Currently Reading: Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited“So you see we’re a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; Mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and Papa is excommunicated—and I wouldn’t know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want.... I wish I liked Catholics more.”

“They seem just like other people.”

“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not—particularly in this country, where they’re so few. It’s not just that they’re a clique—as a matter of fact, they’re at least four cliques all blackguarding each other half the time—but they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time. It’s quite natural, really, that they should. But you see it’s difficult for semi-heathens like Julia and me.”

Author: Evelyn Waugh

Goodreads synopsis: The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Notes: Much as I love all my favorite Anglican and Mormon novelists—and, oddly, it does seem as though my favorites are usually one or the other—it’s something to come across quality Catholic fiction that manages to get into my heart. I’m frankly afraid of O’Connor and Greene; my responses to Tolkien are a mixture of admiration and failed interest; and Chesterton’s novels, while likable, never seem to catch at my sympathy the way his non-fiction does. Waugh, however, in this book at least, got my attention and admiration and sympathy all together.

There are two primary divisors that, for me, work toward a final quotient of like or dislike for novels, regardless of genre or category or level. First, I must love the principal characters. Second, the book—however dark—must focus with manifest intensity on the light. This is why I love The Wheel of Time and haven’t brought myself to read A Song of Ice and Fire, why I avoid Steinbeck and adore Tolstoy. Brideshead Revisited, though hardly a cheerful story, fell on the right side of the line. I might as well pause here to admit that I loved it.

Waugh’s Charles Ryder, the protagonist, spent the first half of the book reminding me of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby: a creature of uncertain opinions and passive temperament, shaped primarily by contact with and love for a defined and charismatic personality. Charles is an agnostic, not convinced enough of the unlikeliness of a higher power to be an atheist, but certain that Christianity is a dangerous myth. He falls in love with Sebastian Flyte at college—whether that love is sexual or not is left unexplained—and sees the Flytes’ sometimes manipulative Catholicism as a direct threat to Sebastian’s life and health and freedom.

Sebastian furthered the Gatsby comparison by seeming, from the outset, the sort likely to die an early and ignominious death. Unlike Jay Gatsby, however, whom I merely loved, I both loved and admired Sebastian. It was easy to envision the beautiful young man, an artist’s delight, with his big teddy bear and his liquors, his desperation to be free of his family and his inability to be free of his God. Though he became less admirable, he never lost my sympathy.

His family was a thoroughly mixed bag as far as emotional appeal went, but all of them exemplified what the novel was more or less about: the reality of what it means to be Catholic—to have in one’s heart the Eucharistic fire despite sin, weakness, addiction, doubts, the presence or absence of happiness, and inconsonant nature. It would mean spoilers to describe how this worked out in the book, and would be pointless anyway. The thing is best portrayed, and it is the mastery of that portrayal which makes the book a successful work of art. Which makes it convincing, when countless works of ‘Christian fiction’, Catholic or Protestant, attempting to depict the life of the modern believer, seem to treat humanity as a creature other than it is, or at best to deploy their ideals in an alternate reality.

It’s not merely tragedy that makes the mastery, though the book is mostly tragic. Charles achieves some greatness as an artist but fails roundly in the private sphere, making indolent choices that gradually push him toward emotional and spiritual isolation. Despite his deep loves, he was not always likable, and his plight sometimes inspired serves-you-right emotions rather than sympathy. By the end of the story, though, he had won both my love and respect; two of the very few things that make tragedy survivable.

The book is literary fiction of the old school; the prose is comprehensible and meaningful and lovely, the suffering human and painful, and the characters shown in unshrinking clarity. Its scenes range from dull to engaging, from the idyllic to the horrible. It began with some light and grew darker and harder to bear, and yet—

To review this novel primarily in comparison to The Great Gatsby would be preposterous on several fronts, but the similarities I’d felt early on, which faded into nothingness as I read, popped back up rather hauntingly at the end. Fitzgerald closed his novel with Gatsby’s belief “in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” There’s no more sign of an orgastic future in Brideshead than in Gatsby. Yet Waugh ends with the opposite light: a red flame, immanent and permanent, the unlooked-for hope of “builders and tragedians”, the holy place the sinner returns to when he feels 'the twitch upon the thread'.

