Brideshead Revisited, By Evelyn Waugh: “My Theme Is Memory, That Winged Host”

Edmund Wilson said of Evelyn Waugh:

His style has the desperate jauntiness of an orchestra fiddling away for dear life on a sinking ship.

I have been on a big Waugh kick over the last couple of years, reading Scoop, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and The Loved One, almost back to back. Waugh has been, for me, like Graham Greene: a gap in my education. I didn’t “meet” him in any of my classes, and for whatever reason, I had never picked up his stuff before, although I did watch the entirety of the Brideshead Revisited mini series when I was a kid, mainly because I was in love with Anthony Andrews. I am sure much of its dissipated homosexual ancien regime decay went straight over my head, but despite my love for the mini series, I didn’t pick up the book (which I had done with other movies I was obsessed with, reading Oliver Twist at age 10 being the most notable example, after seeing the musical). In a short period of time, Waugh has become one of my favorite authors of all time, but I had been putting off reading Brideshead Revisited for reasons which are not clear to me. Something in me has been resisting. I took it with me to Block Island, but didn’t pick it up. Finally, I read it over the last two weeks.

Divided into two parts, with a brief prologue and a devastating epilogue, Brideshead Revisited tells the story of a young man’s encounter with an old illustrious British family, through their troubled charming dissipated son, Sebastian. It’s a love story. Charles Ryder, a student at Oxford, meets Sebastian, or I should probably write “meets” him on the evening when Sebastian, drunk on the lawn below, pokes his head in Charles’ window and vomits on the rug. Nice to meet you, too. Ryder, bucking against the conventional traditions of his own family, is drawn to Sebastian, who is wealthy but seems to live according to his own rules. It’s attractive. Sebastian takes Charles out to Brideshead, the ancient family seat. Charles is introduced to the mother, the father, the older brother, the sister, the servants, and very soon becomes a fixture at the home. But there’s more. Something is shown to Charles, in his friendship with Sebastian, a vision of a life that is pleasant and good and full of beauty.

The languor of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life; again and again in riper years we experience, under a new stimulus, what we thought had been finally left behind, the authentic impulse to action, the renewal of power and its concentration on a new object; again and again a new truth is revealed to us in whose light all our previous knowledge must be rearranged. These things are a part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse – that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it. Perhaps in the mansions of Limbo the heroes enjoy some such compensation for their loss of the Beatific Vision; perhaps the Beatific Vision itself has some remote kinship with this lowly experience; I, at any rate, believed myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead.

In the second part of the book, Sebastian, the charming youth who would walk around the grounds of Oxford holding a Teddy bear, has disappeared from civilized society, and is living practically off the grid. The Marchmains are Catholics, and the book makes much of the faith. In fact, the ending of the book hinges on the question of faith. Lives are decided by faith and faith alone. This, strangely enough, puts him in line with Graham Greene, the other author I have only recently met. Charles Ryder is not a believer, but the Marchmains are, and passionately, Sebastian the most so, and it is an abyss over which no one can cross, although they try.

The friendship between Charles and Sebastian is intense. In a later exchange Charles has with Julia, Sebastian’s sister (whom he falls in love with in the second section, merely as a way to stay close to what was the magic of Sebastian), Charles discusses his marriage:

“I was glad when I found Celia was unfaithful,” I said. “I felt it was all right for me to dislike her.”

“Is she? Do you? I’m glad. I don’t like her either. Why did you marry her?”

“Physical attraction. Ambition. Everyone agrees she’s the ideal wife for a painter. Loneliness, missing Sebastian.”

“You loved him, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes. He was the forerunner.”

A shattering line.

Sebastian’s drinking was out of control, and the entire family doesn’t know what to do about it. Charles Ryder is put in the awkward position of having to intervene with his friend’s personal life, and he doesn’t like that. At the same time:

It was during this term that I began to realize that Sebastian was a drunkard in quite a different sense from myself. I got drunk often, but through an excess of high spirits, in the love of the moment, and the wish to prolong and enhance it; Sebastian drank to escape. As we together grew older and more serious I drank less, he more.

