Around the time that I finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time, it happened to start getting gloriously warm and sunny. It was staying light until gone half past nine, and then, when the sun did eventually start to sink towards the horizon, there were often stunning red sunsets. As I was considering what to read next, I saw my old copy of Brideshead Revisited sat on the bookshelf, and thought to myself: What could be more fitting than to read Brideshead on such beautiful, long English summer evenings?

And so I did just that. I sat in the evening sun, and delighted in rereading this wonderful novel: Brideshead Revisited: The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Indeed, summertime really is the time to read this classic. Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of privileged, slightly naive, hugely romantic young adults, just starting out in the world is beautifully written. The prose is sublime, the scenes well crafted, the settings evocative, and the characters brilliantly crafted. Waugh captures not only their enthusiasm and joy in exploring everything about the world around them, but also provides a snapshot of an aristocratic, feudal system that was very soon to be lost forever. It is partly this combination of youthful exhilaration coupled with a subtle underlying nostalgia that makes this tale so poignant.

The early chapters see our young protagonist, Charles Ryder, approaching the end of his first year at Oxford, when he makes the acquaintance of the charming, aristocratic, and entirely singular Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, and enjoy an intense period of pleasure and discovery as they drink champagne, eat quails eggs, party and philosophise – all against the backdrop of the ancient spires of Oxford during a glorious English summer.

When the summer terms ends, Charles reluctantly returns to his father’s house in London, where he remains, bored and penniless for some weeks, until one day he receives a telegram from Sebastian stating that he is seriously injured. Charles leaves immediately and after a long journey, arrives to find the Sebastian has done no more than injure his foot playing croquet. However, once there, Charles stays for some time at the glorious Marchmain house, where he and Sebastian enjoy the freedom of the estate.

‘Ought we to be drunk every night?’ Sebastian asked one morning.
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I think so too.’

However, I would be doing the novel a great injustice if I were to suggest that all is exuberance and frivolity. Evelyn Waugh does create many memorable scenes where Sebastian, Charles, and sometimes others, are shown to embrace life and youth and beauty, yet this is always against the backdrop of more serious issues. In fact, I think Waugh’s genius is perhaps best demonstrated in the way that even in the early sections of the book, even in the seemingly endless youthful summer days, there is always a shadow of sadness around the young Sebastian, in particular.

As we read on, we learn more about Sebastian’s ancient and noble Catholic family: of his disgraced, absent father; his saintly yet somewhat fierce mother; his odd elder brother and heir apparent, Bridie; his beautiful, passionate older sister Julia; and his devout younger sister Cordelia. Charles indicates a desire to meet Sebastian’s family at one point, to which Sebastian replies, quite forcibly:

I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.

As with much of Sebastian’s speech, this is both affected hyperbole, yet in another sense, quite perceptive. His family and their house certainly are charming, and they do all go on to have a profound effect upon Charles. This is another aspect about the novel that I so admire: the way that Waugh so convincingly describes the experience of meeting someone (or some family) and being literally forever changed by the experience.

But as I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly…

I have only here touched upon some of what happens in the first part of this deep and complex novel, but there is so much more besides. This is – to use a slightly pompous phrase – serious literature, and Waugh explores various weighty themes in the novel.

In the preface (added 14 years after the book was first published), Waugh states that the book’s main theme is “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters“. This notion is certainly present in the tale, but it is subtle and handled with a light touch. Waugh presents the main characters’ changing, sometimes contradictory attitudes towards faith, showing them to be every bit as full-bodied and enigmatic as real people typically are.

Then I knelt, too, and prayed: ‘O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin. … Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

I first read Brideshead back in March 2006, and I can remember the impact that it had on me then. This is a truly brilliant novel; one of the very best. Charles, Sebastian, and Julia live on in my mind, but I also strongly suspect that I will want to reread this work again and again in future years.

~

Finally, although I tend not to write much about film and television adaptations, I have to confess that the 1981 Granada television series of Brideshead Revisited is also one of my very favourite television drama adaptations. If you haven’t seen it, you really should; it is an absolute treat. It is a luxurious, 11-part series, which I believe at the time was the most expensive British television drama ever made. More importantly, it is very faithful to the book, and does a brilliant job of conveying both the charm and the tragedy of the Machmain family. It stars Anthony Andrews as Sebastian, Jeremy Irons as Charles, and Diana Quick as Julia, and they are all superbly cast:

Photograph from the 1981 Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited

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