The podcast version of this review can be found here.
“Read and re-read. Re-reading we always find a new book.” ~C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, “On Stories” (1947)
I have always been a big fan of re-reading. While most good books can support many readings, certain excellent books almost seem to require multiple readings before the reader can claim to really understand what the text is trying to say. Brideshead Revisited is one of those books.
I first read Brideshead Revisited just over a year ago. On my first reading, I was overcome with a sense of sadness. I thought that I understood the book, but I couldn’t understand why so many well respected critics and authors consider it extraordinary. On my first reading I thought that it was what would happen if you put The Great Gatsby, Downton Abbey, and just about anything from Flannery O’Connor into a blender and pulsed until well mixed. I despise The Great Gatsby. I love Downton Abbey. I respect and admire Flannery O’Connor greatly. But I was still baffled by why Evelyn Waugh was considered “so good.” The second reading changed all of that for me.
“The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness… It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time…in literature we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Til then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the “surprise” of discovering that what seemed Little-Red-Riding-Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia.” ~C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, “On Stories” (1947)
It is mid-October in Wisconsin as I write this. The weather has been gorgeous and we have had some stunning color in the leaves this fall. Recently, my family and I went on a hike. I found the hike to be enchanting and everything was a new discovery. A few days later my husband had some time off from work so we went back. This time we knew exactly where we wanted to walk and the second walk gave me the time to really notice things and study the detail.
On our first hike, we noticed that everyone was feeding the geese and the ducks, but we didn’t consider it all that special. On our second hike, however, we stopped to buy cracked corn and we spent more than an hour feeding the birds and getting lost in the magic of it. I saw the personality of certain geese that was lost on me the first time. I even found one delightful goose with a broken wing who had totally escaped my notice a few days before.
My second reading of Brideshead Revisited was just like this. Because I knew what would be there, and I had a sense of how I was going to walk through the paths, I was able to slow down, and I was able to notice the details. On the second reading I heard Charles’ voice differently. I caught the meaning of his asides. I saw Sebastian not as a teddy bear carrying freak, but as a frustrated soft soul who was terribly lost. I saw Julia not as an ice queen, but as Lady Mary from Downton Abbey in some striking ways. What had been a strange, interesting, but depressing post-modern tome had become a gorgeous exploration of vocation and faith.
“Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” – Carl Jung
This is the book about the Good Friday in our lives. Through Charles, Sebastian, