A review of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

I know that this subject is not really news; but regardless, I must express my amazement at how much television has pervaded our American culture. I live — outvoted by my family in this respect — in a house with a giant-screen TV in the basement, and other sets in the dining area, and our son’s bedroom. And oh yes, a tiny black-and-white one in the kitchen. Beginning of March, I was in Las Vegas, where (more than even a couple of years ago as I remember) giant TV screens on the Strip were vying with each other for which could be the biggest and the brightest. En route to Vegas, I was on an America West jet, reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Every couple of rows there were “personal” TV screens hanging from the ceiling (or whatever you call it) of the plane. They would only be auto-magically retracted for takeoff and landing, for compliance with safety regulations I presume. The rest of the flight, they were definitely ON, radiating movies, music videos, and assorted commercials. Even if one opted not to use the earphones, the movement and the glare were unquestionable distractions.

But wait, I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. My edition of BR was plastered, front, and back, with images of TV cast members; and what should it say on the front cover, but … “Companion to the PBS television series”. Maybe I shouldn’t complain TOO much, since like many of my books, this was an acquisition ($1.50) from my local thrift shop; but I really think this “companion” message should win some sort of chutzpah award. Well, after checking carefully to make sure that this was indeed a complete edition — which I guess is what should matter in the ultimate scheme of things — I forged bravely ahead, trying as much as possible not to think about the cover. I have not seen the TV version, though I have heard good things about it; and indeed, since the book’s dialogue is plentiful and I think of excellent quality, I could see how a TV version could succeed. But to call the original novel, appearing in 1945, THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS before the TV incarnation, a “companion” … geez …

Despite the handicap noted above, I had the delightful experience of having the book “catch” for me on the plane. I don’t know about other readers, but with me this is almost never a gradual process. One minute I am dutifully reading along, wondering if the book at hand is really worth the effort; then all of a sudden I realize that I am immersed in the novel and would not even think of stopping. It reminds me of when I try and take the cellophane off a music cassette or CD: I’m struggling to make a dent in it, probing at various places with a fingernail … when suddenly I hit the right spot and the wrapping comes off, whole or just about so, in a joyful second!

I was especially pleased that BR “caught” for me, since my past experience with Waugh has not been positive. Quite a while back, I tried The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and (forgot exactly why) was not motivated enough to finish it. Then more recently, I tried his The Loved One. This is a novel entirely concerned with someone’s funeral and the accompanying goings-on; and Waugh was trying to be funny about it … this did not work for me, and I left this one unfinished too.

BR was published, as I’ve mentioned, in 1945 and is most definitely a “wartime” book. It begins as the narrator, Captain Charles Ryder, is conducting training exercises with his unit in the English countryside. Ryder has become disillusioned with his army life, and is dispiritedly going through his routines when all of a sudden, he comes upon a house and grounds that used to be extremely familiar to him. In a wonderful passage, he is suddenly drawn back to that golden time:

… on the instant, … a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, … had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, … gradually … full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds …

In Proustian fashion, what follows in the rest of a book is a flashback that returns to these idyllic (or so imagined) days, and gradually works its way toward the present. We begin with Ryder’s life as a student at Oxford. This, like the army though of course different in every other way, was very much a male world. It was a place where a teashop, “hushed as a library”, would be frequented by “a few solitary men … in bedroom slippers”; a place where you could go to hear “Arkwright on Demosthenes”. It was a place with its own vocabulary — for instance, “scout” (a college servant). It was a place where eccentricity was accepted as the norm; where the “aesthete” Anthony Blanche could stand on a balcony, and “in languished, sobbing tones”, recite through a megaphone, passages from The Waste Land.

But above all, Oxford was, for Ryder, the place where he made the acquaintance of Sebastian Flyte; the friendship between them is one of the main threads of the novel. Through Sebastian, Ryder is drawn into the life and affairs of the Brideshead family: Sebastian’s sisters Julia and Cordelia, brother Lord Brideshead, and their parents Lord and Lady Marchmain (who are separated with the father living abroad through most of the story).

It is easy to see why Sebastian assumes so much importance in Ryder’s life, when we get to meet his (R’s) father. Though perhaps presented as a bit of a caricature, which allows us to laugh at his strangenesses, the elder Ryder is actually a very chilling figure. He cultivates a remoteness from his son, and it is plain that whenever R visits, there is nothing he would like more than to be rid of him. The mind games the father plays with R and R’s friends, in hopes that the son will leave, are indeed funny, but also truly shocking.

