Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh


Evelyn Waugh was born in 1903. His choice of career was characteristically conservative: His father was a publisher and literary critic and his brother was a popular novelist. His first novel, Decline and Fall, was published in 1928 followed, with the regularity of a good Catholic, by Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932) and A Handful of Dust (1934). In 1938, he published Scoop his last novel before the outbreak of the Second World War in which he was commissioned first in the Royal Marines and later the Royal Horse Guards. In December 1943 he was injured during a parachute jump. He describes the injury as "good fortune" as it during was his convalescence that he wrote Brideshead Revisited, the novel that introduced him to "an unfamiliar world of fan-mail and press photographers".

Waugh wrote, "Happier men watch birds, I watch men. They are less attractive but more various". Certainly, Brideshead is evidence of this - many of the characters are based on real characters - but should it be studied in this way? Waugh also wrote "I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise of language, and with this I am obsessed". Whilst his masterful use of language creates wonderful satire, one criticism of Brideshead is of the over-eloquent, self-indulgent language in which it is written. In the preface to the 1959 edition, Waugh himself admits, "the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of recent past and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a fuller stomach I find distasteful". Is Waugh, therefore, as failed in his obsession as Charles in his quest for love? I think not. These faults are adequately accounted for when we consider the time when it was written. Charles talks of Brideshead as "a world of its own of peace and love and beauty; a soldier's dream in a foreign bivouac" (306) and it is with this in mind that we must read the book.

It is useful to study Brideshead in conjunction with his other novels. From the pure comedy of his first novel to the dark irony of his second, third and fourth, we see a man growing up in the 'wasteland' of Europe between the wars. Waugh specifies that it is not this period - the twenties and thirties - that he seems to be writing about in Brideshead. Along with The Sword of Honour, Brideshead is of an entirely different genre. Their comedy is satire. Waugh wrote that satire flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogenous moral standards. This does not describe the 1920's, the dawning of 'the age of Hooper'. Waugh's perspective, the perspective from which the satire is drawn, is that of a soldier's dreams and memories of stable times - the period of Edwardian certainty - as he wrote in the middle of the Second World War. Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust despair of the modern world but propose no alternative. In both Brideshead and A Sword of Honour, the modern world is equally scorned but the main characters in both, Charles Ryder and Guy Crouchback learn to live in it. In the prologue to Brideshead, Charles says, "love had died between me and the army". At the end, he describes himself to Hooper as 'homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless'. Nevertheless, the book ends, "'You're looking unusually cheerful today,' said the second-in-command".