Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

By Rose

I knew Sebastian by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour, which seemed to know no bounds. My first sight of him was in the door of Germer’s, and, on that occasion, I was struck less by his looks than by the fact that he was carrying a large teddy-bear.

Lord Sebastian Flyte’s personality and beauty are carved into Captain Charles Ryder’s memory like a figure from a pre-Raphaelite painting. Even in his absence, Sebastian lingers in Ryder’s mind, an ever luminous presence, never fading – a reminder of that most idyllic time in his life. Wickedly eccentric with an unquenchable boyish charm, Sebastian clings to a childhood long gone. In his arms, he protectively carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, who he takes on many Oxford adventures. Ryder is drawn to Sebastian’s idiosyncrasies and piercing beauty.  He is fascinated and seduced by the prodigious magnificent estate, Brideshead, and the enticing world of the elite. Ryder longs for a family, his mother long dead; his father a ghostlike figure, lost behind doors of an ashen house, favouring objects over human beings. This is a story of a damaged family, the profound effect of Catholicism on children and adults, of adults trying to experience what they tragically did not have as children, and a longing for the past: those pockets of time that glitter like diamond dust in the mind. An accomplished piece of literature, Waugh creates poetic prose that engenders vivid imagery: a good paragraph creates a miniature painting in the mind: a most visual writer. He creates a masterful feeling of haunting nostalgia and yearning which lingers, though the heavy Catholic theme can be challenging at times. I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days. John Ryder, Brideshead.

The story is told from Captain Charles Ryder’s viewpoint, in the first person, during world War Two.  He recounts his memories of his youth. In the beginning we meet him as a lost man in the army; any positive feelings he had for his role in the war have vanished. What is left seems merely a body and mind carrying out his duties in an automatic fashion with no personal investment. Ryder could be described as a ‘shell of a person’, a man who has no one, who appears wearied by everything around him: the war, the people, his position in life; he is most of all a tragic isolated figure who is burdened by a deep thinking mind. In fact, the entire novel has the reader thinking as deeply as Ryder, that is the brilliance of Waugh's writing, he invites you to think at a level that is profound, this is a not a book for those that don't want to delve deeply emotionally.

Ryder describes his distaste of the War and his part in it, as a kind of death, comparing it to the dying emotions of a relationship, where feelings for a partner have long gone. Death is a theme that begins early in the novel and appears throughout the story in very complex ways, the death of soliders in earlier wars - Sebastian's uncles died serving in the War, the death of soliders in this new War or the fact that Ryder and his men know that death could be immient at any moment. The death of love, the death of a still born baby, and finally the dying embers of traditions, religous traditions and English traditions, how they are dying out, there is a kind of mourning that flows through the pages.

It’s by accident that Ryder is stationed at Brideshead, the sprawling magnificent estate that has been taken over for a short period by the army. The building and its elaborate beauty and elegance awaken his memory of Ryder’s early Oxford years with the memorable eccentric beautiful Sebastian who once lived with his family at Brideshead.

Sebastian, although a rule breaker who prefers playing games to studying, is riddled with Catholic guilt; having been brought up in the Roman Catholic religion by his mother. Underneath Sebastian’s easy smile and frivolities, the religion often haunts him. He believes in the judgements and watchful eye of the one creator and Lord of heaven and Earth. The three Marchmain children in the nursery had to stare at the image of Christ being crucified. Mrs Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, is a domineering figure in the novel. A practising Roman Catholic, she instils the rules of the Catholic religion and a forced sense of duty in all her three children. She constantly plays manipulative games with Sebastian, always holding a tight control over him, which drives him not only further away, but deeper into his childhood and away from adulthood.

Sebastian has little privacy, his mother repeatedly sends paid spies to watch over him and report his activities back to her. Sebastian has naturally grown over time to dislike his mother intensely; one can even call it hatred. Sebastian also despises the estate, Brideshead, a huge monument to wealth and elitism, a place of power and grandness, as to him it is only a reminder of his detestable family. Apart from his little sister, Sebastian doesn’t share a bond with his other siblings, Julia and brother, Bridey, he is unlike them in temperament, though shares physical resemblances.

