Brideshead Revisited

Thoughts IMG_2529 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, GK Hall Large Print Books 1982 (orig 1944) 505 pages

This book was swiped from the library of a nursing home where I was charged to make room for new donations. I will return it!


Wordlily asked me on Twitter if this book was good. I tweeted a reply,

“BR is interesting and layered and complex and frustrating.”

I was on page 300 when I gave those four words and now that I have finished it, these words still apply. This is one of those books where I wonder if I’m just not smart enough to get it. OR British. Both?  So many British places and references to things I have no clue, like the English school system and descriptions of ‘Hogarthian’.

I was very confused in the beginning as to where our narrator was physically. It took some time to realize that he was with the army but still in England. They get transferred and ordered to setup camp somewhere when he realizes that the place is not just somewhere but BRIDESHEAD – a magnificent castle. We then go into all his memories about the place and the family that lived there.

“I had felt the brush take life in my hand that afternoon; I had had my finger in the great, succulent pie of creation.”

Mr. Waugh does have a way with words. His sentences were beautiful and evocative. He is excellent at setting a scene and creating a mood. But  he is also vague, at times wry and caustic. I didn’t trust him.

And plot? I have no idea what this really was about, what was going on and what really motivated our narrator.

It’s usually not a good sign when in the middle of a book, I start reading reviews in blogland and in goodreads because I risk finding people who hate it or give away spoilers or read things into it that I’m not seeing. Which is what happened but it also made me want to keep reading which is often not the result of such exploration.

Charles Ryder is our narrator and we first meet him his first year at Oxford. He meets and is entranced by the lively Sebastian Flyte and they become best of friends. Sebastian’s family has a home called Brideshead. He also has a brother named Brideshead. His father is Lord Marchmain. (I never did figure out all the names but I think it likely it’s because of all the titles????) Sebastian has a sister. Actually he has two sisters. This family is Catholic. Our narrator is not Catholic and thinks it all rather like witchcraft or nonsense.

Oh, yes; lots of different things going on. Was our narrator jealous of the lifestyle and wealth of the Brideshead family? Was he ‘in love’ with Sebastian or just wanted to be him? Why was Sebastian such a wreck? I don’t know, it all felt like a big drama mama tragedy and it has left me cold. I almost gave it three stars but I do think the writing was captivating. I just am not sure what to do with the characters, how I felt about any of them and what it all meant. Maybe nothing. Was Charles an unreliable narrator? I think yes. (But I really only just came to that conclusion.)

It does have comic moments. Comic might not be the best word but funny/odd, sarcasm, wit. But mostly just sadness.

To finalize, if you love classics and big grand sweeping messy themes, do read this. If you don’t read classics because of big grand sweeping convoluted themes and the HUH? of it all, skip this.  We’ll see how I feel after I watch the movie from 2008 starring Emma Thomson. I also hope to get my hands on the miniseries from 1981 starring Jeremy Irons.



p.56 – subfusc – dull, gloomy – “Jasper’s subfusc suit and white tie proclaimed him still in the thick of it; he had, too, the exhausted but resentful air of one who fears he has failed to do himself full justice on the subject of Pindar’s Orphism.”

p.59 noisome – extremely unpleasant, obnoxious – “Or that peculiarly noisome object?” (A human skull lately purchased from the School of Medicine, which, resting in a bowl of roses, formed, at the moment, the chief decoration of my table.)

p323 afllatus – a divine imparting of  knowledge or power – “These hours of afflatus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world, commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scale and new rewards won for all mankind, the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.

“I have left behind illusion,” I said to myself. “Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions – with the aid of my five senses.”  

I have since learned that there is no such world…


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17 thoughts on “Brideshead Revisited

  1. This is one where I preferred the movie over the book. Well actually, the mini-series. I loved that! The book… hmm, not quite so much. I read it a long time after seeing the series (twice) and it’s just too different. It doesn’t bring up the same atmosphere for me. It’s not the fault of the book, of course, it’s just that the mini-series was so very good. My eldest son is named after Sebastian Flyte! Not the best of role models, but still. 🙂

    1. Not sure I wouldn’t go with the cartoon character Sebastian from The Little Mermaid…

      I hope I don’t have to join Netflix to get the mini-series. I should probably do my research on this. It is part of the Classics challenge to read-book-see-movie. 😀

  2. Karen K.

    I like Waugh but this one is not my favorite, I prefer his satire — Decline and Fall is really funny. I loved the beginning but then it seemed to switch tracks halfway through and become something else. I think Waugh converted to Catholicism and I think that’s somehow related.

    I haven’t seen either of the adaptations but I’ve heard the 1980s miniseries is much beloved. It seems more popular than the recent movie version, though I love Emma Thompson.

    1. Yes, some reviews I read gave in-depth analysis that left me scratching my head but many referred to Waugh’s Catholicism. I’m not Catholic but most of my friends growing up were so I actually know more about the religion than most might. I still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take away. Maybe? I’m just thinking… That we are all ‘lost’ but if you have something to believe in, you’re not quite as lost.

  3. I read this too long ago to comment on whether you missed things or not, so I should maybe reread. I know I liked the miniseries, too, but don’t remember it that well either!

    1. I really am looking forward to watching the mini-series. I’m glad I put this on my challenge list now so I have all year to figure out how to accomplish. I’m trying to get a friend to read it so we can watch the show together.

  4. Ruthiella

    I really loved this book, but I read it after I saw the miniseries (which I also loved), so that gave me a leg up on who, where etc.

    You should check to see if your library has the miniseries on dvd. Mine does.

  5. I am a Waugh fan generally but I would say that it’s not one of my favourites, despite its status. His early satires (Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop) are brilliant but my all-time favourite is the Sword of Honour trilogy.

  6. “Sweeping messy themes” I think you nailed it! This is the first Waugh novel I ever read and like you I was impressed with the language, but also frustrated at time by the vague nature of his descriptions.

  7. litandlife

    Oh dear – I’ve been looking foreword to this one – I really like Waugh’s writing but for some reason have never picked this one up.

    1. I say GO FOR IT. then we can discuss. The writing is beautiful; just don’t wonder too hard about what he’s saying. I think maybe he wanted people to think hard about it.

  8. Pingback: Films: Brideshead Revisited | Care's Online Book Club

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