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Monday, 19 May 2014

Retro Review: "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.”

Charles Ryder's life changes for good when he meets Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University. From nights of hedonistic pleasure on the streets of Oxford to a summer spent at the Marchmains' enviable estate, Brideshead, Charles is soon immersed in the privileged life of Sebastian and his family. Yet their lives hold their own struggles and pressures, in particular the firmly held Catholic beliefs that Lady Marchmain posits so wilfully. With Sebastian's steady fall from grace, it seems Charles has said goodbye to Brideshead for good until he meets Julia again in the years leading up to the Second World War. Older and wiser, they begin to sketch out a life together, but the old pressures soon return.

It may seem somewhat odd that a book about the fading English aristocracy should impact readers so deeply, but this novel is truly special for a number of different reasons. Firstly, it's beautifully written, hence this quote-heavy post. If anyone has watched the 1981 television adaptation (you should), you will have an understanding of this, as sections are taken verbatim from Waugh's novel.

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

The book is also so poignant as it is deeply romantic. Charles describes the experience of first love, with all the naivety of youth. He is mesmerised by the beautiful troubled Sebastian, swept up in a carefree world of champagne and summertime. I can certainly remember feeling this way in my first year of University, all the potential pleasures of life at my fingertips.

“I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”

Most importantly though, is the overwhelming nostalgia of the novel. One of the things that simultaneously gives life value and pain is the inevitable passing of time and happiness. It is impossible to hold on those moments we treasure the most and so it is for Charles. As he grows older, he only feels this more acutely.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's one that will make your heart ache a little more as all truly beautiful things are wont to do.

“I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.” 

Buy the book: Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder

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