Sunday, April 5, 2009

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

For many years I kept running across Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh but never picked it up to read. It took the recent adaptation to the big screen starring Emma Thompson to make me take action. Being a fan of most of Thompson's works I wanted to see the movie, but felt I needed to read the novel first. And now having done so, I am glad I did. I learned a few things about this novel that are worthwhile to know before watching the movie, but more on that l

First, what is the story of Brideshead Revisited?
It is the coming-of-age story of Charles Ryder, his relationship with the Flyte/Marchmain family and theirs with each other and their country estate, Brideshead Castle.

The novel is divided into two books. The first book opens in the mid 1940s with a middle-aged Captain Charles Ryder who is fighting in the second World War and has just moved his troops from a camp in Scotland down to the English countryside near a very large and old estate that has been commissioned for use by the War department. As the sun rises on a new day and his troops begin to get settled Charles realizes their new headquarters is actually the home of his old friends; it is Brideshead Castle and Charles is immediately swept up in his memories, both the sacred and the profane.

It is the roaring 20s and Charles is attending Oxford University when he first becomes acquainted with Sebastian Flyte. The two become inseparable and it is through Sebastian that Charles first beholds the beautiful Brideshead Castle and meets the distinguished yet dysfunctional Flyte/Marchmain family. For one year life is carefree and good and life shines down upon Charles and his friends like the sun on a summer day... but then things begin to change and the storm clouds blow in.

For the rest of the novel the reader watches as the characters struggle to define who they are and what they believe. Literary critics praise Brideshead Revisited for its depiction of the lifestyle of the rich and the royal during the pre-war years. They also laud it for the detail and dialogue as the characters struggle between their desire to be obedient to their religion (Catholic) and their desires of the flesh (hence the subtitled "sacred and profane memories").

By the second half of the novel as the story comes to a close the reader sees through Charles' eyes how everything and everyone is changing or changed. What has been is gone and no one is really truly happy, least of all Charles, who who is a self-described agnostic and a middle-aged lonely and loveless man who misses the past.

My thoughts
Overall I was unimpressed with Brideshead Revisited. For starters I found the first half of the book a slow and rather dull read, even though it technically is the more exciting part of Charles' life. And then oddly enough, I found myself breezing through the chapters for the last half as my interest in the story and the characters grew.

Waugh's writing is good -- there are some quotable passages, and even the occasional comical scene (i.e. Rex's conversion). I read somewhere that it contained some very funny scenes, but if they exist they were lost to me. I just didn't get the humor and did not find Brideshead Revisited an entertaining book. Instead I found the story sad, the characters pitiful in their self-absorbed superficial lifestyle, and when I closed the book my impression could be summed up in one sound, "Blah." Yes, Waugh does deal with some heavy issues, but for me that doesn't make it a great read. On a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent, I would rate Brideshead Revisited a 2.5 to 3. It was OK.

That being said, I am glad I read Brideshead Revisited. I've always been curious about it and now I know. I still plan to see the movie adaptation as I am curious to see how the movie compares to the book, how the screenwriter and director choose to depict certain characters and scenes, and how Emma Thompson does portraying Lady Teresa Marchmain. But I must admit I have suspicions the movie will not be faithful to the book and will probably take liberties. I also suspect that I really should watch the 1982 BBC miniseries, as I've heard that is a more faithful adaptation.

I borrowed Brideshead Revisited from my local library, which is a good idea for anyone unfamiliar with the novel and uncertain if they will wish to re-read the book. There are many who love this book, but I am not one of them and I have no plans to re-read it. However, I do welcome comments from anyone who has read and loved Brideshead Revisited. I'm curious to know why others love it so much.

Note: I found it slightly amusing to discover Evelyn Waugh is a man. All these years I assumed the author was a woman because of the first name... Interesting.


Amy said...

If you found it dull, I'm unlikely to like it. I didn't even think the movie looked good.

Calon Lan said...

I guess it's a case of to each his own. I remember really enjoying the book, not so much because the story is enjoyable but because it makes an impact, and because I liked the way that Waugh left some things unresolved. It felt very true to life.

I just watched the newest version of the film last night. Better than I expected, but lacking the depth of the book.

Rebecca Reid said...

I've also heard of this book but never knew much about it. I find many of the classics are "worthwhile reads" but probably not my favorite book for any number of reasons.

I normally dislike movie versions of classics, so probably wouldn't go for that.

Well, I'm definitely intrigued now! Thanks

Noel De Vries said...

Pretty much why I haven't read it ... or seen the film version.

And I know, Evelyn as a guy, wacked, right?!?

Jenny Girl said...

I prefer to borrow "classics" from my library also. diesn't sting so much when I don't like the book. Shame it wasn't for you, but appreciate the honesty. Don't think I'll be giving it a try anytime soon.

Alyce said...

I worked in sales for a literary magazine as my first job after college, and the first issue we published while I was there had Evelyn Waugh on the cover, otherwise I'm sure I wouldn't have known he was a man.

I've stayed away from this book because I've read other reviews similar to yours. Maybe someday I'll give it a try, but not for now.

hopeinbrazil said...

I posted an interesting quote about Waugh on my blog today (this is the anniversary of his death.)

Sherry said...

I read it and wrote about it here.

I also watched the BBC miniseries, and it helped me to appreciate the book more. I thought it was very well done. I heard that the new movie with Emma Thompson was NOT good at all. Among other things I think it portrays Sebastian as an unrepentant and blatant homosexual.

Laura said...

I read the book years ago (more than 20 years ago) and enjoyed it enough to make me go look for other books by Waugh and read them, too. (The ones I enjoyed the most were his travel essays.)

My husband I watched the new movie last night - it was awful. Not only was Sebastian an open homosexual, but the movie also made Charles and Sebastian's relationship homosexual, too. Throughout the movie I kept on saying, "I don't remember this - I can't understand why this is in the movie. This is not what I got from the book at all."

Nasty, nasty movie. So we watched "Ballet Shoes" based on the book by Noel Streatfeild to wash our brains out before bed. And it was Excellent!

Sarah M. said...

Charles and Sebastian's relationship has been under debate for years. It's hard to say what Waugh's intentions were, though I am of the camp that their relationship was of deep friendship and nothing more. At any rate, it doesn't surprise me to hear that modern society's effort to be PC has made their relationship much more in the recent film. That's too bad... because that wasn't the point of the story.