Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh I joked to a friend I knew I was back in literary-land again at the reappearance of all the semi-colons. In fact, there doesn't seem much difference in style, and not much in voice, between this 1944 novel by Waugh and Bronte's 1853 novel Villette which I read recently. Both have elegant, rather plush prose styles with a leisurely pace and fondness for extended metaphor, both are very, very English, told through first person narrators and both deal with Catholic themes. Villette harshly critiqued Roman Catholicism from an English Protestant point of view, its narrator Lucy Snowe seeing it as bearing a fruit of "ignorance, abasement, and bigotry." Evelyn Waugh's Charles Ryder is presumably of Protestant roots but calls himself an agnostic--and he falls more than a little in love with the entire Catholic Flyte family and their faith. They, of course, are differently situated than the Belgium Catholics in Villette as English Catholics in between the two world wars. Catholics in England had been persecuted for centuries and barred from public life from "Elizabeth’s reign till Victoria’s." A bit isolated, discriminated against, especially in aristocratic circles marrying within only a few families, their situation reminded me more of the Jewish experience in recent centuries than that of Christians in Christian dominated countries. Evelyn Waugh was a convert to Catholicism so naturally his view is more positive than Bronte's, or at least seemed less caricatured. He wrote in a letter to Nancy Mitford included in the back matter that Brideshead Revisited is "steeped in theology" and suggested to his publisher that if they didn't like the original title an alternative might be "A Household of Faith." The subtitle is "The Sacred and Profane Memoirs of Captain Charles Ryder." For all of that the Flytes' religion as depicted in the book seemed more the source of needless tragedy than strength for each of them, driving them to lives hopeless and loveless. It could be that given I'm tone deaf on spiritual subjects--I do try to understand what is so important in so many lives but I admit it's pretty lost on me--that this just isn't a theme that could resonate with me. That may be why the ending fell flat with me and felt so unsatisfying. Nor did I find it the moving experience that my friend who recommended it to me did. I don't know I can say I much identified or sympathized with any of the characters, who seemed the cause of their own destruction despite all their privileges and gifts. They lived in a very rarefied atmosphere indeed of tea and crumpets, fox-hunting, old piles with private chapels, footmen, valets, nannies and chauffeurs. Sebastian, who charms almost everyone, from almost all the characters in the book to many readers, left me rather cold. The narrator, an indifferent parent and husband, left me colder. He laments a dying world where "wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity." The kind of aristocratic wealth and power a tiny few were born to, but almost no one could or did earn, so again I think the nostalgia for that lost world was something for which I felt a decided lack. Yet note I rated this novel fairly highly. It did have the rather voyeuristic thrill of a Downton Abbey world, at times deliciously gossipy and eccentric, almost satiric (especially in the first part), and there is the almost Victorian gleam of Waugh's prose, wit, and rather biting social commentary. I did read it with pleasure and it sped past while I was transported to another world.