Why do I write this blog? Thinking about it there are four principal reasons, with one bonus justification.
1. To keep a record of what I read. Simple as that – just to look back and see what I have read over 12-24 months is interesting, as my appetite for classic fiction wanes and is replaced by recent history, for example.
2. To keep a note of what happens in the novels I read. I appreciate that probably sounds a bit daft at first, but if you think about it, how many times have you picked up a book and wondered whether you had read it or not? Writing down what happens helps fixed the main events of a story in my memory. Of course, re-reading books and rediscovering them can be great fun, but I find it frustrating not being able to remember what happens in a book even though I know I have read it.
3. To make me a careful reader. This follows on very much from the above – if I know I am going to have to write something about a novel, I will read it more carefully than otherwise. I will even make marginal notes and highlight sections if I am being really conscientious. When I do this of course it means I am more likely to remember the detail of the book, but writing it down reinforces this.
4. To have something interesting and original to say about the novel/book.
(The bonus reason is that I occasionally use this blog to write about something other than my reading. It’s harmless, and gives me somewhere to work out my thoughts, or maybe just show off a bit, even if just to myself.)
So when I finished Evelyn Waugh’s 1946 novel “Brideshead Revisited” and found I didn’t really have anything new or insightful to say about the novel, I was disappointed. Looking back on the list above however, I realised there are nevertheless plenty of reasons to blog about the novel, even if it won’t be as amusing or clever as I would have hoped – it still ticks three of the four boxes.
“Brideshead Revisited” is narrated by Charles Ryder, an upper middle class officer who is billeted in the grounds of an English country house at an indeterminate point in the second world war. He is startled to realise he knows the house well, having visited as a guest many times. The body of the novel is a series of reminiscences starting with Charles’s time at Oxford in the early 20’s, when he meets Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the Brideshead family. The fact he is a younger son, and therefore unlikely to inherit the family title or house, is significant – he dedicates himself to a life of excess, ending as an alcoholic wreck. The surname Flyte is also telling – Sebastian is quintessentially flighty, a decadent aesthete interested in only what pleases him. The bond between Ryder and Flyte is strong and instantaneous, and their lives run in parallel until Sebastian’s alcoholism finally pulls them apart.
The sexual nature of their friendship is fairly explicit – bearing in mind that gay relationships were illegal in the UK before 1968, and only decriminalised in very specific circumstances thereafter. They have an openly gay friend – Antoine Blanche – who is accepted by them without judgment or any hint of censure. Waugh is as clear as possible on this point, dropping multiple hints. To give one example, Charles’s cousin, Jasper, visits him early on during his time at Oxford, and warns him “Beware of the Anglo-Catholics – they’re all sodomites” (28). The Flyte’s are one of England’s leading aristocratic Catholic families.
They grow apart, and Charles becomes an artist. He eventually marries, although his relationship with his wife is distant, and he has no interest in his children. He goes on an expedition into the South American jungle, and is away for two years – when he meets his wife after this absence their lack of affectionate is palpable. On the stormy Atlantic crossing home he begins an affair with Sebastian’s sister, Julia, but she ultimately rejects him in favour of her Catholic faith. In a book-ending chapter back at Brideshead, Ryder reveals he too has embraced Catholicism.
This is a complex novel with many themes. The loss of Edwardian England, preserved in part in Brideshead and Oxford, but torn apart by the devastation of the Great War. Waugh’s 1959 introduction to the novel talks about it being about the imminent loss of the great English country house, but that seems a minor theme to a 21st century reader. Catholicism, the Second World War, love, homosexuality – it makes it seem a worthy novel, and eventually it is, but the early scenes in Oxford in particular are extraordinarily evocative:
“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.”