Saturday, 27 December 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

published 1945




Detail of fresco in the chapel at Madresfield Court


Today’s entry appeared on the Guardian Books Blog: part of a series called Families in Literature. I chose to write about Brideshead because the relation between narrator Charles Ryder and the Flyte/Marchmain family is so fascinating, and also because the book is one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. When I started to re-read the book to write about it, I was awed by it all over again.



Evelyn Waugh in 1940



This is how the article begins:

If you read Brideshead Revisited for the first time in your teens (as so many of us do) you can come away with the idea of a Cinderella story: middle-class Charles is scooped up by the happy aristocracy – the deserving poor boy looking longingly through the window is allowed in, gawps at the magnificence, is grateful for the attention, and of course falls in love with Sebastian.

But when you read it again, you see that Brideshead is not a book about Oxford, or homoerotic love, or social climbing: it’s a book about religion – and about families. It is Sebastian who is in love with Charles, jealously wanting to keep him to himself:

I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.

Charles has no idea of family life – he lost his mother in an absurd Waugh manner during the first world war, and while his father is occasionally kind he is vague and not very paternal. Then he discovers the Flytes. “That summer term with Sebastian,” he says, “it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood.”

The sadness is that Sebastian wants to grab on to Charles in order to get away, while Charles wants to belong.




the private chapel at Madresfield Court

Brideshead has featured on the blog before – here, explaining how Nancy Mitford corrected Waugh on a detail of women’s dress, and here I look at his descriptions of Julia and other aspects of the book. 

The chapel at Brideshead is a key feature of the book: Madresfield Court is generally assumed to be the real-life original of both Brideshead and chapel. The two marvellous pictures of the chapel above came from the Little Augury blog written by P Gaye Tapp, as did the picture below. There is a fascinating entry on the family, the house and Waugh's connection with them, explaining the scandal connected with them.  But the whole blog is well worth a visit - anyone who likes Clothes in Books  will love Little Augury, which features books, pictures, interiors, clothes, films - all presented in the most beautiful manner. 



The Lygon family in 1925 before scandal hit


Plenty of other Waugh books on this blog too – click on the label below. 

Picture of Evelyn Waugh is from the Library of Congress.

Maimie Lygon popped up in an entry on Matthew Sweet's book The West End Front. 

16 comments:

  1. Great piece, Moira! There really are so many levels on which you can read this book, and different things you can take from it. That's part of what makes it such a memorable book. Waugh uses the story of one family to tell so much. You've explored this brilliantly.

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    1. Thanks so much Margot for those kind words. It is a great book because you can find something different in it every time you read it.

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  2. Moira, I know Evelyn Waugh as a writer of satire having recently read a book of short stories. I have not read any of his long novels or his essays that he was equally well known for.

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    1. He is a marvellous writer: my reaction to his work varies a lot. Some of his books are among my favourites ever, others I don't get on so well with... I'd be interested to know your reactions if you read more by him.

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  3. Ah, Brideshead. Certainly in my top 5 of the greatest novels of all time along with Pride and Prejudice, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-5 and I Am Legend.

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    1. That's a very eclectic set Steve - impressively wide reading! I have not read I am Legend... so obviously I should....

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  4. Thinking about your comment on falling in love with families. I feel that so much with Nancy Mitford's novels. Also, with the Rebecca West Fountain Overflows trilogy.

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    1. Actually yes - great perception, I hadn't thought of that but that's it exactly. Sometimes you read a book and you don't want to leave that world afterwards, and I guess that means you were in love with them....

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  5. Just took a quick peek--no Rebecca West on CiB! I keep buying copies of the Aubrey trilogy to read again and finding someone new to give them to each time. I love those books immoderately.

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    1. ... and no, none here, which is strange. In fact I like the Fountain book(s) least of hers - loved the non-fiction better (Meaning of Treason, and the Black Lamb Grey Falcon) and also Birds Fall Down. I don't know why I've never done one here - must put that right in 2015.

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  6. I only read Birds Fall Down last year--don't know how I missed it before. Would love to read what you have to say on that one.
    What an interesting mind that woman had. I loved this interview: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3249/the-art-of-fiction-no-65-rebecca-west

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    1. OMG I loved that i'view with West, fascinating and riveting, I wanted it to be twice as long. What a wonderful woman she was - thanks for posting that link....

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  7. Sorry Moira - not one for me. I've never read Waugh and have no real desire to if I'm honest. Ditto the TV series....it just never appealed to me.

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    1. It's not to everybody's taste, I do agree...

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  8. I may have to try this some day. Of course, how it would feel reading this late in life would be totally different. Your article at the Guardian is very interesting and I am always interested in family dynamics.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Tracy. The book is very good on families. If you didn't have so much already lined up I might encourage you to read it...

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