Brideshead Revisited Book Review

I would like to share my thoughts on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. I only recently discovered it and was privileged to listen to Jeremy Irons’ audiobook narration. Admittedly, it was my curiosity regarding Mr. Waugh’s Catholicism that led me to read it, but soon I was able to see why it is widely regarded as a classic. I found myself drawing comparisons at times between Evelyn Waugh’s style and that of Jane Austen or even Mark Twain. He has a way of helping you to picture stuffy old English culture while you’re chuckling at it, as well as helping you see the most cheerful side of life through his character development and dialog, which can easily be the boring part of novels. Also, I would dare say his ability to describe so much in so few words could give Jack London a run for his money.

First published in 1945, Brideshead Revisited is regarded as Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus. He was able to draw from his experiences in the military and in college to paint such a bemused picture of those environments that he had me laughing out loud. Although the story begins during World War II, we are soon accompanying the main character Charles Ryder in his memories of his younger days growing up in 1920’s England. He describes meeting his good friend Sebastian and his encounters with Sebastian’s family, with the story centered around the family estate: Brideshead. The character development and dialog make for great discussion with other readers, and the subtle thematic depth makes me want to read it again. As the story progressed, I found myself being amused less often but appreciating Waugh’s descriptive abilities all the more. He had apparently intended a graceful transition from a humorous story into a more poignant one as the years of the story progressed into the 1930’s toward the war. By the time the end of the book comes along, the reader is emotionally and curiously prepared for the meaningful ending.

I should probably say a few words regarding the relationship between Charles and Sebastian toward the beginning of the book. In our modern American cultural context it is easy to draw conclusions, and at the very least the author does not seem to fear the possibility of our imaginations roaming a bit. However, before allowing speculation to ruin a great novel (or watching any Hollywood versions of it), it’s important to remember the Catholic stance on homosexuality that Waugh undoubtedly agreed with. Of course we are talking about characters who are not exactly on their best behavior, but if nothing is specified there’s hardly any sense in forcing the issue. I’ve decided to take a neutral stance on this debated aspect of the book, and allow Waugh’s bemused approach to writing become my approach to reading his work.

I am tempted to venture into the theological undertones (or overt messages, depending on who you are), but I will leave that alone for now and let the readers explore for themselves what Waugh might have been up to. Suffice it to say, as it is no secret, the overall theological message of the book is one of God’s grace and His pursuit of us all.

The story has a feel somewhat resembling Gone with the Wind or Legends of the Fall in its memory of an idyllic time and place followed by a slow but steady march into decay. Personally, I much prefer to learn the lessons of bad decisions through fiction rather than real life, so I don’t mind too much, as long as the story has quality and impact.

Although there are no characters that directly resemble myself or people I know, there are enough similarities on various levels to make the book particularly interesting to me at this season of my life. I think this is worth mentioning, just in case it might influence whether someone wants to read the book more or less because of it.

Catholic characters in the story are quite flawed (as Catholics tend to be), and Waugh’s treatment of many Catholic beliefs seems to amount to a literary shrugging of his shoulders… which makes me laugh. I can relate. But the aloof skepticism of agnostics can all-too-often give way to belief in the end.

I appreciate the author’s ability to share his theology through literature. Something that really struck me was Waugh’s ability to describe cares and temptations that people face every day in a way that would impress any secular literary critic, but then turn around and give an equally moving examination of the moral perspective. There was an interesting balance in this book between a seemingly casual writing style and substantive subjects. I was delighted one moment, and contemplative the next. To me, the book served as an illustration that Catholics are not ignorant of worldly concerns and desires, but aware of higher considerations. There is depth to this novel that will continue to maintain its relevance, and I look forward to re-reading it and recommending it to others in the years to come.

-Ben 9/2/14

4 Comments on “Brideshead Revisited Book Review”

  1. Dale says:

    Welcome back, Ben! Great review! I want to read this next, now. I’m still reading The Guns of August. Making my way through The Battles.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks Dale! Glad to hear I’ve helped inspire you to read Brideshead, and I’m looking forward to the next installment of your thoughts on The Guns…


  2. We love that book over here! And I highly recommend the Jeremy Irons miniseries of Brideshead. I have not seen the more recent one, but heard the story was changed substantially so it was no longer really a story about faith.

    • Ben says:

      I’m so glad I discovered this book. Thanks for the recommendation on the miniseries, I imagine it’s good. I saw a trailer for the recent movie version and it looked like they went in a strange direction with it. Thanks for commenting!