Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

This is a hard novel to review – so much happens, and so little happens. Waugh tackles Catholicism, dogma and paradigms, faith in general. He tackles homosexuality, social stigma, boyishness, growth, and responsibility. Divorce, society, nobility, riches, and innocence. Alcoholism, psychosis, war, nationalism, loss, and the Oedipus complex. All of this, from another writer, might seem overbearing, complex, or pretentious but Waugh somehow makes it all seem normal. Sebastian Flyte is an extraordinarly beautiful character, equally loveable and despised. Charles, the artist and narrator, confuses me in the end. His passion for Sebastian (pardon the rhyme, please, it was unintended) is finally realized in the affair between Charles and Sebastian’s sister, Julia. In a modern novel, or a Victorian, I might find this to be a cop-out. The setting here, though – Oxford in World War I / upperclass Britain of World War II make the displaced love affair seem the only real option, disappointing as it was for me as a reader. The exclusion of Sebastian from the third part of the novel disturbs me, but it leaves room for a renewed focus on Catholocism (personified by Lady Marchmain in the principal portion of the novel) and Reason (embodied by Brideshead throughout). Surprisingly, the concluding death scene makes clear which virtue Waugh finds most necessary (or appealing) – a twist which may have been forseshadowed by Charles’s stubborn rebuttal of Christianity, had it not been for his obvious infatuation with and love for Sebastian (“he was the forerunner”). Ultimately, I’m perplexed and enamored. I will certainly pick up another of Waugh’s works in the near future, and will likely return to this one again sometime down the road, perhaps in wiser days, as I haven’t quite figured out the last page of the epilogue yet. All in good time.

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