Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited is impossible to pigeonhole into any category. Set in the years between World War I and World War II, there is an echo of the “Lost Generation” but it is one generation removed and fails to dominate the text.
Though its prologue and epilogue are during World War II, they take place a few years after the latest events of the novel’s body and have little bearing on the rest of the story except to set up the premise and to confirm the timeline. Similarly, questions of religious belief and what it means to be Catholic in particular are forced from background action to the front between Part One and Part Two. To top it all off and make the situation more ambiguous, Brideshead Revisited reads more like a rambling memoir than a plot-driven novel. While this approach makes perfect sense during the process of reading, upon reflection it leaves the reader with more conflict than resolution (though in a very realistic form).
Charles Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte while at Oxford and becomes fascinated with him and soon after Sebastian’s whole family by extension. When Sebastian’s parents married, his father, Lord Marchmain, converted to Catholicism for the sake of his wife, but by the time Ryder meets them Lord Marchmain has left his wife and her faith and thrown the family into an unending religious turmoil. Charles, having grown up with little religion, finds the Flytes’ troubles confusing and intriguing.
Having been raised Catholic, much of Brideshead Revisited was just an eloquent rehashing of ten years of CCD classes with the “twist” of an outsider’s perspective. For those unfamiliar with the workings and beliefs of the Catholic Church, Brideshead Revisited could be an intriguing examination of how a Catholic’s faith can be testing. It might just be me, but it felt like that religious discussion dominated the novel and overshadowed the other aspects that I found interesting.
Waugh’s allusions to the approaching World War II are haunting in their subtlety and balance well with the reverberating hints of World War I. The two great wars bookend the action of the novel but don’t quite touch it directly. The effects of the just past and oncoming wars permeate without becoming the focus, most notably through Waugh’s use of Julia Flyte’s significant other, Rex, and his political aspirations. More could have been included in those sections but it might have tipped the balance from subtle to blatant.
Ultimately, Brideshead Revisited feels like a personal memoir. There are those stories that seem to entertain the teller more than the listener and those where the teller stops just as the listener gets hooked. I was surprised at how little emotion Ryder projects on the telling. In the epilogue especially, given the circumstances of Part Two, the apparent disconnect between Ryder and his past is startling. Perhaps this is a result of time and the war. Perhaps it’s meant to be an example of the British stiff upper-lip. It could also be construed as a façade that Ryder has carefully constructed. But the novel is non-committal and leaves the decision up to the reader.