What is it Sebastian is trying to escape? His family, certainly. He loves them, but finds them unbearable. He cannot bear to have anyone hem him in. He wants to be free. Perhaps his faith is something he is trying to escape, but there is something deeper going on. Is his torment coming from his being gay, and the fact that, as a staunch Catholic, he can never express that side of himself (not to mention the time in which he lived)? His crowd at Oxford are wild reprobates, aesthetes along the lines of Oscar Wilde, dressing for attention and frequenting gay clubs afterhours. Sebastian has more depth than most of his cronies, and in a way, their love for him is almost vampirish. He has goodness in him. They want to be close to it. Maybe it will rub off. But slowly, the badness takes over, and all everyone can do is sit around and watch, helplessly. But, to coin a phrase, what is to be done?

Love is love. Love breaks many of us. It comforts some, and those people hopefully realize how fortunate they are. But love lost, and love never recovered, is the theme of Brideshead, and Charles Ryder never again finds the comfort and ease that he found for a brief season in his youth, with Sebastian. It is a loss. Something he must withstand. He does. He is not a good husband, but his wife doesn’t seem to mind very much. He is a distant father. He can walk away from his life at any time, and that is the tragedy of it. He has made no ties, once he lost that first Essential one. Nothing keeps him anywhere. But Sebastian, and that bond, keeps. It is the only tether.

The book is a wrenching affair, and yet, typical Waugh-style, there are some laugh-out-loud funny sequences. A group of guys at Oxford all descend upon a brothel one disastrous evening, and Sebastian drives them home drunk, getting pulled over by the cops for weaving on the road, and they all land in jail. There is a magnificent section of the book involving a storm at sea (speaking of Edmund Wilson’s quote up above), with Charles and Julia, Sebastian’s sister, falling in love, as they fall (literally) into each other’s arms, on the rocking deck of the ship. Waugh has perceptive observations, which get funnier with each time I read them, like:

The great bronze doors of the lounge had torn away from their hooks and were swinging free with the roll of the ship; regularly and, it seemed, irresistibly, first one, then the other, opened and shut; they paused at the completion of each half circle, began to move slowly and finished fast with a resounding clash. There was no real risk in passing them, except of slipping and being caught by that swift, final blow; there was ample time to walk through unhurried, but there was something forbidding in the sight of that great weight of uncontrolled metal, flapping to and fro, which might have made a timid man flinch or skip through too quickly; I rejoiced to feel Julia’s hand perfectly steady on my arm and know, as I walked beside her, that she was wholly undismayed.

“Bravo,” said a man sitting near by. “I confess I went round the other way. I didn’t like the look of those doors somehow. They’ve been trying to fix them all morning.”

Charles and his wife have set sail on an ocean liner, and Julia (now married to a man named Rex, who is a great character) is on the ship as well. Charles and Julia have not seen one another in years. They were never really close. On their first night at sea, a giant storm overtakes the ship, and sends most of the passengers to their beds, with seasickness. Charles’ wife succumbs. The ship empties out, as everyone takes to their rooms, leaving the ship to those who are unaffected by the rocking and rolling, and strange temporary bonds start to form. Waugh writes of an impromptu party some of the passengers have:

There were eighteen people at the “get-together party”; we had nothing in common except immunity from seasickness.

A perceptive metaphor for the breakdown of the class system.

The seasick section of the book goes on for twenty or so pages. Emotions are raw, and Julia and Charles spend all of their time together, staggering around on the deck, and clamping themselves into chairs against the wall, wondering why they are not seasick, and talking about Sebastian. Through talking about Sebastian, they fall in a sort of love.

One of the things that really surprised me about the book was that after Sebastian disappears from the book in Part 1, he never reappears. He is talked about constantly, he is the focal point of all of their lives, the reason for the connections … but he never comes back. I kept waiting, hoping, yearning that Charles and Sebastian would have some final tete a tete, a moment of acknowledgement, or truth, something where an essential exchange could finally occur. But life doesn’t work that way. Charles is left to his own devices, and must make a life that makes sense, without the “forerunner”.

On his last exit from Brideshead, he thinks:

As I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.

“I shall never go back,” I said to myself.

A door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford; open it now and I should find no enchanted garden.

I had come to the surface, into the light of common day and the fresh sea-air, after long captivity in the sunless coral palaces and waving forests of the ocean bed.

I had left behind me – what? Youth? Adolescence? Romance?

