julia culminates. Whether fascinated by the world that the family inhabit – the inherent privilege that accompanies the Marchmain existence is miles away from the life Charles lives with his widower Father – or the family members themselves, Charles’ inability to escape his links with the Marchmains forms a pivotal part of Brideshead Revisited. The book spans over three hundred pages, and the years progress rapidly. There is, however, the constant feeling that Charles Ryder is reaching back through the past towards that first, juvenile, hot Oxford summer – “if it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone.” Ryder insists that his theme is “memory, that winged grey host that soared above me one grey morning of war time”. From the title alone, it is clear that Brideshead Revisited is a reconstruction, the familiarity present even in the opening line: “I have been here before.” Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the novel aches with a longing to return.
I approach Brideshead, or the aftermath of Brideshead, as a series of contradictions. The rich, almost sickly aestheticism of the Marchmain lifestyle; the vast, twin fireplaces of sculpted marble, and later, in Venice, whereupon Charles Ryder found himself to be drowning in honey, stingless, drawn to the effervescently vivid opulence, is heavily contrasted with the religious lifestyle led by the family. Julia, Sebastian’s graceful sister, is tempted until the last minute with a second marriage to Charles, but recoils with one of literature’s most famous monologues: the deliberation of sin – all in one word, too, one little flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime. Like Charles, Julia is obsessed with love, although neither seem to understand it. Charles describes standing “on the extreme verge of love,” despite having been desperately cold to his previous wife, and viewing Julia as a fragment of Sebastian, who has captured his eternal entrancement. The contradictions in Brideshead mount when Julia’s aestheticism, “the magical sadness… The thwarted look that had seemed to say: surely I was made for some other purpose than this?” disappears, and she cancels her engagement to Charles due to her fear of the consequence of sin. The novel then becomes what it has always been destined to be: a war novel, like Heller’s Catch 22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and the eclectic assortment of novels that end or begin with war, with forgetting or remembering war, that were published before and after this one.
Brideshead Revisited is a retrospective account, a narrative that reconstructs a summer of idealism that changed the course of Charles Ryder’s life. It differs in the way that Ryder – or perhaps Waugh – is constantly reaching; reaching back into the past, back to the aquatint city of Oxford, back to having ideals of love concocted in twilight gatherings. Whether in Oxford, or Venice, or the trenches, Waugh’s richly superficial magnum opus is wonderful in that all the things for which it so desperately reaches, are doomed to be eternally out of grasp.