Book Club: Brideshead Revisited

Last month I discussed my book club, which meets once a month to discuss a book nominated by a member. The books nominated have been very broad in style and scope, but have tended to be biased towards non-fiction and history, however, of late there has been a tendency towards nostalgia and old novels have been nominated. One of these was the classic Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which was the subject of a very good BBC series starring Jeremy Irons. It is sometimes a mistake to forget about some of the great writers of the past, because even though there are many great new authors now there was something special about authors in the past who didn’t have to compete with electronic media and instant gratification.

Waugh is one of the most interesting writers and his many books, short stories, and travel books are still admired today. He was born in England in 1903 and died in 1966. Brideshead was written during a 3-month rehabilitation period after injuries incurred during service in the Second World War. It is considered to be his most “Catholic” of novels, and he is one of the most famous of converts to the Catholic faith, which wasn’t a popular thing to do in those days. The novel deals extensively with issues related to the constraints on behaviour by the Catholic Church. It also deals with alcoholism, homosexuality, adultery, and class structure.
In many ways the novel can leave one deflated with its ending but that may have more to do with our more modern way of wanting closure. In essence the book is a delight to read, because Waugh’s prose is almost lyrical. I found myself constantly stopping and taking a mental note of how beautifully and economically he had expressed a particular passage. I’m not sure that I have read many recent authors who can say their thoughts so beautifully. He makes us wish we could express our thoughts so well, and I certainly hope he had to work very hard to make it happen, because if he did it easily it would be very unfair on us mere mortals.
The structure of the novel left some of us puzzled, but then the title of the book gives it away. The narrator of the book comes back to Brideshead after many years away and relives the traumatic (particularly for him) stories he experienced there. Some believe that he converted to Catholicism, as did Lord Marchmain the owner of Brideshead on his deathbed. This caused considerable discussion in our group, as it has done for many others over the years, because there is some doubt about the efficacy of living a life rejecting Catholicism and converting at the last minute, a celestial each-way bet. The characters are brilliantly drawn and the reader gets sucked into their lives. They are believable, credible, and very human. One might not agree with them or even feel sympathy for some of them, but one never doubts they are real. I finished the book believing that Waugh had based his characters on real people in his life. From what I have read since, this is partly true because he admits that many of his players are amalgams of his wider acquaintances.
I would recommend to anyone looking for an engrossing read with beautifully expressed prose to give Brideshead Revisited a read.

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