Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh (22 down, 78 to go)

These memories which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. ~ Charles Ryder

This is the first time I’ve read Brideshead Revisited or Evelyn Waugh. The book is a modernist novel, and the first-person narrative of Charles Ryder regarding his association with the Flyte family, 1920s England and leading up to World War II.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Waugh’s writing is superb. I’m looking forward to my next read by this author, though it won’t be for a while.

There were a number of things that initially mislead me however. First, Evelyn Waugh is a dude. Ah the Brits, whatcha gonna do? Next, the novel begins with Captain Ryder's account of Army life. I confess that excited me a bit more than the English-Lit, Bronte-esque, romance novel I was expecting based on the title. However, the Army portions are reserved only for the prologue and epilogue. The intervening chapters are not quite Bronte-esque, though they do indeed include a romance.

In the prologue, Captain Charles Ryder, finds himself, and his troops quartered at Brideshead, the abandoned English manor where Charles spent much of his early adult life. The bulk of the novel is his reminiscing of those days.

Beginning when Charles befriends the young aristocrat Lord Sebastian Flyte in college, and is then introduced to Sebastian’s family: mother Teresa Flyte, the Marchioness of Marchmain; older brother, the Earl of Brideshead, known as Bridey, but whose true name is never revealed, younger sister Lady Julia Flyte, and youngest sister Lady Cordelia Flyte. Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain, the Marquess of Marchmain, Alexander Flyte is estranged from his wife and living with a mistress in Italy.

The story is the long association of Charles with the Flyte family who are Roman Catholic. Lady Teresa and Cordeila are devout, while Sebastian and Julia have their doubts, but won’t quite abandon the faith. Julia even defends it to Charles who is agnostic. Lord Marchmain became a Catholic only to marry Teresa, but has by all appearances, forsaken religion along with his wife.

Sebastian is at first an amusing character, keeping a teddy bear in college named Aloysius, and other eccentricities, but he becomes a hopeless alcoholic, which ruins his relationship with Charles and family. Charles occasionally returns to his own home to reside with his father. Their interactions are quite amusing as Charles' Father uses the opportunity to chide Charles for living beyond his means. He is never unkind, but rather, very clever with his comments, and the chiding is well deserved. Charles and Julia both have unhappy marriages, and turn to each other, but the final scene of the novel, not counting the epilogue, changes everything.

Religion, which has been a theme throughout, becomes paramount in the end. Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die. Cordelia, and Julia with new found faith, are determined their father will have the last rites, but he refuses. Charles is critical of the notion, and it creates obvious tension between him and Julia. Lord Marchmain lingers for a while, but then takes a very serious turn. The priest is again called, and a great moment of truth evolves, with surprising attitudes exhibited by a number of those present. I was prepared to dislike the ending. I am not Catholic, but I did not like the obvious contempt that Charles had for the faith of Julia and the Flyte family. But then, another surprise, and I was relieved.

The epilogue: Years later, Charles revisits Brideshead, now as an army officer. Though he is not terribly happy, neither is he unhappy. While visiting the old Brideshead chapel he says a prayer, 
...uttering an ancient, newly –learned form of words. 
Upon returning to the Army quarters, a fellow officer notes: You’re looking unusually cheerful today. 

Other excerpts:

Charles description of one Mr. Samgrass: 
He had… an over-large head, neat hands, small feet and the general appearance of being too often bathed.

Charles on New York City: 
...for in that city there is a neurosis in the air which the inhabitants mistake for energy.

Anthony, a friend of Charles: 
Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear my dear Charles, it has killed you.