Another memorable character is Cordelia, the younger daughter of the Brideshead family. She is vivacious and full of fun. My favorite scene involving her is when she feeds bogus information to Rex Mottram, who in preparation for his marriage is about to convert to Catholicism. She makes Mottram — who obviously prefers getting the process over with, to over-critical thinking — believe such stories as “the Pope who made one of his horses a cardinal”, and “the box you keep in the church porch, and if you put in a pound note with someone’s name on it, they get sent to hell” …

There are some unforgettable passages about travel in BR. We follow Sebastian and R as, together travelling third class on Sebastian’s funds for a solo first-class trip, they make their way from England to Venice. Later on (and when funds are not a problem), a luxurious meal in Paris is described in the most loving detail. This includes an unforgettable evocation of a Burgundy wine — “serene and triumphant” and so on. I hope that someday my appreciation of fine wine will reach some such level (hmm, maybe I need to spend more than $5.00 a bottle though) …

Later on in the book, Ryder finds his way to New York, and here Waugh’s writing becomes quite barbed: R speaks of “a neurosis in the air which the inhabitants mistake for energy”. He is also disapproving of the ship which provides return passage to England:

I trod carpets the colour of blotting paper … between the walls were yards and yards of biscuit-coloured wood which no carpenter’s tool had ever touched … tables designed perhaps by a sanitary engineer, square blocks of stuffing, with square holes for sitting in, and, upholstered, it seemed, in blotting paper also….

Early in BR, Sebastian quotes from an art book: “Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?”. Sebastian says that he does; but I realized that I myself certainly don’t. Example: every year I buy a wall calendar for our kitchen at home. I used to find Audubon calendars that had his wonderful bird paintings … the greatest American art ever made? But then at some point, the calendars started appearing with only bird photographs. I would never buy one of these! If I’m going to look at a picture perhaps several times a day, for a whole month, it is going to have to be something masterfully created by a person, and not simply a literal depiction of something in nature.

Speaking of human creations … It is always gratifying when I come upon something in my reading, which is enriched by what I have been reading previously. When Waugh writes of “Hogarthan little inns”, I can very clearly see what he has in mind, since I recently read Tom Jones, which inspired me to look up some of Hogarth’s pictures on the Web. Also, at one point Lady Marchmain reads aloud (what a marvellous, if apparently bygone, custom!) from The Wisdom of Father Brown. Since I’ve been working my way (though delightful work it is) through Chesterton’s incomparable “Father Brown” detective stories, I can of course get a very clear picture of this scene.

There is much humor in BR; in fact, this book goes on the not very long list of books which made me laugh out loud as I was reading … embarrassing as this may be at times in public places. Example: Mr. Samgrass, an Oxford don who accompanied Sebastian on a tour through “the Levant” (countries along the eastern Mediterranean) is recounting their adventures to the Brideshead family:

“And when we reached the top of the pass,” said Mr. Samgrass, “we heard the galloping horses behind, and two soldiers rode up to the head of the caravan and turned us back. The General had sent them, and they reached us only just in time. There was a band, not a mile ahead.” He paused, and his small audience sat silent, conscious that he had sought to impress them but in doubt as to how they could politely show their interest.

“A band?” said Julia. “Goodness!”

Still he seemed to expect more. At last Lady Marchmain said, “I suppose the sort of folk-music you get in those parts is very monotonous.”

“Dear Lady Marchmain, a band of brigands.” Cordelia, beside me on the sofa, began to giggle noiselessly. “The mountains are full of them.
Stragglers from Kemal’s army; Greeks who got cut off in the retreat. Very desperate fellows, I assure you.”

Another passage, quoting from a review of Ryder’s work (he became a painter) mixes metaphors with dizzy abandon:

Mr. Ryder … rises like a fresh young trout to the hypodermic injection of a new culture and discloses a powerful facet in the vista of his potentialities…. By focusing the frankly traditional battery of his elegance and erudition on the maelstrom of barbarism, Mr. Ryder has at last found himself.

Well … as you will see from all the above, I found a lot to enjoy in BR. But I did have some reservations. First, I thought that the saga of Sebastian, and his alcoholism, went on at too great a length. Granted that his closeness to Ryder merited a full treatment; nevertheless, I thought that this “thread” of the novel could have been curtailed.


But my more important reservation has to do with the way the book is brought to a close. Perhaps some of the book’s final pessimism has to is has to do with its being written during the war … I don’t know. Religious issues, and the conflicts arising therefrom, assume a greater importance as the book goes along. Ryder is an agnostic, as this prayer of his for the ill Lord Marchmain will attest:

O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin.

R is trying to exist in a Catholic milieu; this, and his forthrightness about his beliefs or lack of them, lead to a conclusion that is … let’s just say, not a sunny one. I had hoped for more happiness at the end, and I must admit that the closing tone of bleakness was unsettling.


A couple of questions for readers out there who may be more conversant with Waugh’s work than I: First, do you think that Brideshead Revisited is indeed, as the blurb on the back cover of my edition (quoting the New York Times) says, “Waugh’s finest achievement”? And secondly, are there any other books of Waugh’s that you would recommend? Thanks for answers to these questions, and for any other feedback you might have!

Tom Frenkel
email: frethoa AT aol DOT com
book blog: http://lessthanamegabyte.wordpress.com