“But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.”
Brideshead Revisited is the story of young Oxford student Charles Ryder and his growing infatuation with the Flyte family, residents of the impressive Brideshead estate. Charles first comes into contact with the Flyte’s through the charismatic second son Sebastian who defines his University years and arguably the rest of his life.
The quote above embodies for me what the story is about. Admittedly it’s taken slightly out of context and, perhaps, it doesn’t completely encompass how I feel about the book because it’s not just the ‘young people’ who have these hidden, vacant depths but also the older generations, and rather than an ‘intelligent, knowledgeable surface’ it’s the awareness of a façade, a front that must be maintained. These privileged characters walk and talk but often, if you chip away at them, lack real substance. There’s something missing.
I sense it in Charles, the novel’s narrator and lead character. He toys with the future, indulges himself in the notion of potential careers with little guidance from a father who is happiest when his son is absent. University isn’t something he takes seriously. Great care is taken to detail his possessions, his rooms, his acquaintances, but there is a sense that he is simply passing the time. Sebastian’s company exacerbates this listlessness. He indulges in his friend’s decadent lifestyle, drawn in by his charismatic charm. Who wouldn’t be? Sebastian is eccentric, living his life by impossible rules and constantly concerned for the well-being of his teddy bear Aloysius. He’s an alluring character but this seems deliberate. Charm masks the problems he doesn’t want to face.
When Charles’ education changes course and he studies to become a painter the interest is their but the passion is not. The only instance he is compelled to pick up a brush, to drag paint across the canvas is when commissioned to create a series of paintings of the Flyte’s soon-to-be demolished townhouse. Even when he achieves success he does not revel in it. As an adult he shirks the responsibility of being a father and husband and continues his search for that unattainable something. Coming to the end of the book, I don’t think he ever does truly find it.
Other character’s also share this sense of being not quite complete, not a whole human. Lady Brideshead is pious and coaxing, Birdey is serious and humourless, Rex is good-natured and ambitious, Anthony Blanche is scandalous and unconventional. It’s as if they are each afraid of finding they have no substance and so have become caricatures of themselves over time. I think this concern, this desire to appear whole, stops them from truly connecting.
I would love to have followed Sebastian’s downward spiral, to know what was in his mind as he drank, as he fled from country to country, to know what he was running from. The Charles and Sebastian dynamic hooked me from the start, and my only regret is that they did not have more adventures. I think Charles’ attachment to Sebastian overshadows his later love for Julia- perhaps because the lover creeps up on both parties subtly, perhaps because of how strongly she resembles Sebastian, or perhaps because they live in a time where emotions aren’t expressed they are contained.
A look at the fall of nobility, the dysfunctional family, religion, alcoholism, love and youthful friendship. I understand why Brideshead Revisited is considered Waugh’s best work.