Life Between the Wars

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, possibly Evelyn Waugh’s most celebrated novel, is a vivid portrait of upper class English life between the World Wars.  However, Waugh’s ambition with the novel does not stop there; the English writer manages to discuss the implications of homosexuality, the decline of the English aristocracy and the role of faith in one’s life all in this well-written novel.

Though never overt, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED contains more than a few homosexual male characters and relationships.  The histories of these characters are parsed out in the novel’s first part, during narrator Charles Ryder’s college years at Oxford.  Charles is supremely attracted to socialite Sebastian Flyte, the black sheep of his affluent family.  Sebastian is boldly flamboyant and radiates with charm, attracting nearly everyone he encounters.  However, there is a deep disconnect between him and his family.  As Sebastian points out, and Charles continually recounts, Brideshead, Sebastian’s home, is merely “the place my family lives.”  While the schism between Sebastian and his family is never plainly discussed, one can infer that Sebastian’s ambiguous sexuality may be the root of the son’s disconnect.

A second theme Waugh presents is the decline of the English aristocracy post-Word War I.  Much of English literature’s modernist era is predicated upon this phenomenon, and BRIDESHEAD REVISTED handles it superbly.  Implicit in the novel is the fact that the brutality of World War I decimated much of England and blindsided the upper class cavalry who defended it.  The character of Alex Marchmain, Sebastian and Julia, Charles’s eventual love interest, embodies this theme articulately.  After participating in World War I Alex is clearly a changed man.  Instead of returning home to Brideshead and his life he decides to leave his wife, children and responsibilities behind to live with girlfriend Cara in Italy.  Alex never fully heals from his experience in the Great War and the novel concludes as he fearfully approaches his death.

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, for categorical purposes, is considered one of Waugh’s “Catholic novels”.  Written after his conversion, Waugh discusses the implications of life as a Roman Catholic during this time, particularly in the characters of Lady Marchmain and Julia.  Lady Marchmain is a lifelong Catholic, steadfast in her beliefs and an unfailing figurehead for her religion.  When her husband opts not to return to her after the war Lady Marchmain bears her husband’s betrayal with grave resilience.  Instead of divorcing, Lady Marchmain chooses to suffer the betrayal and is viewed and treated as a cold, distant martyr because of it.

Julia, however, is a non-practicing and flighty Catholic, rarely attending the weekly Mass given at her grand residence. However, despite her lack of participation in the religion, Catholicism acts as a constant impetus in her life.  During her debutante days Julia is plagued by the fact that despite being beautiful, intelligent and worldly, she will never marry into the upper echelons of English society, as these spots are reserved solely for Protestants.  As a result, she is deemed lucky to marry the buffoon Rex Mottram, an imbecilic political figure whose lustre wears off almost immediately after the wedding.  Later in life, upon her divorce from Mottram and simultaneous relationship with Charles, Catholicism prevents happiness in her life once again.  Julia and Charles, a perpetual agnostic, enter into an argument over whether Alex Marchmain should receive a priest at his deathbed.  Charles, naturally, is vehemently against it, as his own lack of belief coincides with Alex’s.  Julia, however, is moved to faith at this conundrum and welcomes the priest.  As a result, both Julia and Charles realize their affair cannot last and Julia is once again thwarted by her religion.

A final point of note in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED is the expert style in which it is written.  Waugh has a firm and creative grasp of the English language, enchanting his audience with his supberb and at times ironic vocabulary.  My dictionary was used certainly more than a few times while reading this novel.  In all, Evelyn Waugh’s acclaimed novel of life between the wars is a great read, illuminating and readable at the same time.

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