We’re only at the halfway mark of Brideshead Revisited when Charles says that, and the feeling of loss is already nearly unbearable. Waugh, in his brilliant way, is not just talking about leaving behind “youth, adolescence, romance”, but a way of life, a certain kind of England, an entire culture standing at the brink. He could see it clearly. He mourned it. He mourned it in all of his books but the mourning seems particularly acute in Brideshead Revisited.

Clarence Brown, a reviewer for The Seattle Times wrote that “Waugh was incapable of writing a dull sentence”. I think that may have been part of my resistance to him recently, so taken up as I have been by my own work. One needs courage to write. A paragraph like the first one I excerpted (and Brideshead Revisited is full of paragraphs like that) can make me lose courage, make me doubt that I could ever write something that good. Brideshead includes the famous line, “My theme is memory, that winged host”, and it is that piercing sense of nostalgia and loss that I have come now to see as strictly Waugh-ian. I think it made him cranky (sometimes notoriously so). His criticisms of the current generation, his generation, were devastating, and show up in book after book (most obviously, perhaps, in Vile Bodies). He saw the traditions dying, he saw what was happening, and hated it. Yet he was no rose-colored-glasses kind of man, he was too much of a realist for that. The old things all must pass away, and we must mourn them, and perhaps we never get over missing them, but that’s the way of the world. His gift was in walking that tightrope of critique and longing. When he bites, it hurts. And when he longs, it hurts, too. The gaiety and mania of youth between the two world wars was something he observed first-hand, and here, in Brideshead, he watches the old world pass into oblivion. No more room for huge Brideshead mansions with Hitler on the march. The world is speeding up. The world must look forward, not back. A culture that only looks back is one that is rotten at the heart of it. Kazuo Ishiguro, in The Remains of the Day, examines that same timeframe, that same world, but his is a colder eye. Charles Ryder, after struggling to make sense of what the hell he was doing at Oxford, finally quits and enrolls in art school. He gets a name for himself doing paintings of all of the old mansions and castles throughout England. To do such a thing, in the 1930s, could be seen as the ultimate folly. In such a dangerous frightening world, what good is there in doing silly paintings of rich people’s homes? Yet, seen through another lens, memory, that winged host, may be all we have in dark days. He’s not just painting mansions. He is preserving England’s way of life for them, at least visually, at a moment in time when they are all about to drown like Atlantis. Maybe he senses that they will need their memories in the years to come. Ryder understands what it is he is actually doing. The occupants of said homes may not.

We don’t realize our moment is over until it has long since passed.

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18 Responses to Brideshead Revisited, By Evelyn Waugh: “My Theme Is Memory, That Winged Host”

  1. graboy says:

    Wonderful insight into a wonderful novel. Thank you.

  2. sheila says:

    Thanks, graboy.

  3. reba says:

    I love Brideshead Revisited–it is my guilty Waugh pleasure–and, because I have weird seasonal cycles for books, I re-read the ‘boat-in-the-storm’ scene when there are summer thunderstorms at night. So glad you’ve posted on it!

  4. sheila says:

    Reba – I just think that whole storm-at-sea section is just incredible. It’s funny, so so funny at parts, but then dreadfully sad, too. Everyone seems lost, unsure … but then there’s that jaunty humor Waugh has, which is hilarious, but never seems light-weight, or substanceless.

    He’s just brilliant, I think.

    I’m so glad I finally read it. I will definitely be reading it again!

  5. Shelley says:

    I love Waugh, although Sebastian’s charm always eluded me. Self-destructive just seems too pernicious to me, I guess.

    But…you read OT at age ten? Whoa!

  6. sheila says:

    Shelley – I was so obsessed with the movie Oliver! that I had to read the book. I read it over one summer, and I kept trying to picture the characters in the movie as the characters in the book. Not an easy task at times. I especially was horrified that the ending of Fagin in the book was not the ending of him in the movie, dancing off into the sunset with Artful Dodger. I felt very betrayed by the book in that moment. Ha!!

    And Sebastian, to me, just reeks of decay. There’s a criticism there of Catholicism – or maybe, on some level, it’s a celebration – but something is rotten there. I am not sure, exactly, what was so lovable about him either – although the friendship did remind me of certain brief times in my youth when intense temporary friendships formed (at summer camp, or something) – when life sort of felt like that, for a second. Magic.

