Evelyn Waugh & 'Brideshead Revisited'

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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Comments (13)

  1. Deborah Rhodes

    Hi Susannah and fellow readers,
    Although I’m a little behind, having not completed reading the novel yet, I enjoyed reading the excellent companion notes and plan on tackling the questions in due course.
    In the interim, I wondered what others thought of the comment made by Edward Ryder to his son Charles when he finally returned from spending time with the injured Sebastian. To recap: Edward says how worried about Sebastian’s welfare after hearing of the grave nature of his condition. On reflection, it seems a very loaded comment: he hadn’t heard any news from Charles otherwise, and I wonder whether this was a rebuke to Charles for being terrible at communication; or was it an indication to Charles that his father was capable of deep feelings even to someone he had never met; or was it to indicate indirect concern for Charles because he might have lost a dear friend; or was it a reference to the mass loss of young lives from WWI? Or worse, was it vindictive – making a show of having concern for a stranger whilst being cool with his own son.
    Happy to hear your thoughts

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it is an intriguing comment. Edward Ryder is always ironic and sometimes vindictive, so I fear that your latter speculation is correct. He wants to put on a show of being neglected by his son, blame him for no communication (although he rarely communicates himself) and I think he has known all along that there was really nothing much wrong with Sebastian.
      There is no need to send me answers to the discussion questions – they are there for groups or just to get readers thinking. But I am delighted you are enjoying the book and finding my guide helpful.

  2. Vivienne Howe

    Hi Susannah
    I really enjoyed reading Bridehead Revisited. I thought it was very well written and about a quarter the way through I couldn’t put it down..
    I had watched the mini series but couldn’t remember a lot about it. I enjoyed the movie with Matthew Goode and Ben Wishaw who played Sebastian (He was recently in A Very English Scandal which was brilliant)
    Of course I loved the book more than the mini series or the movie.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you enjoyed the book and my notes on it. Do watch the superb ITV series – really one of the best things ever to be on TV. I must watch A Very English Scandal – everyone says it is fabulous.

  3. Patricia Quinn

    Hi Susannah,
    Thank you for inspiring me to read Brideshead Revisited. Once I started reading, I realised that I had tackled it once before and was left feeling “What was the point?” This time I read it with the intention of finding new depths, and then reading your notes to compare my findings with yours.
    I consider that feeling of futility was exactly what Mr Waugh would have been feeling while recovering from his injury and watching the War taking place from a slightly objective perspective. He can see the old world of British aristocracy crumbling and the new era of the modern, less segregated, world taking over as the outcome of the huge upheaval of world war.
    I noticed a lot of symbolism.
    Cordelia is just a few years younger than her sister, and yet there is a marked difference in outlooks. I see here a reflection of how values had changed in a short time.
    The foil of the vibrant character Rex Mottram, against the very traditional Lord Brideshead, speaks to me of the new world of equality, greed for commercial gain, and greater personal freedom, versus the sober, weighty ancestral values of privilege and responsibility for those under their protection.
    The figures of authority, such as the Captain on the ship, represent someone Mr Waugh can blame for the way things are. As he serves his country in the war, he sees so many things to question. Who is really in control in this world? Are the people we trust really any better at being in charge than we ourselves are? Frustration on all sides comes through as his cry from the heart.
    And Sebastian? Well, out of the lot of them I think he is the only one who has found his inner peace. Even though he numbs himself with alcohol, he seems to be honest with himself that he will never find what he wants from Life and he has accepted this. The other characters are still searching.
    So that is my first response to reading this work of Evelyn Waugh. I look forward to delving further into what the critics say and reading more of your comments in the additional links that you have generously supplied.
    P.S. I have not seen any of the movies or television versions. I will take your word for it about Jeremy Irons. : )

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am delighted that you gained so much from reading the novel and that my Reader’s Guide helped. Thanks for sharing your insights. Yes, Waught uses so many characters as foils and contrasts to others. I doubt that any of them are happy people. Perhaps Sebastian does gain a measure of peace at the end, but numbing oneself with alcohol hardly indicates happiness. I find it fascinating that Waugh felt he could only find some sort of contentment by joining the Catholic Church and yet could write a book which acts as a warning against Catholicism. He too numbed himself with alcohol! Do watch the amazing 1980s series – it is so fabulous! And I hope my other guides throughout the year get you thinking and analysing like this one did.

  4. Rachel Grant

    Hi Susannah. I’ve just finished reading Brideshead Revisited and I absolutely loved it. I watched the 1981 series as a child and don’t remember much of it – except for Sebastian vomiting through the window. I will definitely re-watch it. A great start to my reading year!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Rache, I didn’t realise you had never read the book or watched the film version since you were a child. You will adore it, and the scene of Sebastian vomiting through the window is still extremely memorable. I think Lara would love watching it with you too.

  5. I’m looking forward to reading Brideshead Revisited. I loved the tv series but can’t help smiling at a memory of my dad watching in silence then remarking, ‘that Jeremy Irons has got an easy part in this. All he has to do is chain smoke and look bored.’ I hope that memory won’t taint my reading of the novel!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I loved your Dad’s comment. But maybe it is hard work looking THAT gorgeous?

  6. Susannah
    Happy New Year! Pleasant reading in 2019.

    Brideshead has always been one of my favourite books. I first read it in 1970 during my first term at Oxford, following the advice of my supervisor, and it led me on to read more Waugh. It was interesting later to read an annotated Brideshead to learn more about the models for Anthony Blanche and Sebastian Flyte and the Marchmain clan.

    I re-read Brideshead, Scoop, Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall every few years. I have first editions of Brideshead and Scoop, but not the two others which are notoriously scarce, especially in dust jackets. I also recommend The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a harrowing account of Waugh’s temporary insanity later in his life.
    His letters are also a good read.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      The perfect book to read as a student at Oxford. I hope you were a better behaved student than Sebastian was. It is a glorious book and I am envious of your first editions of Waugh!
      Happy reading in 2019, and I also wish you good health and good travels.


    I also read the book after the series Brideshead another book I read after seeing the film (Robert Redford) was the The Great Gatsby which led me on to a love of FS Fitzgerald books and his life and also The Testament of Youth another series that took my love of reading in another direction, Kay

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