Throughout the novel Sebastian seems to spend his time continuously trapped, another theme, trapped by his family and their control over his movements, trapped by the Catholic Religion his mother enforced on him and enslaved by his own fragility and total powerlessness. Sebastian cannot fit into to the role of adult, instead he dreams of childhood, of innocence, of moments as a little boy, of story times and playing in nature. In the novel, he is described by some as being ‘in love with’ his childhood. His long suffering teddy bear, Aloysius, aptly named after the symbol of youth, is taken on all his adventures with him. He talks to the bear as though he were a real person and he projects onto the bear its own personality and traits. It’s true to say all children begin attachments with objects, toys, dolls and bears.  Since Sebastian has not been able to let go of this childhood attachment, it seems that he is a case of severe arrested development, where the adult acts with immaturity or like a child, usually due to problems with a parent and the transition between child and adult. However, Sebastian is well aware of his weaknesses and suffers frequent bouts of shame and depression; this will later drive him to drink and alcoholism and at times like all drunks he can be nasty. In Sebastian, Waugh has created a character that is utterly unforgettable, Sebastian is not a hero, he is not a figure of strength as a character, nor is he doing anything one would consider admirable, but he has a presence that has power through the chapters. Waugh invites the audience, the reader, to adore Sebastian and care about him despite his weaknesses, and the reader does care, even when Sebastian is not mentioned. He is always a constant in one’s thoughts. Sebastian is the star of Brideshead Revisited in all his tragedies and in his inability to fit in, everything that happens later always leads back to him.

Captain John Ryder’s mother was killed while working as a nurse in the Red Cross, his father, an eccentric man, shuffles around the old family house, a world away from the opulence of Brideshead and Sebastian’s elitist world. The Ryders are very comfortable and upper middle class, though not privileged or indeed particularly wealthy. Ryder’s father is a ghostlike figure, locking himself behind doors of the house with his collection of antiques; he prefers objects to human beings, which yet again reminds us of Sebastian and his teddy bear, Ryder’s father shuns human company after his wife’s death. This loss of his mother is with him, imprinted on his personality like a signature on his DNA, wherever he goes. He carries the death of his mother inside him like a wound throughout the story, even though he does not talk about it often, it has obviously fashioned deep pockets of his personality, and created a man who longs so much for love, a man that craves something incredible to fill a void that began early in life. His father appears now and again, muttering nonsense and wholly self-absorbed, undoubtedly lost in a world that Ryder, even when he tries, cannot reach, nor change. Nothing will drag his father into the real world or into the role of parent. His father holds steadfast to this strange unnatural life like a man tying himself to the helm of a ship on course for a dangerous island.

Ryder has what could be described as a natural aching loneliness. Natural, as he has lost a parent at a pivotal age. Sebastian for a time provides this feeling of love. The two are inseparable and spend weeks experiencing the beauty and joy of each other’s company, the Oxford landscape and the tranquillity of summer and nature, dining in luxury, picnics under picturesque backgrounds. These moments are a peaceful painting, dipped in pastel colours and gentle emotions, of innocence and joy and a gentle love. This time will be the happiest in Ryder’s life as he looks back, he is a man who only experienced that kind of profound joy once, with one person, and no experience can match the golden bladed memory of that time in his life. It has scorched his mind with its beauty, it lights up his mind, a sunrise of vivid colours, when recalled everything else appears like a drab grey barren landscape. In the story Ryder is clearly trying to have the happy childhood he did not have as a child, as inexplicable as it may seem, as an adult student, Ryder does experience this lost childhood with Sebastian, creating a time of innocence, beauty and love and companionship; describing the feeling of being with Sebastian as ‘the happy childhood’.  He is able to create the moments he lost as a child, though as adults childlike toys are replaced by drink and food, by cigars.

