Brideshead Revisited, written in 1945, is one of Evelyn Waugh’s most famous as well as most consciously and overtly Catholic novels. It is the story of the Flyte/Marchmain family and their country estate Brideshead, as seen through the eyes of Charles Ryder, the impressionable university friend of Sebastian Flyte (and his adored teddy bear Aloysius).
Charles first meets Sebastian in rather unfortunate circumstances when, returning home drunk, he manages to vomit through the window of Charles’ ground floor rooms. They quickly become firm friends and devote most of their time spent at university to drinking champagne and generally larking about. Charles also becomes a friend of the family when he is invited to stay at Brideshead by Sebastian. They’re a bit of a weird bunch, raised as devoted Catholics by the fierce and ever moralising Lady Marchmain. While his older brother Bridey and his youngest sister Cordelia are unquestioningly dedicated to Catholicism, Sebastian’s constant struggles with his faith result in him becoming increasingly depressed and sinking into alcoholism. Sebastian’s other sister Julia initially appears less devout than some of her siblings and embarks on an affair with Charles in later life, only to abandon him in favour of her intensified Catholicism after the conversion of her father on his deathbed.
I’m not going to lie, I was a bit disappointed with Brideshead Revisited. It didn’t draw me in as novels usually do, and I think that’s because I found it all a bit too preachy and ‘goddish’. I felt it dwelt a bit too heavily on the religious side of things, when there were all kinds of other themes to do with parental relationships, hedonism and homoeroticism which could have been looked at in terms other than simply religion but were rather neglected or overshadowed by it. A lot of the characters repelled me, mainly because I really hate to be preached at, even if it’s by a fictional character. The character of Lady Marchmain was completely fascinating in her fanaticism, verging on cruelty towards her children, but was obviously completely unlikeable because of it. I did like Charles at first, but hardened towards him later in the novel when he appeared so uninterested in his children that he didn’t even seem aware of their names, and I found Julia to be consistently annoying throughout. I think Sebastian was the only character I really warmed to properly, he was completely charming and sweetly flamboyant, making his teddy bear Aloysius participate in all affairs and peeling quail eggs for him, I don’t think anyone could help but be enchanted by him. And his was the saddest story of all; in constant turmoil and despair about the faith he was raised in, he was casually written out of the novel to be left dying in a monastery in Tunisia with his friend Kurt, the only person he’s ever been able to look after. There’s something really endearing about the spoilt little rich boy taking comfort from looking after someone else for the first time, especially when that someone is as repulsive as Kurt, with his constantly septic foot, bad teeth, and pure selfishness.
The film meanwhile, as film versions generally do, added a fair pinch of artistic licence to the proceedings. In the film version Charles (portrayed by the lovely Matthew Goode) was after Julia from the offset. Now, there has been a lot of debate about whether Evelyn Waugh intended the relationship between Charles and Sebastian to be homoerotic or not. I think it was, and that it was based on the university experiences of Evelyn Waugh himself and others in the Oxford circle. But more than this, the book suggests that one of the reasons Charles falls in love with Julia is because she reminds him so much of Sebastian. It’s implied that the relationship with Sebastian is the forerunner for the relationship with Julia, but I don’t really buy that, or perhaps I’d just rather think that Charles’ affection for Sebastian was more meaningful because he’s so much more likeable as a character. Either way, Charles seems to spend most of his time in the film mooning over Julia, snogging her in alleyways and getting all hot and bothered about her engagement to Rex, when in the novel he didn’t even consider Julia in a romantic or sexual way until much later in life. Perhaps it’s due to the frustration of years spent apart that their affair is so fast paced in the film, but it seems like they’ve only just reunited before they decide to divorce their respective partners, move in and get married. The film certainly took a lot of liberties with this relationship, and I don’t even recall Sebastian and Julia being particularly close or pally in the book, whereas at times in the film they seem practically incestuous.
The film also seems to place a lot of emphasis on the idea of Charles desperately wanting to be a part of the Flyte family, or even being motivated by his desire for the house itself, but that’s not something I picked up particularly strongly from the book. He’s certainly fascinated by the family and enjoys interacting with them and viewing them at close quarters as it were, almost as if they were on display in a zoo, but I don’t think it’s a life he particularly wished for himself or would be comfortable committing to. After all, he could see for himself the amount of turmoil the family were living with. I was absolutely frustrated by the ending of the novel though, and I think this is one aspect of the film which I definitely preferred to the book. Charles eventually converts to Catholicism by the end of the book (which really made me want to tear my hair out, it was such a reversal of character and not necessarily a believable one), and he is left praying at the Brideshead chapel at the novel’s close, whereas the film version is far more ambiguous as to whether he has actually converted or not. It was bad enough seeing Lord Marchmain going against all of his principles and loudly proclaimed beliefs to convert on his deathbed, but for Charles to go the same way was far too frustrating for me and left me feeling quite dissatisfied. I much prefer the ambiguous ending of the film, where I can happily believe that, though he always took an interest in the theology of the Catholic church, that doesn’t mean he actually practised Catholicism or considered himself to be a Catholic.
I have to say the casting was excellent though, Matthew Goode was exactly how I imagined Charles Ryder (although a bit cornier in the film), and Emma Thompson was brilliant as stern Lady Marchmain. I know I always say that Ben Whishaw’s wonderful (and that’s because he generally always is), but I really did think he was perfectly suited to the role of Sebastian, he’s so endearingly camp and flamboyant and I don’t think anybody else could seem quite so at ease or believable spending every scene clutching a teddy bear. He was definitely a highlight of the film for me, and I did think it started to drag once he’d been confined to Tunisia and stopped appearing on screen so regularly. I think maybe if the Brideshead Revisited story had revolved around Sebastian (and Aloysius) more and Julia less later on, or maybe if the focus hadn’t been quite so beat-you-round-the-head-with-a-bible heavy then I might have warmed to it all a bit more, but as it stands it was just a bit too religion-heavy for me, and although I did find Waugh’s treatment of the subject pretty fascinating, I could have done with a break or two along the way.