It was October 1981, I sat down to watch a new television series on ITV called Brideshead Revisited. I was transfixed by it, much to the disgust of my dad who didn’t like the effeminate characters and the posh voices. I didn’t give a toss, I loved it. Every week, I waited for my fix of fiction and I was almost in mourning when it finished.
There was only one thing to do; I made my way to WH Smith to see if I could find a copy of the book. I knew the author’s name from the credits on the TV show and it didn’t take long to find it. I took it home and lost myself in a book that I love to a ridiculous degree and I read over and over again.
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED – EVELYN WAUGH
First published in 1945, Bridesdhead Revisited is the ‘Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.’
Evelyn Waugh started writing it in 1943 after he had suffered an injury whilst on active duty in the parachute regiment. His ‘rest’ from military service granted him, with the blessing of his senior officer, the time to complete the novel in 1944.
Waugh says in the preface to the book that the bleakness of the war influenced his writing; passages of the book focusing on wine, gluttony and splendour. He received fierce opposition to the novel, mainly due to the hinted homosexual overtones throughout the early part of the book; his contemporaries lost their admiration of him and he lost his previous esteem. It seems a shame, though back in the day I can see how it would shake the tree in a similar way to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but for different reasons.
In a nutshell, the novel is about the relationship between Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte and Charles’ subsequent embroilment in the lives of Sebastian’s various family members.
Their lives become entwined when they meet at Oxford University; their first ‘proper’meeting happens by chance. Sebastian interrupts Charles and his friends when he pauses to vomit through the open window of Charles’ ground floor room after a night of over indulging in wine. Next day, feeling contrite, Sebastian invites Charles to an extravagant lunch and their friendship and fates are sealed.
Religion is a theme that runs throughout the book. From Charles’ first trip to Brideshead when Sebastian shows him the chapel his father gave to his mother as a wedding present, religion came between them and would eventually be the reason for Charles living a life of deep unhappiness.
The story begins at the end, when the then Captain Charles Ryder finds his company posted to a country house that had been commissioned as a barracks. His young officer describes the house, telling Charles of the “frightful great fountain” proclaiming “you never saw such a thing.”
Charles had seen such a thing, he’d been there before. They’d been posted to Brideshead.
The rest of the book is divided into three books. Book one, Et in Arcadia Ego (In Arcadida I am) deals with the blossoming friendship between the two men. It is never openly stated that they develop a homosexual relationship, though there are many suggestions that this might be the case. For me the biggest hint comes in one of my favourite passages in the book. It describes an idyllic scene when the pair stop to eat strawberries and drink wine under a clump of elms on their first journey together to Bridesdhead.
“…..we lit fat Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above and mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of the foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.
‘Just the place to bury a crock of gold.’ said Sebastian. ‘I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.’
Nothing I’ve read since has ever had such an impact on me. I adore the imagery and impact behind those words and I totally understand Sebastian’s sentiment. How do we bury a crock of gold wherever we go? Do photographs fit the bill? Can those visual reminiscences of happy times conjure up feelings we thought we’d forgotten………or am I talking bollocks as usual?
In this section of the book we meet Charles’ eccentric father who’s cat and mouse games with him at the dinner table are a joy to read. The writing about the ‘entertainment’ he puts on to amuse Charles when he is staying with him is painful. You feel as if you are sat with Charles enduring every note of the Cello playing of the mustachioed Miss Orm-Herrick!
We are also introduced to Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s older sister and his wayward and wild younger sister Cordelia. Sebastian’s mother Lady Marchmain and his older, ridiculously pious (and pompous!) brother Bridey also make an appearance.
As Charles becomes more embroiled in the life of Sebastian’s family, the more their friendship is rocked. Sebastian is filled with dread that if he lets his family get a grip on Charles then he will lose him to them. This dread increases and he goes into a downward spiral of drink and depression.
In book two – Brideshead Deserted, Sebastian’s drinking has got worse. It is Christmas time and his mother sends him away to the Levant with Mr. Samgrass in the hope that he will be ‘cured’ of his malaise. Of course the reverse happens and on the day of the annual hunt, Charles lends his friend money knowing full well that he’ll gallop off to the nearest pub to spend it. When Lady Marchmain finds out, she labels Charles ‘wantonly cruel and wicked.’ He leaves the family and Sebastian, firmly believing that his ties with the family are over.
Book three – A Twitch Upon a Thread tells us of Charles’ relationship with Julia Flyte. Charles is now married with children and on board a boat bound for England from America, by chance he runs into Julia. A storm is raging both in Charles’ heart at the unhappiness of his loveless marriage and outside as the seas roughen, forcing his wife to take to her bed unable to cope with sea-sickness.
Julia and Charles share each others company, braving the waves and the weather to catch up on each other’s lives. Talk inevitably turns to Sebastian, and also to Julia’s own unhappy marriage to Rex Mottram, whom Charles had met and reluctantly had dealings with during his Bridesdhead days.
The pair are drawn together, Julia’s looks, mannerisms and whole way of being are the very embodiment of Sebastian and in my interpretation, he falls in love with his old friend. After initially refusing Charles’ attempt to bed her, Julia gives in and their unhappy story begins.
On return to London, the pair divorce and make plans for their marriage. Gravely ill, Julia’s father Lord Marchmain comes home to Brideshead with his Italian mistress Cara. Now an old man, he faces the struggle with death and religion. He desperately wants to keep his back turned on the religion he despises but fears death without absolution. The struggle between Julia who thinks her father should embrace his religion, and Charles, who feels the man should be allowed to die in peace, proves too much of a strain on their relationship.
The death of Lord Marchmain is mirrored by the death of their happiness and the pair part. Then we return to the end, (or the beginning?) of Charles’ story.
It is a bittersweet book, the warmth and hope of the first few chapters do not prepare you for some of the dark desolate passages of which there are many.
If I have one fault, (yes I know there are many more than one!) I can be accused of being over sentimental and reading too much into things. If this is a fault then I embrace it with wide open arms. I hope my enthusiasm encourages you to read this wonderful piece of writing and hopefully you will come back and tell me your thoughts.
QUAERERE SAEPE, MANENT CURIOSUS