In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, Pozzo remarks, “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.” Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh represents one of those lights gleaming in the darkness between the grave of the First World War and the impending night of the Second. The novel, published in 1945, is the reminiscence of Captain Charles Ryder. The story opens with Captain Ryder’s Army Company transferring to Castle Marchmain, an estate all too familiar to him. Since he looks back on the past, a heady mix of nostalgia and satire infuse the novel’s atmospheric exploration of love, lust, religion, and sin.
The novel traces Ryder’s days at Oxford, where he meets the eccentric Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear Aloysius. The two become fast friends and more than friends. Waugh’s Augustan prose circumscribes this special relationship. “Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.” The “grave sin” harkens back to intense male-male relationships of the Renaissance and the male-male relationships prevalent in everything from yaoi literature to Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu series.
Ryder, an agnostic, eventually meets Sebastian’s family, much to Sebastian’s displeasure. The eccentric family, an ancient clan of Catholic aristocrats, fascinates Ryder. He meets Sebastian’s old brother, Brideshead, sisters Julia and Cordelia, and Lady Marchmain. Traveling to Venice, he meets Lord Marchmain and his mistress. Since Lady Marchmain is a devout Catholic, divorce is out of the question.
While the First World War fades from memory, being the conflict the older generation participated in, the rumblings of the upcoming conflict bubble up amidst cocktail parties and the other activities of Society.
The realistic changes in the characters over time remain the supreme marvel of Brideshead Revisited. Unlike Waugh’s earlier comedic works, the characters stand out as three-dimensional beings. Waugh populates his first novel, the uproarious Decline and Fall with wonderful characters. His tone becomes heavier and more serious with such works as A Handful of Dust.
Distilled to a summary, the novel should not work. The schmaltzy premise becomes literary genius with Waugh crafting sentences ornate and luminous, intricate and organic, like the Baroque and Art Nouveau artifacts that populate the Castle Marchmain. While some passages reek of high camp, the rare occurrences do not subtract anything from this masterpiece of the English language.