The red flame sits at the heart of Catholicism. It’s hard to say how a non-Catholic—let alone a non-Christian—might respond to this book, though both Waugh and his novel have had literary acclaim.

I should say, it’s hard for me to say. Hot debate topics like the confessional, papal authority, and honor (it is never worship) for Mary do not even garner mention in the tale as I recall, though atheistic talking points like "this is all a load of bosh" do. In my own Protestant days, I simply might not have understood the story or the final imagery. The picture the evangelical church had drawn for me of Catholicism lacked detail, and anyway it did not really resemble what I found when I began looking. Now that the red flame sits at my heart—now that I recognize it, at least—Brideshead’s ending put me in tears with an emotion that’s impossible to communicate or explain.

The Anglican Rowling shot close to that core place, in the climactic moments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with the chapters 'The Forest Again' and 'King’s Cross'. The Mormon Card shot close in Speaker for the Dead with “It was the miracle of the wafer, turned into the flesh of God in his hands. How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all, when we thought that we were only made of dust.”

Evelyn Waugh shot a bull’s-eye. While proving himself an exceptional artist. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.


  1. Interesting review. I don't have much to say about it seeing as I don't really plan to read the book. But your thoughts on it are thoughtful & interesting in & of themselves.

    BTW, stay far away from A Song of Ice & Fire.

    1. Thanks!

      It is half on your recommendation that I've never picked up A Song of Ice and Fire. And half on the things I've heard about the HBO series. But yeah, definitely watching out for that one. ;)

  2. What a great review, Jenna, and such high praise! It is a wonderfully told, heart-rending tale, and I completely understand your responses to the characters.

    Have you seen the remarkable 11-part series done in 1981 for British television? Jeremy Irons stars as Charles--the entire casting is impeccable!

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad to hear you also liked it. Fans unite. :D

      This was this month's book club read, actually, and the girl who picked the book just--as in, an hour ago--told me to watch the BBC series. And said that it was perfectly cast. Apparently I need to do that!

  3. *aHem* I guess I'd best plan to Revisit Brideshead. The most I could appreciate about it at the time I read it was that it was well-written. Katie tried to explain some of the symbolism to me and I felt like she was the adult in Peanuts talking.

    I did read Middlemarch by George Eliot while in a similar state, however, and I didn't have a bit of trouble relishing it. Do add that to your list--it is incredibly beautiful and skillfully woven. I would love to hear your reflections on that one.

    For a shorter, easier, and sweet read, I also recommend Eliot's Silas Marner. It is rather predictable but no less enjoyable for that, and the characters are remarkably sympathetic.

    1. HAHAHAHA. I heard that there was some kind of debate between you and Katie over the book. If someone had given me a basic plot synopsis, I'd definitely have expected to take your first-read perspective. But the ending just floored me.

      I should totally read some Eliot. I'll add both titles to my reading list--which is immense and gets picked from at random, but I have had my eye on her for a while.

    2. I second Maria's endorsement of Silas Marner (which I actually taught at the end of an Intro to Ethics course). Eliot is great. The most recent book of hers I read is Daniel Deronda, which I think you'd like a great deal!

    3. Sweet! I'm not even sure I've heard of Daniel Deronda, but I'll put that title down, too. Thanks!

  4. Your review brought back the same emotions that reading Brideshead did! I find to be a haunting kind of book in which the characters and lines come back to me again and again. I love the quote you chose.

    By the way, I read Middlemarch for my old book club. I enjoyed it thoroughly but for me it was missing something, may the hope element that Waugh captures so perfectly. It is worth the read though.

    1. I'm so glad you picked this book for book club. :D

      Good to know about Middlemarch. I would like to read it, I think, but maybe I'll try Silas Marner first. :)

    2. Eliot was a secular humanist, so yes, her vision is certainly lacking. But she did believe in the fundamental beauty and goodness of life, and her writing reflects that. There were some things about Middlemarch that I found implausible, but that stems from my disagreement with Eliot's philosophy. Like most of the first secular humanists, Eliot was trying to build a basis for morality without reference to God. She wanted the moral legacy of Christianity--the horizontal, interpersonal aspect--without the vertical aspect of a relationship with God, and from what we know about the absolute importance of grace, that's simply impossible. And later on the problem crops up of who decides what is moral when there are disagreements among people of good will. Who is to say certain behaviors are wrong when they seem perfectly normal to many people? We can get ourselves into quite a tangle without the Church, which is not subject to the democratic fashions and shifting tides of every era. Anyway it helped me a great deal to know that about Eliot going in.

