Brideshead Revisited is an account of the involvement of artist Charles Ryder with the Flyte family, the aristocratic Catholics of Brideshead Castle.
No doubt for many people familiar with television and film adaptations of the novel, the name Brideshead Revisited brings to mind images of sexy young men in punts or gondolas, on the Cherwell or the canals of Venice. However these visual portrayals have tended to suppress some aspects of the novel and overplay others, as well as encourage us to associate certain characters with particular actors or actresses. A balanced view of the novel, therefore, may require the reader to make a conscious effort to start afresh, as if he or she were meeting the characters for the first time.
A strength of the novel is its use of actions and dialogue, rather than descriptions of characters' internal worlds, to develop character. It is fair to say that Evelyn Waugh has a particular talent for this kind of writing. When Sebastian Flyte, explaining the plovers' eggs at his luncheon-party, says: "Mummy sends them from Brideshead. They always lay early for her", we are subtly made aware of the frustration and resentment Sebastian feels about his mother's tendency to control those around her. Similarly, Anthony Blanche comes alive to us through remarks like: "Where my dear Charles, did you find this sumptuous greenery? The corner of a hothouse at T-t-trent or T-t-tring?". The humorous and comical aspects of the novel (of which there are many) are conveyed almost exclusively through dialogue, particular highlights being the scenes between Charles and his father, and the occasion when Bridey announces his engagement to Mrs. Muspratt.
It is easy to spot in the novel the sources of the sensuous images which have become such a marked feature of film and television adaptations. Waugh has a flair for evoking atmosphere, particularly in his portrayals of Oxford and Venice. Being widely-travelled and highly knowledgable about art and architecture, his descriptions are always detailed and convincing. Sometimes, of course, his knowledge goes beyond that of the reader, so tracking down some of his references can be useful. For example, the image of Lord Marchmain 'holding court' in a bed which reminds Charles Ryder of the baldacchino at St. Peter's is enormously enhanced by knowing what a baldacchino is, and what the one in the Vatican actually looks like. As Waugh himself noted, he also lingers over descriptions of luxurious social occasions and lavish meals (a feature of the novel which he attributed to his hunger for such things during the privations of the Second World War), the result being that our vicarious enjoyment of these events is very powerful.
But Waugh is also able to capture the more ordinary and mundane aspects of life. We see this in his depiction of minor characters, especially in his affectionate portrait of the Flyte family nanny. Indeed, it is probably Waugh's capacity to make the reader hear the voices of characters, and to convey a strong sense of their physical presence, which explains Brideshead Revisited's capacity to draw the reader into the action of the story, and to make it a novel memorable both in its vividness and its authenticity.
Last, but not least, in reading the novel it is important to note how Waugh develops its central theme: (in his own words) the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters (divine grace refers to the redeeming and uplifting power of God, as understood by Catholics). As Nancy Mitford reported when Waugh asked her to sound out people's opinions about the book, many thought that there was too much Catholic stuff in it. But there is no denying that Catholic stuff is the novel's raison d'être. Again, the development of the material is very skilful and very engaging; achieved mainly through what Charles Ryder dismissively refers to as the convent chatter of young Cordelia. However, it is through this amusing convent chatter that Charles Ryder and the reader are led to understand many of the practices of the Catholic Church and the impact they have on those who practice the faith. Of course the book can be, and generally is, read without much attention paid to its religious aspects, but it is worth remembering that those were the aspects considered most important by its author.
In short, then, whilst Brideshead Revisited may be enjoyed for its sexy men, its punts and its gondolas, and because it contains many examples of Evelyn Waugh's wicked humour and evocative description, it may also be read as the author's attempt to explain and explore religious issues which were to him of central importance in human existence.
Reviews on publication
New York Times, 1945: 'Brideshead Revisited' is Mr Waugh's finest achievement.
Time Magazine, 1946: Some of the writing matches Waugh's best (and there is little better); some of it is equal to his worst
Some reviews from the internet
a heart-rending tale of loss and rejection, as well as acceptance and redemption (Richard Hart, Amazon.co.uk)
One luxuriates in its excesses (Black Box, Amazon.co.uk)
'Brideshead Revisited' is perhaps the most beautifully sculpted piece of literature in the English Language (A Customer, Amazon.co.uk)
The story was of a world that I found unfamiliar and unsympathetic (un-named reviewer, Penguin Readers Group).