In 1998 the Modern Library ranked Brideshead Revisited as 80th on its list of 100 best novels of the 20th C. In 2009 Newsweek ranked it as one of the 100 best novels in world literature.
Did you read Brideshead Revisited before the fabulous TV series of 1981, or afterwards with images of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews indelibly in your mind? It is considered one of the greatest TV series ever made, and of course, the book is just wonderful too.
Like so many viewers, I was seduced by the 1981 TV adaptation and went on from that to read the novel for the first time. In it, I discovered a rich evocation of a bygone age, a lavish tribute to the glories of Oxford and the beauties of Venice, and an intriguing portrait of an English country estate. I also found a fascinating range of characters as I followed Charles Ryder pursuing friendship and love. Like Charles, I was seduced by Brideshead’s beauty and inhabitants.
“Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”
– Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Like his fictional self-portrait Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh’s strongest tastes were negative ones – he hated plastics, jazz, Picasso, sunbathing, income tax and virtually everything modern. He was a snob, a pessimist and a perfectionist who often fell short of his own ideals. He struggled to resolve the two conflicting impulses within himself – the sophisticated man-of-the-world, versus the introspective artist.
As a writer Waugh firmly believed that novels should not aim to inform or instruct. In his view, they were there to provide entertainment. He also believed in being extremely careful as a writer – only when you knew how to handle language exactly and selectively could you begin to create comedy or even anarchy with your prose. He wanted his readers to laugh out loud, though Brideshead Revisited is one of the least comic of his works.
I must admit that, had I met Waugh, I don’t think I’d have liked him very much.
Learn more about Evelyn Waugh’s life and work, the actual house which was the model for Brideshead (no, not Castle Howard), the themes, styles and characters in the book, and perhaps enjoy sharing discussion questions with your book group – or even here with me. My Reader’s Guide has all this and more about this evocative and memorable novel. I always love to hear what you think so leave a comment below.
What did you think about Lord Marchmain’s last-minute acceptance of the Last Sacrament? What is the greatest tragedy of this book? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment.
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