Brideshead Revisited

From Academic Kids

Brideshead Revisited is a novel by Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1945. It has become well-known to modern audiences as a result of the ITV drama serialisation of 1981, produced by Granada Television. In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, the adaptation was placed 10th.

After a distasteful chance first encounter, protagonist Charles Ryder, a student at Oxford, and Lord Sebastian Flyte, fellow student and the younger son of an aristocratic family, become fast friends. Lord Sebastian takes him to the palatial home of his family, Brideshead Castle, where Charles eventually meets the rest of the Flyte family, including Sebastian's sister, Lady Julia Flyte.

Lord Sebastian's family are Catholic, though scandalously, his father, the Marquess of Marchmain, has left his wife and gone to live in Venice with his mistress Cara. Religious considerations arise frequently among the family, and prove to govern the details of their lives as well as the content of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles, who had always assumed Christianity to be without substance or merit. Sebastian, in some ways a troubled young man, learns to find greater solace in alcohol than in religion, and descends into that vice, drifting away from the family over a two-year period, which occasions Charles' own estrangement from the Flytes. Yet Charles is fated to re-encounter the Flyte family over the years, and eventually forms a relationship with Julia, who by that time is married but separated. Charles plans to divorce his own wife so he and Julia can marry, until Julia, motivated by her father's deathbed return to the Catholic faith, decides that she can no longer live in sin, and indeed can no longer contemplate marriage to Charles. Lord Marchmain's reception of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick also influences Charles, who was "in search of love in those days" when he first met Sebastian, "that low door in the wall...which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden," a metaphor that informs the work on a number of levels.¹ Waugh desired that the book should be about the "operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters."

During the Second World War, Ryder, now an army officer and an architectural artist, is billeted at Brideshead, once a home to many of his affections. It occurs to him that builders' efforts are not in vain, even when their purposes may appear, for a time, to be frustrated.

The book was adapted for television by John Mortimer, starring Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, Anthony Andrews as Lord Sebastian Flyte, Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain, Claire Bloom as Lady Marchmain, Diana Quick as Lady Julia Flyte; also starring Phoebe Nicholls as Lady Cordelia Flyte, John Gielgud as Edward Ryder, Simon Jones as Lord Brideshead, Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche, and Charles Keating as Rex Mottram. The Oxford scenes were filmed in Oxford colleges like Christ Church. The location for Brideshead was Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Scenes on the deck of a Transatlantic liner were filmed aboard the QE2. In 1974 Irons and Andrews had appeared, with Nicholls' sister Kate, as college friends in the last few episodes of the BBC's serialisation of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels.

Gay themes?

One continuing controversy which has struck both readers of the novel and viewers of the miniseries was the question of whether Lord Sebastian's and Charles's relationship was a physical one as well as an emotional one. The vast majority of analyses of the book, scholarly or not, make no mention of this question or only address it in passing. Even an uncritical reading of the book, however (which the television version captures exceptionally well), strikingly details the extreme intimacy of their relationship and it is clear that Charles is, in one way or another, overcome with Sebastian.

Missing image
Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons as Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder, in Brideshead Revisited [1] (

One theory is that the puritanical nature of the era prevented Waugh from explicitly stating in detail that the two are lovers, leading him to describe their relationship in the vague terms of "everything-but" and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions. This idea is not as farfetched as might be thought from today's perspective — this was the same period, for example, in which Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, Labour member and son of the not-long deceased Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, was excluded from the postwar government by Clement Attlee because of his homosexuality. It is likely that Waugh would have been unable to find a publisher for the novel were he to make such insinuations explicit.

Other factors seem to dispute this, however — for example, some later editions of the book (written between 1940 and 1943) published postwar excise passages making mention of eugenics or degeneracy as taboo in the wake of Hitler's Final Solution. Also, the book is, by Waugh's own admission, one trumpeting the redemptive nature of God's grace, especially as understood by the Catholic Church, which has for nearly two thousand years held a very negative view of homosexuality, and to which Waugh was a convert. This does not easily lend to the idea that he would find core portions of Catholic belief, namely teachings against "deviance", simply ignorable. It is perhaps plausible, though, especially given the generally-favorable treatment Lord Marchmain, an adulterer, receives throughout the novel — an offense that, while theologically less taboo, is more serious. Incidentally, Lord Marchmain's character was based upon the Earl Beauchamp, who was outed as a homosexual to George VI by his cousin, the Duke of Westminster.

It is also possible that Lord Sebastian and Charles had a passionate-yet-platonic heterosexual friendship. Waugh himself is said to have had three of these relationships - though some biographers contend they were sexual based on photographs and writings of the time - during his time at Oxford before his conversion to Catholicism, and Waugh himself was not openly bisexual however neither is the book known to be autobiographical, and one of the first events in the flashback is the arrival of large numbers of women to attend a ball, to which both Lord Sebastian and Charles react with something like horror.

Whatever the truth, it seems that the issue itself is outside the main scope of the book, that of the religious rebirth of a sinful family, especially after Lord Sebastian essentially leaves the story some way through and Charles has an affair with Lady Julia Flyte, Sebastian's sister. One theory that seems to find some degree of concurrence is that Sebastian is driven to drink at least in part by uncertainty regarding his sexuality and possibly (though this view is far less widely-agreed) out of despair at Charles' increasing attachment to his family, which indeed he specifically foreshadows early in the book. Charles' own feelings are less clear, although it seems obvious that there is at least some measure of romantic attraction to Lord Sebastian. Waugh himself said:

Charles's romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years.

External links

1 (p. 31, 1946 edition, Little, Brown and Company, Boston; for modern edition see ISBN 0316926345).

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