BkFt: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

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Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945 and is described as Waugh’s great literary masterpiece who has himself referred to the novel in the past as his magnum opus.  Here is the blurb from GoodReads:Brideshead Revisited

“The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.”

According to Wikipedia, Waugh wrote that the novel “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” (Memo dated 18 February 1947 from Evelyn Waugh to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)This is achieved by an examination of the Roman Catholic, aristocratic Marchmain family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.  However, in 1950 Waugh wrote to Graham Greene saying that he’d reread the novel and was appalled.  In a 1959 preface to the novel the author explained the circumstances of the novel.  He wrote it following a parachute accident stating that: “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.”

Despite Waugh’s own later feelings there are many that don’t agree with his criticism as evidenced by these words from John K Hutchens review in the NY Times entitled Evelyn Waugh’s Finest Novel:

“Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues.”

Pretty mixed feelings but it seems everyone besides the author agrees it is an all time great novel.  I’ll end with the description of the novel by Lev Grossman (co-compiler of the All Time 100 list) which is sure to twist your arm:

“Though it’s saddled with a faded doily of a title, Brideshead Revisited is actually a wildly entertaining, swooningly funny-sad story about an impressionable young man, Charles Ryder, who goes to Oxford in the 1930′s and falls in love with a family: the wealthy, eccentric, aristocratic Flytes, owners of a grand old country house called Brideshead.”

All TIME 100 Novels – Brideshead Revisited

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3 thoughts on “BkFt: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

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  1. Opinion is actually quite a bit more mixed. Many literary critics, both at the time and since, find similar objections to the ones Waugh raised, that it’s overly indulgent. It’s filled with purple prose. What one has to remember is that Waugh was famous for being one of the greatest satirists of his time. He wrote quick, biting, dark comedies, and then this serious tome about dysfunctional families, suffering, God, grace, and forbidden loves comes plomping down. Grossman is right, it’s still funny, but it’s much less funny than anything else he ever wrote. What has really saved it was the 80s miniseries with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, which gave it a huge boost in popularity again.
    The majority of literary critics today think Waugh’s other novel that made the Time 100, A Handful Of Dust, is really the superior the novel, and the one that more firmly belongs in the Canon (also routinely argued is his earlier Vile Bodies, but that has a lot of problems that A Handful of doesn’t doesn’t).

    1. Thanks Rob, I’ll definitely be giving this one a miss personally. As you pointed out he has other novels that seem to have had greater success like A Handful of Dust which you mentioned and Scoop which I’ve noticed on other reading lists. Thanks for the visit!

      1. Almost all of his satires are extremely dark (though still really quick, witty, and ultimately hilarious). Scoop is really the only example of a 100% lighthearted work. That doesn’t make it any less fine of a piece of a comedy, however. If you’re looking for an introduction that’s an extremely quick read, and doesn’t get dark, definitely give Scoop a go!

        Also, this project, giving an easy to access background for all of the Time 100 novels, is just wonderful. I know a lot of millennials looking to be well read look to that specific list for help getting started, but I also know that for a lot of them they have no idea where to get started on that list itself. This is great.

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