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It’s taken more time than I would have liked to get back blogging in 2013 so before the first month ends….

I took the opportunity of some extended reading time over the Christmas break to finally finish Evelyn Waugh’s modern classic Brideshead Revisited. Like many readers, I came to the novel through the lovingly faithful ITV adaptation from 1981. (Incidentally, when it comes to adaptations, I tend to favour the faithful over poetic licence – Peter Jackson will find no criticism from this quarter for his slavish devotion to Middle Earth’s every micro-drama).

In the Preface to the Penguin edition, Waugh describes the novel’s theme as

the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters

It is an inescapably, unapologetically Catholic work. It may even be said that Waugh writes with the assurance and zeal of the convert that he was. Outwardly glamorous but inwardly dysfunctional, his Flyte family represents a disappearing world of landed privilege which enchants the narrator, Charles Ryder, from his first glimpse of their stately home, Brideshead. As the novel progresses, each of the Flytes must endure their own battle of conscience with the demands of the Faith, which in turn dictates the direction of their lives. From the distant Lady Marchmain to the youngest daughter Cordelia, their responses to life’s major events – love, death, family, friendship – can only be read through the lens of their faith.

As for Charles, in much the same way that Nick Carraway is close to events but forever an outsider, he observes but is never truly part of the circle. Intoxicated (literally, for much of the Oxford years) by a lifestyle and the exotic ‘otherness’ of the Flytes’ Catholicism, he falls in love, firstly with deceptively whimsical Sebastian and later the beautiful sister Julia.

As one of the central themes of the novel, much has been made of the nature of the relationship between Sebastian and Charles, and whether or not there was a homosexual element to it. Certainly Waugh uses the world ‘love’ to describe how Charles felt about his college friend. Yet the case for romantic or sexual love is much clearer and explicit in his feelings for Julia. There is no doubt that Charles cares deeply for Sebastian and is drawn to his singular, physical beauty. Together they share a few intense, formative years of discovery and indulgence as they mature into adulthood. But the love that Charles feels for both Sebastian and Julia can be read as a meditation on the depth and nature of love itself. There is more than one way to love another person and not all love is rooted in the sexual. Unfortunately, modern Western culture tends to represent love in this restricted way, reducing the power of Platonic love. With an overtly gay character in the form of Anthony Blanche, in addition to his own homosexual experiences in Oxford, I’m not convinced that Waugh was merely being coy about the true nature of Sebastian and Charles’ relationship.

Memory, as much as religion, is at the heart of Brideshead. As an older man looking back on his youth, Charles’ reflections are a poignant mix of disappointment and redemption, the distilling of a lifetime’s experience into – what? Lessons learned? Opportunities missed? Relationships (un)fulfilled? By the time the novel concludes, the overwhelming message is that all our actions must be directed to some higher end and the demands of conscience must be satisfied above earthly pleasures.

Brideshead Revisited is a portrait of a very particular type of Englishness, which occasionally strays into sycophantic mythologising of the upper classes in the inter-war “Big House’ period. Nevertheless, it is commendable for elucidating very grand themes with comparative brevity that asks reflection of the reader.

An ITV ‘talking-heads’ retrospective on the series has been uploaded to You Tube here and is worth a look if you have an hour to spare.

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