  5. Your last line--I feel the same!

    There's something indescribably heartening and profoundly true about a faith that survives intact through such battering tragedy; when it remains--even triumphs--so obviously on its own merits and not on the astonishing lack of them held by its keepers. Kinda gives you the feeling that maybe it's the Real Deal after all. c;

    Also, as someone who has lived among English Catholics and married into an English Catholic family, I can confirm that there is an "inner group" type intimacy that could be attractive and dangerous for an "outsider." Catholics survived in England for hundreds of years in intellectual hiding, making them interdependent and even cliquish. You get a great deal of that in Brideshead, I think, especially with Charles looking in, and Lady Marchmain and Julia's mathematical approach to marriage.

    Cordelia was my absolute favorite character. The simple, almost rude way she speaks about having "several Cordelias in Africa" speaks true to the experience of growing up Catholic, to the beauty of simple faith, of a lack of shame, a lack of a desire to beg the understanding of others. She and Bridey have that kind of relationship with their faith, though Julia and Sebastian do not. They're clearly uncomfortable about their Catholicism.

    Also, I don't think it's a coincidence Cordelia shares a name with Shakespeare's character.

    Given your positive reaction to Brideshead, I think you might approach Flannery O'Connor, if you keep in mind the ultimate-triumph-in-spite-of-tragedy. Grace working through the evil. O'Connor says something like, "people think faith is supposed to be this comfortable thing, when really it is the cross." A succinct description of Sebastian, don't you think?

    I think to be emphatically and intrinsically Catholic, writing has to address truth and beauty (the same things really), but that we've forgotten what real beauty is and replaced it with cheap ideals of physical perfection. Eden is only half the story. The most beautiful thing, after all, is the cross.

    Thanks for a wonderful review, as always!

    1. Interesting point about the English Catholics. For all the mistrust and slander and nonsense the Church deals with in America, it's nothing compared to what the English went through, so yeah. It's easy to read right past that, too. Glad you commented on that.

      I'll have to remember that about O'Connor. Have you any recommendations? I heard that one of hers contains a multiple murder at the end, and murder really creeps me out, so maybe not that one unless it's really stupendously fantastic. ;)

      With regard to beauty, I see physical beauty as less a replacement for the real thing and more the lowest form of it, the one universally recognizable but which is no particular merit to possess. Of course, we do cheapen it. And whatever be the facts, it's true that the inability to see past the physical to the better forms of beauty is tragic and destructive.

      CORDELIA. I loved her.

      And I love your paragraph about faith standing on its own merits and not on "the astonishing lack of them held by its keepers." So very true. :)

  6. Ah, you're talking about "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Stay away from that one. ;)

    "Good Country People" doesn't involve any deaths or physical violence. That is an excellent one. And "A Stroke of Good Fortune" is actually downright hopeful--but that is from my perspective, not the main character's (the hope is that the main character comes to see the way the reader does in time). You can find both of those in the short story collection "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Anyway, all of them, and I mean all of them, are redemptive.

    Thanks for catching me on the following: physical beauty is one type of beauty and not to be belittled because of it's physical nature. Stay away, gnosticism! LOL! But yes, regarding how our culture views beauty and beauty as it is meant to be seen, it's the difference between Michelangelo's statue of David and soft-core porn. So much of it is in the attitude of the artist, as well as the viewer. Bad Catholic talks about this subject A LOT.

    If it helps, another word for beauty in the above context could be C.S. Lewis's word for "joy." Have you read "Surprised by Joy"? The. Best. :D I'm no philosopher, but joy and beauty may be interchangeable, or if not, one may be a type of the other, or vice versa. They're very similar. If or when I visit the Grand Canyon for the first time, I expect to feel a poignant, almost painful joy at the experience of its beauty. You know? Maybe joy is triggered by beauty. Yes, I think I like that.

