About ten years ago a good friend, a Baylor honors professor, spoke of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) as “the most nearly perfect novel ever written.” Intriguing. I was compelled, of course, to read it.
My initial response? “Huh.” I was not so much disappointed as mystified. In what, precisely, lay the perfection? And what was it really about? I concluded my education had not properly prepared me to appreciate it.
Many people, I have since learned, respond similarly to a first reading of Brideshead. When another friend told me, three or four years ago, that she was reading it alongside a Close Reads discussion podcast, I decided to give it another go. This time, whether thanks to the Close Reads commentary or my own heightened awareness of where the book was heading, I got it.
Brideshead has been called a novel of perspective, representing multiple vantage points. The primary point of view is that of an architectural painter, Charles Ryder. Waugh’s narrative effectively reflects the artist’s eye, not only through the use of descriptive details but through imagery and juxtaposition of ideas and characters.
Aside from the prologue and epilogue, the book takes place between the wars. While studying art at Oxford, Charles meets the eccentric Sebastien and is drawn into the circle of his Catholic family. Their estate, Brideshead, and Charles’s friendships with its various members serve initially as his artistic inspiration. Eventually they serve as a pathway to faith. In a key passage, Charles reflects on his love for the trinity that comprises his lover Julia, her brother Sebastien, and Brideshead itself: “Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols … and this shadow which falls between us springs from disappointment in our search.”
Charles persists in his pagan leanings throughout most of the book. Eventually Julia, Sebastien, and the estate fade from Charles’s life. With his marriage in ruins and his children estranged, Charles ends up in the ranks of WWII officers. But amidst scenes of destruction and decay, the closing pages suggest a flame of faith has been ignited that will withstand the demons of war and the barrenness of modernity.
My recent review of Natashia Deon’s Grace quoted filmmaker Kira Kurasawa’s assertion that “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Waugh does not subject us to the same sort of brutal honesty as Deon’s slave narrative. But his artist’s brush paints every character with unglossed realism. The painter Charles is repulsed by all that is superficial, grasping, and inauthentic. Eventually he comes to recognize that even he is not immune from these evils.
Many elements of Brideshead are regarded as autobiographical. Waugh (1903–1966) converted to Catholicism in 1930. A recognized conservative, Waugh depicts a society cut adrift–from tradition, yes, but, more essentially, from God. Brideshead is a complex artistic work, difficult to distill into words and rewarding of repeated readings.
Incidentally, if Brideshead Revisited is the most nearly perfect novel ever written, the 1981 TV mini-series may be the most nearly precise adaptation of literature ever made. I watched it with book in hand and was able to follow many passages nearly word for word.