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Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead is Waugh’s best known novel though not always the best received. Some people think it is one of the great works of twentieth century English literature (see the links below), while others were less impressed. It came out at the end of the war and clearly looked back (seemingly favoring the old-style aristocracy, Oxford University and the Catholic Church), while Britons were wanting to put the past behind them and move forward. That view has still remained firmly with many of Waugh’s detractors. Waugh himself initially considered it his magnum opus but was dismayed by its cool reception and revised it. For what is worth, I thought it a great work when I first read it and still do, though I think it falls short of being a great masterpiece, not least because Waugh held back, as he did in all of his works.

The novel is one of memory and reconstituting memories, one of the great themes of literature, particularly twentieth century literature. It starts off with Charles Ryder and his army company being sent to Brideshead and immediately brings back memories for him. Brideshead is owned by the Marchmain family and Ryder first met the younger son of the family – Sebastian Flyte – at Oxford. They become close friends, with the relationship clearly having homosexual overtones. Both Ryder and Flyte have family problems. Ryder’s mother is dead and his father seems to take no interest in his son whatsoever. Flyte’s father, Lord Marchmain lives in Venice with his Italian mistress, while Lady Marchmain lives at Brideshead with her dull elder son (Bridey), her beautiful daughter, Julia, and her horsey youngest daughter, Cordelia. Flyte takes to heavy drinking and the pair drift apart. Lady Marchmain sends Samgrass to watch over her son but he has only limited success. Flyte eventually runs off to Morocco while his mother is distraught not only about her son but about Julia who marries a divorced man. Ryder, sent to fetch Flyte from Morocco, finds him ill and bitter.

Cut to a few years later. Ryder is unhappily married but a successful artist. Returning from South America he meets Julia Marchmain on the ship and they have an affair. Both plan to get a divorce and marry but religion gets in the way and Julia feels that she cannot sin. Flyte is living in a monastery in Africa and Lord Marchmain dies. The epilogue, back in the army, shows that Ryder is now a Catholic and somehow accepts the destruction caused by the Catholic Church in his life and the lives of those he loves.

This summary only touches on the highlights. Ryder’s relationship with both brother and sister are superbly portrayed as is the struggle with religion, whatever your views on the subject. Various secondary characters – Samgrass, Cordelia, Anthony Blanche, the Oxford aesthete – play key roles and are skillfully drawn and integrated into the plot. But it is as a novel of memory, recapturing memories and as a portrayal of the end of an era that this novel will be remembered. While no Proust, Waugh does a first-class job.

Publishing history

First published 1945 by Chapman & Hall