    That brings me back to O'Connor and beauty. O'Connor's stories are full of "ugliness," but grace transforms that ugliness into vehicles for redemption and therefore makes them things of beauty. As Christ did with the cross.

  7. It's a very Catholic notion to depict suffering: Stations of the Cross, crucifixes, passions of Saint All-of-the-Martyrs-Here, etc. This type of suffering becomes gratuitious and flashy if it's for its own sake. So we have the difference between violent video games like Grand Theft Auto that glorifies violence and piously depicted brutality like "For Greater Glory" or "The Passion." (Though there are even reservations about depicting such violence in movies versus the imagination through stories. Me, I could only watched "The Passion" once in theaters. I still have the DVD, never opened.) It's why sado-masochism is a sin and fasting and abstinence are not. Why suicide is a sin and martyrdom is not. Praying the Sorrowful Mysteries is sometimes hard and painful. But we need the Sorrowful Mysteries to get to the Glorious.

    What I mean is, ugly things can also be beautiful. A hawk swooping in to kill its prey is beautiful. A woman, stripped of all worldly cares and possessions, about to face her own death at the hands of a murderer, and who realizes that she is a poor soul in need of God's grace just as much as the man who is about to kill her, is beautiful ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). The Crucifixion is beautiful. But they're all, to certain degrees painful. Even ugly. Grace reclaims even that.

    Now, if you compare O'Connor's works to Joyce Carol Oats, who reminds me a lot of O'Connor in tone and execution, I think the difference becomes more clear. Oats's stories are ironic, dark, deeply conflicted. She uses the same techniques as O'Connor, but to a different purpose, making her stories in comparison agnostic, painful in a way O'Connor's are not, full of questions without answers.

    Guard your own health and well-being first and foremost. You know what kind of emotional strains you can handle. But perhaps if you approach reading Flannery O'Connor as you would praying a meditation on Christ's suffering and death, you'll see the beauty in it I do.

    I hope I don't come off as too much of a know-it-all and/or condescending. I believe what I believe passionately but am CERTAIN I'm not the brightest mind in the combox. I've learned so much from you, Jenna, and am ever, ever respectful and in reverence of your thoughts. xo

    1. Wow, Christie--amazing thoughts.

      Thanks for the O'Connor recommendations! I just added them to my reading list. And I like your thought of reading them as if praying a meditation on Christ's suffering and death. Maybe I'll read her during Lent. :)

      I've seen Marc Barnes talking about beauty; he's often had some great things to say. And you make an excellent point about the Catholic depiction of suffering and the beauty thereof. My five-year-old niece was over here the other day reverently admiring the crucifixes.

      (Me: "Your Uncle Lou and I have so many of those. We got a lot of them for our wedding."
      Niece: "I think I would like one for my wedding.")

      The crucifix has been a surprising comfort for me, actually. Not something I would've imagined from my days of empty crosses. And the Stations, and Lent, and the Kyrie... and the way funerals are handled... I do love the openness about tragedy and suffering. Also, the fact that suffering is followed by hope, and sorrow and penance by flat-out joy.

      And I think you're absolutely right about joy as a response to beauty. For all my love for Lewis, I've never read that book. Maybe that'd be a good one to start taking to Adoration whenever I finally finish Augustine's Confessions. :D

    2. I'd recommend Surprised by Joy. After all, once you get past St. Augustine's life story, the rest of The Confessions is, if not boring, at least a little pedantic.

    3. Yeah, I'm past the life story and kinda bored out of my mind. There's a reason it's taken me five years to read this book. ;)

    4. I'm happy I made sense up there. *points*

      Count me as the third person to struggle through the rest of The Confessions. Glad it's not just me!

      You read Surprised by Joy and I'll read Lillith!

  8. I have the tendency to get too emotionally involved in characters (I was depressed through most of Kristin Lavrandatter:) but I have to 2nd the recommendation for O'Connor. I do not know much about literary cricticism, but she has to be a genius. Brideshead is a more enjoyable read, O'Connor can be very painful. Her short story "The River" incredible - I have never read something that packs in so much pain and so much hope in so few words. I also recommend "Mystery and Manners" a collection of her nonfiction essays and lectures. I may just have to read her some more - Lent would be a perfect time.

