Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

A gorgeously written tale of loss, corruption and mercy in the English countryside.

This is a beautifully written book that manages to show so many distinct and complementary levels, like an English trifle. I immediately fell in love with the narrator and his summer-drenched memories. Charles Ryder is visiting Brideshead again — now as a commander in the second world war — and recollecting his intense association with the Flyte family who lived there.

A promising artist, Charles begins as an uncorrupted youth who might have followed dull but cheerful Wilkins’ into a reputable profession. Instead he is befriended by the wealthy teddy bear carrying Sebastian Flyte and his entire life is swept up into a sort of narrator for the Flyte family’s drama.

The main theme is the destructive relationship between Charles, Sebastian and Julia. The beauty of the book is in the vagueness. Charles obviously loves Sebastian, but is it more than as a friend? When he later loves Julia, is it only as a socially acceptable proxy who resembles Sebastian?

But so many other things come to light – the troubled relationship with family, the effect of wealth without responsibility, the role of religion, the impact of adoration – the list goes on and on. There are endless questions in this book, endless ways to interpret and explore the impact of even minor characters like the little sister Cordelia.

My sympathy was with Charles at first, but he willfully ignores both logic and his own conscience. I felt that he ought to have known better, although we could argue his basically absentee father and dead mother do not adequately prepare him for standing up to the Flytes.

The charming Sebastian is the true tragedy and somehow more of a symbol than a real person. We are always forced to guess at his feelings and motives. He has so much potential, all wasted (or is it?) He uses alcohol and travel as a means of escaping himself. He is tortured by his love of being a young, self-indulgent and charming upper class heir against an enormous Roman Catholic pressure to be a saint and possibly a guilt of not having earned any of it himself.

While no one has a happy ending, perhaps each of the characters ends up in the place their actions have been leading them?

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