Thursday, October 30, 2008
Book Review - Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh "...memory, that winged host."
Brideshead Revisited is set primarily in England, between WWI and WWII, and is told in a frame, narrated only by Ryder, a narrator who seems sincere and reliable, and most of the time, sympathetic, not only to the reader, but to the plight of the characters around him.
The story proper opens in Oxford in 1921-1923, where Charles Ryder is a young student. Disregarding the advice of his very proper older cousin, Jasper, Ryder has taken ground-floor rooms in the university town. Jasper has warned Ryder that ground-floor rooms provide little peace and solitude and instead, open their inhabitants to a plethora of unwanted intruders. And so it is with Ryder. One night, hearing a group of partygoers making their way home, Ryder sees the face of Sebastian Flyte at his window, and his life is changed forever.
Brideshead Revisited isn't E.M. Forster's Maurice. The friendship that develops between Ryder and Sebastian isn't romantic in nature, though its bonds are, perhaps stronger and its endurance longer, than most romantic relationships could ever hope to be. Ryder, a lonely young man, whose mother died when he was still a child, has only his rather dotty father at home, and though far from poor, the elder Ryder is a penny pincher who seems to glory in a life of doom and gloom. We can't blame Charles when he becomes somewhat overly entranced with the Flyte family and with Sebastian.
And, truth be told, there are few of us who wouldn't be attracted to Sebastian - at least initially. He's brilliant, sensitive, and, it would seem, in every situation, charming. He's also, as we soon learn, more than a little flawed. If Ryder doesn't immediately see Sebastian's shortcomings, Jasper does, and he's quick to point them out to his younger cousin.
While Sebastian's family, the Flytes, of whom the head is the Marquis of Marchmain, probably wouldn't appear the slightest bit odd to us - today - they are quite a rarity in 1923 England. To begin with, they're Catholic - at least Lady Marchmain and the four children are - though all five espouse varying degrees of what constitutes "keeping the faith."
Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain, who isn't a Catholic - at least for most of the book, doesn't give a whit about keeping the faith, or keeping familial solidarity, either. While Lady Marchmain and the children remain ensconced at Brideshead, Lord Marchmain, for reasons never made entirely clear, although we know they have, in part, something to do with religion, has long ago fled England for Italy, where he lives in a decaying palazzo with his surprisingly likable and sympathetic Italian mistress.
Lord Marchmain, however, isn't the only family member to break with tradition. There's Sebastian's older brother, Lord Brideshead, who seems far more intent on collecting matchboxes than finding a suitable wife and ensuring the propagation of the Flytes. There's Lady Julia Flyte, a woman who goes her own way, and when first encountered by Ryder, is thoroughly preoccupied with her engagement to the non-Catholic Rex Mottram, a rather coarse and vulgar Canadian who is not at all suited to her...or to the Marchmain family. Then, there's Lady Cordelia, the youngest. Outwardly, she seems to definitely be "her mother's daughter," a devout young woman who is expected to become a nun. Presiding over Brideshead is the tragic figure of Lady Marchmain, a woman whose devotion to her faith and sensitivity have rendered her totally unable to cope with the problems given her by her children.
While the first half of Brideshead Revisited is rather gay in tone - we see Ryder and Sebastian enjoying idyllic picnics of strawberries and champagne, setting off on summertime drives through the leafy English countryside, and, like many university students, indulging in one round of parties after another, all in the company of Sebastian's ever-present teddy bear, Aloysius - the second half of the book, which takes place in 1938, becomes something else entirely and takes on a decidedly darker, more tragic tone.
To my dismay, the most interesting figure in this family tableau, Lord Sebastian, has all but disappeared, having become an inveterate alcoholic and taken up residence in a Spanish monastery in North Africa. He turns out to be his father's son after all, as both indulge their propensity to flee that which they do not care to ignore or change. I found Sebastian the most interesting character in the book, by far, and I desperately wanted to know more about him, but sadly, that was not to be, for Brideshead Revisited is Charles Ryder's story and his alone.
Ryder, during the second half of the book, is not so preoccupied with Sebastian as he is with Julia, whom he meets by chance on board ship while both are still married - to others. Marriage, however, doesn't stop them from indulging in their love for each other or from discarding their respective spouses and returning to Brideshead. But Brideshead revisited isn't at all the Brideshead that Ryder once knew. With Lady Marchmain long dead, Lord Marchmain, now ill and feeble, makes the decision to return to his ancestral home to die in his Renaissance bed, a decision that will have far-reaching effects on Julia, and by extension, on Ryder.
Brideshead Revisited often seems to be a polarizing book. There are those who say it's Waugh's finest and those who say it's by far, his worst. Although I was disappointed not to learn more about Sebastian, for me, this book, because of its scope and structure, is quite definitely Waugh's masterpiece, though I'm certainly not blind to its shortcomings. The irony contained in the author's earlier books is still to be found, as is his extensive use of detail. This book, however, is more spacious, more sweeping, though it lacks the wit and abrasive quality of Waugh's earlier works.
Waugh's writing is, sometimes, at its best, and sometimes, not quite up to par. The worst of it is contained in the sections during which Ryder is describing his love for Julia:
...at sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover.... On the rough water...I was made free of her narrow loins.
Well, that's really not very good, but then I didn't expect it to be. The love between Ryder and Julia isn't nearly as believable as the friendship between Ryder and Sebastian. Perhaps Waugh, a convert to Catholicism, let his own feelings get in the way of his writing. Perhaps, as I strongly suspect, he never wanted us to believe in Ryder's and Julia's love in the first place. We do know Waugh intended the theme of the second half of the book to be focused on Julia's spiritual redemption. He's told us so. The trouble is, I personally found Julia to be a very annoying character. Had she simply disappeared from the book soon after her initial appearance, I would have been happy.
Whatever your feelings about Brideshead Revisited, the book certainly can't be dismissed, or even judged against, Waugh's corrosive satires of the Mayfair set. Whether you love it or hate it or feel something in between, Brideshead Revisited is definitely one of "the" defining books of England between the wars. It's a very intimate glimpse of a way of life that was rapidly passing away as a new one was being born. It's a story of physical decay and spiritual rebirth. As Ryder, himself says, while watching his troops being billeted at Brideshead:
It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
In middle age, Charles Ryder himself, a major player in the tragedy of the Flyte family, is burning anew, though not in the way he expected, among the ancient stones of Brideshead.
Recommended: Yes. It will either be your "favorite Waugh" or your least favorite. Let me know which!