    You know who I loved – and I didn’t really mention him in the review – is Julia’s boyfriend, then husband – Rex. The sort of shady guy who had muscled his way into politics. The future of England. While he was grotesque in many ways, I also kinda loved him. The way he swooped in and bailed them all out of jail, managing all of their lives for them – a practical blustery kind of guy – he made me laugh a lot. How about when he shows up at the house with a gift for Julia: a live tortoise with Julia’s initials inset into the turtles shell in jewels. I mean – what? The tortoise bumbles around, and everyone is kind of horribly hypnotized by it – but he is as proud of his ridiculous and awful gift as can be. I kind of like Rex, even though he’s supposed to represent everything that stinks to high heaven.

  7. caitlin G says:

    I kind of like Rex, even though he’s supposed to represent everything that stinks to high heaven.Hahaha…

    I kind of liked sexy Rexy too, maybe because I felt that Waugh had the knife out for him. Makes fun of his brandy glasses, huh. Not much thanks for being such a useful…

    colonial, and for reacting to “Brideworld” with something less than awe.

    How about that marvlous sequence when he tries to convert, and starts believing all the “Catholic” drivel fed him by the malicious younger sister? It made me LOL when I was watching the miniseries.

    Well..heloo and goodbye. I ahve no idea how I got here, but it was something to do with Wolcott’s site. :~)

  8. sheila says:

    Yeah, I thought Rex was great, even with his undeveloped personality – I think Julia refers to him as “half a person” or something like that. I loved how he swooped in to handle the imprisonment of Sebastian and all the other drunks, just totally taking charge, as though he were born to it.

    And that tortoise with the jewelled initials in it – grotesque!!!

    I loved the older brother, too, Brideshead. Poor man. His time was over at that moment – his time of privilege and status – and he just couldn’t realize it. He had no idea that the clock had run out.

  9. Barry says:

    Having only recently come across it myself (and also having just watched the ITV miniseries) I agree with virtually everything you have said. Many of the secondary characters – Bridey, Cordelia, old Mr Ryder – are beautifully drawn.

    I loved the matter-of-fact mistress, Carla (?). In the pivotal moment of the book for me, she talks about young love, and how much better it is that Charles’ first love is for another boy, not a woman … because (my own interpretation here) one needs to learn about emotional love before one can deal with sexual love, and if he had fallen for a woman sex would have forced bad decisions. That resonated deeply with me.

    I disagree that Julia is his replacement for Sebastian. I think his love for her is much more substantial than his love for Sebastian, which was part of growing up. And this is what makes the end of the book so wrenching, because clearly they do love each other.

    One word of warning. Avoid the 2008 movie at all costs. It completely and comprehensively misses the point. The Charles-Sebastian-Julia relationships become a love triangle, and the openly gay Sebastian is driven to drink because Charles chooses Julia over him. Appalling stuff.

  10. sheila says:

    Barry – Thank you for the warning about the 2008 miniseries. It sounds dreadful. So LITERAL. It’s the worst thing: to treat Waugh literally. You miss the entire point then. It becomes EM Forster, but less effective. But that’s not Waugh at all: he’s not a lesser EM Forster. He is a different kind of writer altogether, but so often films seem to miss that about him.

    I feel quite bad for Julia – even more so than Sebastian. Sebastian, even with his drunken sprees, is at least living the life he appears to want to live (at the end of the book I mean): in a religious frenzy half the time and dead-drunk the other half. Clinging to the church and never seeing his family. His life, as crazy as it is, certainly makes some sense. But Julia’s life makes NO sense, and she knows it.

  11. Ngom says:

    For sure Waugh is the most satirist writer in world literature that i get the chance to read most of his works. The one which pleased me well is A Handful of Dust.

  12. steve says:

    thanks for writing this.
    sometimes, rarely, you come on a piece of writings the themes of which have such deep resonance that the feelings they awaken are so deep as to almost defy expression. you just know that they touch and move you to some almost primal degree.
    this was a lovely essay on a grand book.

  13. Wren Collins says:

    Sheila- so glad to find this post- I just started reading Brideshead this morning. Loving it.

  14. Lee Lorenz says:

    thank you excellent review. I’m writing something and having gone to an English boarding school and university related to Brideshead immediately.
    Did you watch the Jeremy Irons film/series — made 30 years ago? It’s an excellent adaptation. Stay away from the film that was made 5 years ago.

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