February 5, 2013

Brideshead Revisited

Side note: One of the characters briefly carries around a teddy bear named Aloysius. Probably one of my favorite parts of the book.

Told mostly in flashback, Charles relives his friendship with the Marchmain family when he discovers that his army unit is camping out at the family’s estate.

He meets Sebastian, the charismatic second son, during his freshman year at Oxford. They become best friends, and Charles is slowly introduced to the quirky family. After Sebastian begins his descent into serious alcoholism Charles doesn’t see the family for 10 years. In that time Charles becomes a successful painter. On his return trans-Atlantic sea journey from a painting trip in South America Charles meets up with Sebastian’s younger sister Julia.

When Charles first met her, Julia seemed young and somewhat brittle. Meeting again, both married, the pair fall in love during a terrible storm that renders most of the ship’s passengers (including Charles’s wife) bed ridden. They begin a serious affair that leads to both of them seeking a divorce.

Just as Charles’s divorce is being completed and Julia’s is beginning, Julia’s father returns from self-imposed exile overseas. He is terminally ill and the family gathers (excepting Sebastian) to be with him during his final weeks. They learn that Sebastian is serving as a lay person in a monastery in Northern Africa. The father’s death reignites Julia’s religious feelings, and because she is Catholic, she ends her relationship with Charles. (No divorce in the Catholic Church, etc.)

The novel ends with Charles in the present visiting the chapel at the family estate, Brideshead. He sees the lamp glowing and it brings him a sense of peace.

Other Thoughts:

  • First off, I had been reading the book for a few days at least before I realized that Evelyn Waugh is a man. The English sometimes do have a penchant for giving boys typical girls’ names.

  • I sort of wished I had a primer on life at Oxford before I read the book. The beginning is very much steeped in Oxford culture and a lot of it didn’t quite make sense to me. It didn’t seem like there were classes per se or that anyone went to them, for example. In that way, it’s a very English novel. Clearly, that observation shouldn’t be surprising as it was written by an Englishman smack dab in the middle of World War II.
  • When I got to the end of the novel, I felt a bit like I did at the end of Crime and Punishment. I had read this whole narrative and then on practically the last page, the author announces that it was never really about the story, it was about God. Don’t get me wrong. I’m totally fine with the novel being about God, but in both cases, it seemed out of left field. When you are reading the book for example, you keep expecting Charles and Sebastian to reconcile or somehow see each other again and they don’t. Sebastian just disappears into a haze of smoke in a North African bazaar. The love affair with Julia is sudden and passionate, but then dissolves seemingly in an instant. There were lots of conversations concerning God in the novel. The character of Charles is an agnostic, so there’s lots of trying to explain the Catholic faith to the heathen conversations. Honestly, those conversations seemed like window dressing when I was reading it. It wasn’t until I finished the whole thing that it was obvious that they were trying to set Charles up to feel a religious epiphany when he finds himself unexpectedly at Brideshead again.

  • It’s not at all a bad read, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to you if you were wondering what to pick up next. I think the best word to describe my reaction would be “bemused.”

Next on the docket: The Grapes of Wrath. I’m starting the second quarter of the list!

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