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Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder is a novel by English writer Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1945. It follows, from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. Ryder has relationships with two of the Flytes: Sebastian and Julia. The novel explores themes including nostalgia for the age of English aristocracy, Catholicism, and the nearly overt homosexuality of Sebastian Flyte's coterie at Oxford University. A faithful and well-received television adaptation of the novel was produced in an 11-part miniseries by Granada Television in 1981.
The novel is divided into three parts, framed by a prologue and epilogue.
The prologue takes place during the final years of the Second World War. Charles Ryder and his battalion are sent to a country estate called Brideshead, which prompts his recollections which form the rest of the story.
Et In Arcadia Ego
In 1923, protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder, an undergraduate studying history at a college very like Hertford College, Oxford, is befriended by Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the aristocratic Lord Marchmain and an undergraduate at Christ Church. Sebastian introduces Charles to his eccentric friends, including the haughty aesthete and homosexual Anthony Blanche. Sebastian also takes Charles to his family's palatial mansion, Brideshead Castle, in Wiltshire where Charles later meets the rest of Sebastian's family, including his sister Julia.
During the long summer holiday Charles returns home to London, where he lives with his widowed father, Edward Ryder. The conversations there between Charles and Edward provide some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel. Charles is called back to Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury, and Sebastian and Charles spend the remainder of the holiday together.
Sebastian's family are Roman Catholic, which influences the Flytes' lives as well as the content of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles, who had always assumed Christianity was "without substance or merit". Lord Marchmain had converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism to marry his wife, but he later abandoned both his marriage and his new religion, and moved to Venice, Italy. Left alone, Lady Marchmain focuses even more on her faith, which is also enthusiastically espoused by her eldest son, Lord Brideshead ("Bridey"), and by her youngest daughter, Cordelia.
Sebastian, a troubled young man, descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where his drinking ruins his health. He eventually finds some solace as an under-porter and object of charity at a Catholic monastery in Tunisia.
Meanwhile Charles finds success as an architectural painter and visits Latin America to paint the buildings there. He is commissioned by Brideshead to paint Marchmain House, the Flytes' London house, before its demolition.
Sebastian's drifting leads to Charles's own estrangement from the Flytes. Charles marries and fathers two children, but he becomes cold towards his wife, and she is unfaithful to him. He eventually forms a relationship with Sebastian's younger sister Julia. Julia has married but separated from the rich but unsophisticated Canadian–born businessman and politician Rex Mottram. This marriage caused great sorrow to her mother, because Rex, though initially planning to convert to Roman Catholicism, turns out to have divorced a previous wife in Canada, so he and Julia ended up marrying without fanfare in the Savoy Chapel, an Anglican church that accepts divorced people.
A Twitch Upon the Thread
Charles and Julia plan to divorce their respective spouses so that they can marry each other.
Cordelia returns from ministering to the wounded in the Spanish Civil War with disturbing news about Sebastian's nomadic existence and steady decline over the past few years. She predicts he will die soon in the Tunisian monastery.
On the eve of the Second World War, the ageing Lord Marchmain, terminally ill, returns to Brideshead to die in his ancestral home. Appalled by the marriage of his eldest son Brideshead to a middle-class widow past childbearing age, he names Julia heir to the estate, which prospectively offers Charles marital ownership of the house. However, Lord Marchmain's return to the faith on his deathbed changes the situation: Julia decides she cannot enter a sinful marriage with Charles, who has also been moved by Lord Marchmain's reception of the sacraments.
The plot concludes in the early spring of 1943 (or possibly 1944 – the date is disputed). Charles is "homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless". He has become an army officer and finds himself unexpectedly billeted at Brideshead, which has been taken into military use. He finds the house damaged by the army, but the private chapel, closed after Lady Marchmain's death in 1926, has been reopened for the soldiers' worship. It occurs to him that the efforts of the builders – and, by extension, God's efforts – were not in vain, although their purposes may have appeared, for a time, to have been frustrated.
Catholicism is a significant theme of the book. Evelyn Waugh was a convert to Catholicism and Brideshead depicts the Roman Catholic faith in a secular literary form. Waugh wrote to his literary agent A. D. Peters, that "I hope the last conversation with Cordelia gives the theological clue. The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that the theologians won't recognize it."
The book brings the reader, through the narration of the initially agnostic Charles Ryder, in contact with the severely flawed but deeply Catholic Flyte family. The Catholic themes of divine grace and reconciliation are pervasive in the book. Most of the major characters undergo a conversion in some way or another. Lord Marchmain, a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, who lived as an adulterer, is reconciled with the Church on his deathbed. Julia, who entered a marriage with Rex Mottram that is invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and is involved in an extramarital affair with Charles. Julia realizes that marrying Charles will separate her forever from her faith and decides to leave him, in spite of her great attachment to him. Sebastian, the charming and flamboyant alcoholic, ends up in service to a monastery while struggling against his alcoholism.
