With age, it becomes harder and harder to encounter books that end up being life experiences. My reading predilections pretty much solidified themselves between the ages of seventeen and twenty, when the access to an extensive university library–and amazing used bookstores–exploded my literary horizons. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is one of the recent exceptions, a book that I will forever remember in a haze of sun-kissed melancholy.
The novel begins in the middle of World War II with Charles Ryder, a military officer who has been ordered to commandeer a rundown English estate and turn it into a logistics headquarters. Brideshead Castle carries a more profound meaning for Charles, however, because it was the site of his youthful bliss and heartbreak. The narrative then looks back to his early days as a student in Oxford in the 1920s, where he meets a luminous young man named Sebastian Flyte, whose family owns Brideshead.
Young Charles becomes enamored not only with Sebastian but also by his fascinating, sophisticated, and very Catholic family. The Marchmain household is made up of the matriarch Lady Marchmain, the infamous and exiled Lord Marchmain, the rigid Bridey, the society girl Julia, and the precocious Cordelia. Their familial tumult and intrigue ends up consuming Charles’ life as he watches various members of the family grapple with the concepts of faith, redemption, damnation, and love.
I get the feeling that a large part of this novel’s resonance for me hinges on an issue that has divided scholars since the book was published in 1945–whether Charles and Sebastian were actually lovers. Because there is no overt language that confirms it, people have argued that their relationship is homosocial rather than homosexual. Even the most recent movie adaptation while incorporating a gay kiss still pulls back somewhat, framing the story as a one-sided infatuation by Sebastian for a straight Charles.
Full disclosure, I firmly believe they were together. In fact, the desire to prove to myself that there is a romantic relationship between Sebastian and Charles made me pore over the text of Brideshead like it’s the Zapruder film of gay literature. To wit, one of the earliest sequences pertaining to Sebastian:
On a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine – as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together – and we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.
“Just the place to bury a crock of gold,” said Sebastian. “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember.”
There are also other throwaway comments, including Sebastian casually wearing Charles’s dove-grey tie, Charles sneaking up into Sebastian’s room in Oxford when they were encouraged not to see each other, and Charles saying when asked about love, “[Sebastian] was the precursor.”
People act as though all it took for Evelyn Waugh to include gay content is his own whimsy, as though homosexual activity wasn’t decriminalized until 1967, as if Britain’s judicial history doesn’t carry the taint of destroying a brilliant writer over allegations of immoral acts. Early in the 20th Century, the novelist E.M. Forster shoved the manuscript of Maurice, a novel about a gay relationship, into a drawer with a note to himself that said, “Publishable, but worth it?” To trace the history of LGBT literature is to wade through a morass of coded language, and I feel that overlooking this aspect of Brideshead is an exercise in cultural myopia.
Viewing the story through this lens adds an emotional weight to the story that would’ve been absent otherwise. Sebastian’s slow unspooling and eventual self-destruction happens despite Charles’s support and affection. He becomes so consumed by his incapacity for redemption in the eyes of his religion that he eventually destroys his relationship with the people he loves. His inability to save Sebastian is Charles’s first heartbreak, but the Marchmain’s and Brideshead ends up following him into adulthood when he ends up falling in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia.
Evelyn Waugh had built a reputation as one of British Literature’s most blistering satirists, writing novels that skewer the vacuous, extravagant lives of England’s glamorous set. My earliest experience of his work is a black comedy titled A Handful of Dust, a novel with such heavily lacquered irony that it ended up alienating me. Brideshead Revisited exposes a much more vulnerable Waugh, and he ended up disavowing the tone with which he wrote it.
According to him: “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.”
As sad as I am that he had ended up thinking so ungenerously of this book, I understand where he is coming from. Brideshead seems to come from a place of great longing and nostalgia, not only of a bygone era but also of a society in which the middle-class Waugh wanted to belong. Despite the trappings of upper-class venality that decorates the novel, however, it is also one of the most profound interrogations of faith that I have encountered, not exactly and apologia, but not an indictment either.
It is interesting to pair this book with another written by a friend of Waugh’s, the also Catholic Graham Greene. The Power and the Glory is about the resilience of faith and hope amidst a landscape of privation, while Brideshead Revisited posits the question of whether spiritual purity and grace is possible in a society of excess. Waugh doesn’t really answer this question, but the way he began to search for it was something that spoke to me beneath the dazzle of Art Noveau architecture.