There is much debate about the relationship between the two men; I would say it is completely obvious that it is romantic love. They both love each other. Possibly, one more than the other, which is always a tragic route in any love affair. In response to the 1980’s TV series people often ask ‘did they or didn’t they’ and I don’t think it matters. The series is brilliantly done, it sticks closely to the plotline of Waugh’s novel, and it’s wonderful to recognise the dialogue from the characters that came straight from the novel. Because by looking at the dialogue you can see Waugh’s brilliance as a writer, in just a few sentences he creates atmosphere and draws you into the minds of all the characters. So apart from the controversy over whether they were intimate or not after the series, it’s one of the better adaptations from novel to television that I’ve seen and well worth a watch.

Sebastian is said to be based on a male lover Waugh had at Oxford Alistair Graham: some say Waugh had more than one relationship at Oxford. In the manuscript, there are times when Waugh uses the name ‘Alistair’ in place of Sebastian’s, which says everything about who the character is based on. He also says in the novel ‘I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.’ He deliberately avoids gender in this sentence which is very telling. On finding an old letter to Waugh from Alistair one can see Sebastian in the sentences. ‘I've found the ideal way to drink Burgundy. You must take a peach and peal it and put it in a finger bowl, and pour the Burgundy over it. The flavour is exquisite.’ Graham also sent Waugh a naked photograph of himself, which Waugh kept forever labelling the envelope it was kept ‘sensitive friendships’ (Evelyn

Nevertheless,it could also be viewed as an intense friendship between two men, and one has to think of the time the story is set and the University at that time, there were many intense male to male friendship. It could be argued both ways; Waugh has also said that Ryder intense love for Sebastian is more for the ‘type of life style’ the glamorous wealth and beauty of the aristocrat, of that type of life than a romantic love. In my mind after reading the book, I’d say it’s a romantic love affair. Waugh would never have been able to admit the truth at the time he wrote the book, as homosexuality was illegal at this time in the UK.

The closer Ryder is to Sebastian’s despised family, the more Sebastian begins to find Ryder repugnant and is unable to speak to him. As Sebastian drinking spirals and he disappears to live in places that most people of his class would avoid, run down places abroad, Ryder struggles to understand Sebastian, he is disgusted by the places Sebastian settles, with the poor ex-Foreign legion German solider that he sets up home. Ryder cannot understand how Sebastian could allow himself to fall so low and live so disgustingly, associating with such a poor unintelligent grotesque man which is his view. Sebastian, however, enjoys having someone with much less than himself to look after; he is on the fringes of life, while Ryder wants to be a society figure. Later, the German solider will die in the concentration camp, yet another casualty of war.

It is conceivable, but not, I believe, likely, for the hot spring of anarchy rose from depths where was no solid earth, and burst into the sunlight – a rainbow in its cooling vapours – with a power the rocks could not repress.

In the novel, another Oxford student and openly gay man, Anthony Blanche, is labelled as an infamous person of bad repute, described as some as a grotesque figure who spends time in seedy bars. Despite this, in the few times he meets Ryder, who also dislikes him, he is brutally honest. Possibly, one of the most honest characters in the novel, he warns Ryder early on to keep more distance from Sebastian and his family, or that it would affect his life destructively. He describes how the only mysteries about Sebastian are how he came into such a horrible family, and how his brother, Brideshead, was so archaic: like someone out of a cave that’s been sealed for centuries. He describes Lady Marchmain as a woman who devours men and leaves them as wraiths and Julia, the sister as beautiful but vacuous. He also tells Ryder that Sebastian says very little that is intelligent. None of this deters Ryder: he is still drawn to the family. Later in the novel he meets Anthony again, who comments that the Marchmain’s may have killed Ryder.