Most significant is Charles's apparent conversion, which is expressed subtly at the end of the book, set more than 20 years after his first meeting Sebastian. Charles kneels down in front of the tabernacle of the Brideshead chapel and says a prayer, "an ancient, newly learned form of words" – implying recent instruction in the catechism. Waugh speaks of his belief in grace in a letter to Lady Mary Lygon: "I believe that everyone in his (or her) life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It's there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there's a particular time – sometimes, like Hubert, on his deathbed – when all resistance is down and grace can come flooding in."
Waugh quotes from a short story by G. K. Chesterton to illustrate the nature of grace. Cordelia, in conversation with Charles Ryder, quotes a passage from the Father Brown detective story "The Queer Feet": "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread." This quotation provides the foundation for Waugh's Roman Catholic treatment of the interplay of free will and grace in the moment of conversion.
The same themes were criticised by Waugh's contemporaries. Novelist Henry Green wrote to Waugh: "The end was not for me. As you can imagine my heart was in my mouth all through the deathbed scene, hoping against hope that the old man would not give way, that is, take the course he eventually did." And Edmund Wilson, who had praised Waugh as the hope of the English novel, wrote "The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not – painful to say – meant quite seriously."
Nostalgia for an age of English nobility
The Flyte family is widely found to symbolise the English nobility. One reads in the book that Brideshead has "the atmosphere of a better age", and (referring to the deaths of Lady Marchmain's brothers in the Great War) "these men must die to make a world for Hooper ... so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat, wet handshake, his grinning dentures".
According to Martin Amis, the book "squarely identifies egalitarianism as its foe and proceeds to rubbish it accordingly".
Charles and Sebastian's relationship
The question of whether the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is homosexual or platonic has been debated, particularly in an extended exchange between David Bittner and John Osborne in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies from 1987 to 1991. In 1994 Paul Buccio argued that the relationship was in the Victorian tradition of "intimate male friendships", which includes "Pip and Herbert Pocket [from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations], ... Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Ratty and Mole (The Wind in the Willows)". David Higdon argued that "[I]t is impossible to regard Sebastian as other than gay; [and] Charles is so homoerotic he must at least be cheerful"; and that the attempt of some critics to downplay the homoerotic dimension of Brideshead is part of "a much larger and more important sexual war being fought as entrenched heterosexuality strives to maintain its hegemony over important twentieth century works". In 2008 Christopher Hitchens derided "the ridiculous word 'platonic' that for some peculiar reason still crops up in discussion of the story".
Those who interpret the relationship as overtly homosexual note that the novel states that Charles had been "in search of love in those days" when he first met Sebastian, and quote his finding "that low door in the wall [...] which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden" (an allusion to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll). The phrase "our naughtiness [was] high on the catalogue of grave sins" is also seen as a suggestion that their relationship is homosexual, because this is a mortal sin in Roman Catholic doctrine. Attention has also been drawn to the fact that Charles impatiently awaits Sebastian's letters, and the suggestion in the novel that one of the reasons Charles is later in love with Julia is her physical similarity to Sebastian. When the two become a couple in the novel's third part, Julia asks Charles, "You loved him, didn't you?" to which Charles replies, "Oh yes. He was the forerunner."
Waugh wrote in 1947 that "Charles's romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years." In the novel, Cara, Lord Marchmain's mistress, says to Charles that his romantic relationship with Sebastian forms part of a process of emotional development typical of "the English and the Germans". This passage is quoted at the beginning of Paul M. Buccio's essay on the Victorian and Edwardian tradition of romantic male friendships.
Waugh's statements about the novel
Waugh wrote that the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself". This is achieved by an examination of the Roman Catholic aristocratic Flyte family as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.
In various letters, Waugh himself refers to the novel a number of times as his magnum opus; however, in 1950 he wrote to Graham Greene stating "I re-read Brideshead Revisited and was appalled." In Waugh's preface to his revised edition of Brideshead (1959) the author explained the circumstances in which the novel was written, following a minor parachute accident in the six months between December 1943 and June 1944. He was mildly disparaging of the novel, stating; "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."
In the United States, Brideshead Revisited was the Book of the Month Club selection for January 1946. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Brideshead Revisited No. 80 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 45 on the BBC survey The Big Read. In 2005, it was chosen by Time magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. In 2009, Newsweek magazine listed it as one of the 100 best books of world literature.
In 1981 Brideshead Revisited was adapted as an 11-episode TV serial, produced by Granada Television and aired on ITV, starring Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Lord Sebastian Flyte. The bulk of the serial was directed by Charles Sturridge, with a few sequences filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. John Mortimer was given a credit as writer, but most of the scripts were based on work by producer Derek Granger.
To mark the 70th anniversary of its publication in 2003, BBC Radio 4 Extra produced a four-part adaptation, with Ben Miles as Charles Ryder and Jamie Bamber as Lord Sebastian Flyte. This version was adapted for radio by Jeremy Front and directed by Marion Nancarrow.
In 2008 BBC Audiobooks released an unabridged reading of the book by Jeremy Irons. The recording is 11.5 hours long and consists of 10 CDs.
In 2008 Brideshead Revisited was developed into a feature film of the same title, with Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, and Ben Whishaw as Lord Sebastian Flyte. The movie was directed by Julian Jarrold and adapted by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies.
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