    1. Reading's not any fun if you don't get emotionally involved in the characters. But yeah, Kristin Lavransdatter... it was hopeful at the end, but I spent so much of the book furious at Kristin and feeling sorry for Lavrans and despising Erlend that I was too wrung out by the end to be very pleased with it.

      Sounds like all the O'Connor recommendations are short stories, which makes them a little more doable. Lent, here we come. ;)

    2. Everything Sara said!! Including being depressed throughout most of Kristen Lavransdatter and her recommendations on O'Connor :-) Sara, you described The River perfectly.

      A Good Man Is Hard to Find is indeed stupendously fantastic - I count it amongst the most influential books/stories of my life. But I don't recommend it to everyone or without qualification. Angele, I think you know, finds O'Connor deeply disturbing, while I find that her moments of light and grace and redemption make my heart soar. So do tread with caution--you know yourself best of all. I have no intention of reading more Hemingway anytime soon and still less of reading Steinbeck or Nabokov. I can tell you right now I will never read Lolita.

      That said, I second Christie's recommendation of Good Country People- it is dark, but oh, is it hilarious. Parker's Back is another one with no death or serious violence, and it is brilliant. Be sure to read a little commentary on that one, especially regarding the meaning of Parker's real name. Both of those stories are fascinating and incredibly well-written.

    3. It's great to have all these recommendations and thoughts, including the background information you provided on Eliot above. Thanks!

      Yeah... I read 15 pages of Lolita. Masha's encouraged me to try again, but I was so grossed out by it that I haven't got that far yet. ;)

  9. Wow..I can't believe I missed this whole discussion! I feel like an idiot, before your review, I'd always pictured Brideshead Revisited as a huge book about rabbits..Is Watership Down about rabbits?? Anybody..? Anyway, I've never read it, but I went to the library and got a copy today, and I'm really excited to check it out..

    Have you considered "The Geranium" or "The Artificial Nigger"? By O Connor, neither, as I remember have the sort of violence of "A Good Man.." but both are very much O Connor stories. And Hemingway, too, has some lovely ones.."Cat in the Rain" is one. Maria, I thought I would never love Hemingway too - we had to read Farewell to Arms in high-school, and I loathed it, but I came back to him with A Moveable Feast (amazing, and full of good descriptions of food), and now I think I've read everything with joy, except Farewell to Arms..He does have a good deal that is lovely and redemptive, you just have to read him in his proper time and place, the same with Steinbeck and Nabokov..Lolita (and Jenna, I will totally understand if you don't go back to it, really ;) ) is fantastic because you're shown the worst of humanity, not only with Humbert, but even with Dolores, her mother, the boy who helps her escape..humanity is so full of wretchedness, but at the same time, there is beauty there, you don't see them exactly as God sees us, but you do see sort of the distorted image of Christ reflected, because they're human..But not every book is for everyone, I *can't* read Chesterton without disgust, fiction or non-, and generally like O Connor's letters better than her stories.

    The whole beauty/joy/goodness thing, I think I'm finally going to put up a Wednesday post this week! It got me thinking a lot..Anyway, thanks for the review, I can't wait to read it!

    1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Yes, Watership Down is about rabbits. I can see how the titles would be easy to mix up. My first boyfriend made me read WD, and I actually kind of liked it, but yeah... big book about rabbits.

      Honestly... I hardly ever read short stories, which means I've missed both O'Connor's and all of Hemingway's. But I'm tempted to try A Moveable Feast one of these days. Maybe one of us will have to pick it for a Coffee Cup discussion piece. ;)

      You're right both about the fact that not every book is for everyone and that some just need to be read in their proper time and place. It's almost serendipity, I think, when we come across one that's outstanding, just because there are so many books in the world and so many times and seasons in life. Good thoughts! And I'll look forward to that Wednesday post, as well as your thoughts on Brideshead.

  10. Wow. Amazing book! Why did I neglect it for so long??

    My first thought is gratitude that someone managed to write a Catholic book that is not at all preachy or self-consciously Catholic, but organically Catholic - very similar to Flannery O Connor. Very rich in layers and light and color..haunting. Wow.

    1. I am so glad you read it--and so glad you liked it!!


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