He was entrancing; with that epicene beauty which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind. His room was filled with a strange jumble of objects – a harmonium in a gothic case, an elephant’s-foot waste-paper basket, a dome of wax fruit, two disproportionately large Sèvres vases, framed drawings by Daumier

Sebastian’s beauty and wealth are a disarming combination in the novel, beauty has power, not only in relationships, but in society as a whole, and beauty can also cloak darkness. Sebastian’s beautiful face hides a deep inner darkness. Beauty power and wealth are significant themes running through the novel, and perhaps also the deception of beauty: how some are drawn to something that appears innocent and beautiful but is merely an illusion that both darkness and ugliness can lie beneath a beautiful front.

When Ryder marries it is not for love, but perhaps loneliness. He doesn’t appear to like his wife, though he father’s children with her. Through a chance meeting in this thirties after travelling abroad to paint, he meets Julia, Sebastian’s sister and has an affair. However, it seems evident that Julia is simply a woman that resembles Sebastian and is a reminder of that early golden time in his life, possibly finds the sister attractive due to her physical similarities to her brother, though Julia never loved Sebastian. Despite failing to make it in society, despite the heavy drinking, by the end of Brideshead it is Sebastian that stands out even from Ryder: Sebastian is living with priests and lepers, on the fringes of society, but it is he that you feel for.

Brideshead, the place, the magnificent estate is a powerful character in the novel. The beauty of Brideshead, the impact of this opulent architecture and beauty on the mind of a person is prominent. Ryder is captivated by Brideshead and its incredible architectural beauty; Ryder does many paintings inside Brideshead each time he visits, almost placing himself in the building, leaving parts of himself in Brideshead.  By doing this, one could say he is adding his own personality to the building; his own imprint and gains a feeling of belonging to this incredible building. Brideshead is a sign of power and status, it is also extraordinarily fine-looking and luxurious, like the beauty of Sebastian; Brideshead seduces Ryder, and Ryder is utterly spellbound by the place. He sees magic, a dreamy nostalgia that breathes inside the rooms. History lives in Brideshead and a generation of a family, it completely captivates him - its magnificence is sculpted inside his mind. One could say Ryder falls for the Sebastian, the estate, the extended family and the way of life that he can never have, wanting to be part of it all, even though happiness in the family is an illusion.

Some of the main themes in Brideshead are yearning for something that you never had in life, being seduced by beauty, not just of a person, but even being seduced by a building and a type of life, the life of the aristocracy; of trying to create moments you did not have in childhood as an adult. Also, the inability to make the transition from child to adulthood, and arrested development, due to a domineering mother. The depression that comes with the inner knowledge that you cannot fit into society and the role that everyone else manages in life, that you know there is something fundamentally different with you and that very awareness creates trauma and shame. Of the emotional pain of being unhappy or suffering depression, feeling as though it’s a stigma and something to hide as your family push you to show happiness instead of sadness. The book discusses the enduring way that some people and memories haunt you later in life much more than others and the effect of a family that is more destructive than positive, though you are bound to them to the end of your days.

Catholicism is a heavy theme in this book, the weight of guilt, the act of being judged by God and the effect of this on the children and the adult minds of those brought up in strict religious backgrounds and the effect of the Catholic religion. It also focuses on the lost traditions of the Catholic religion. Of dysfunctional families, and the effect of them on children and the personality of an adult and nostalgia for the past, for the way life was lived by some in the past, of the old way life conducted in a past age, or perhaps one should say, the way Ryder perceived that past, rather than the reality of the aristocratic life or the way it was lived.

Waugh writes with great skill, his poetic descriptions of thoughts and landscapes come vividly to life, sometimes you are in awe at his choice of words and how perfectly they conjure a time, feeling or landscape. His talent as a writer is obvious as you move from page to page, the fact he can create such a deep atmosphere of longing in a novel, one that breathes from chapter to chapter, till you can feel it yourself, and it lingers long after you have finished reading, is a testament to his brilliance, and he is deserving of the accolades received for his writing. There are times when the heavy Catholic theme can be difficult to digest, but this is most likely affected by the time the novel is set and the fact that this subject and indeed theology was more strongly debated in society than it is now.

Other interesting places to read about Brideshead Revisited: