The last time I read this book, about fifteen years ago, I was disappointed. It was the first Evelyn Waugh title that I had ever read and although the prose was stellar I felt that the story wandered, that the characters (most of them) were unappealing. It was a good book, I thought, but not perhaps the very great one that it’s often made out to be. Much to my surprise I find now on re-reading it that my earlier judgment was excellent. If anything, I liked Brideshead Revisited less this time around, though I’m sure I understood it better.
The language, for one thing, while above average, is also sometimes painfully sentimental and over-inflated, a fault admitted by Waugh himself in the preface he wrote for it years later in 1959. Then there are the characters. We do not (or should not) read novels merely to be introduced to sympathetic people but it gets to be an unpleasant burden spending time with the cast of Brideshead. Only the flaming homosexual Anthony Blanche seems to have any really redeeming qualities – but he gets no more than ten pages in the entire book. Lady Julia is a blank, a cipher. Bridey is a numbskull. Sebastian for all his appealing frivolity in the early chapters is a mental child and absent for more than half the novel. Charles Ryder, our narrator, is an even more intolerable ass today than he was when we were first acquainted fifteen years ago. The man has no heart. He is one of Elliot’s hollow men – but perhaps that’s the idea.
If you understand the circumstances of Brideshead’s composition (it was drafted in a rush as Waugh recovered from a wound during WWII) some of the novel’s failings – and obsessions, like food and leisure – begin to make sense. It was a dark time. After the war, once things had settled and Waugh had digested his experiences, he went back to work with much the same materials (war and faith and love) and managed to succeed. On the whole, I think that Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy is what Brideshead should have been.