Book Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I’ve watched the BBC production of Brideshead a number of times but until recently I’d never read the book. Generally when I find myself in this position I end up with the feeling that the movie missed much of the story, which seems unavoidable given how short movies are.

The most interesting thing about reading Brideshead after seeing the movie is that I felt I’d already read it. The movie reproduced the plot exactly. Most or all of the narration and dialogue in the came right from the text. In fact, the first thing that struck me when I bought the book was how short it was. The book is about 300 pages and the miniseries is 11 episodes, which is one part of the explanation for how they are so alike. (There appears to have been a movie made of the novel in 2008, but I haven’t seen it.)

If you don’t know the story, it follows Charles Ryder from 1923, when he is a student at Oxford, to the Second World War, when he is in the Army, and his relationship with the Flyte family. The Flytes are a very rich, Catholic family, with a lot of problems. Charles first meets Sebastian Flyte at Oxford. The first part of the story is about their relationship, and about how Sebastian slowly slips away into alcoholism. That takes place over two or three years, during which Charles starts his career as a painter of English manor houses. About ten years elapse, during which Charles wanders relatively unhappily through life and marriage. He runs into Sebastian’s sister Julia on a ship from the US to England. Most of the rest of the book is about their affair and how it ultimately unravels over religion.

Waugh was a converted Catholic and I think that the story is primarily about the strength of the hold the church has on its followers. In that sense it’s supposed to be pro Catholic, but I have to admit it didn’t strike me as a great advertisement for Catholicism. The Flytes are about as screwed up a family as you could want to meet in fiction or in real life, and a lot of it seems to be driven by how wrapped around the axle they are about religion.In any event, in my opinion it’s a great story. Charles’s father is one of my favorite characters in fiction. When Charles tells him that he’s getting a divorce, his father asks him why when they so happy. Charles tells him they weren’t happy, and his father says, “Weren’t you? Were you not? I distinctly remember last Christmas seeing you together and thinking how happy you looked, and wondering why.” Charles’s father is played in the miniseries by John Gielgud, who captures the character exactly.

So read the book and see the miniseries. I highly recommend both.

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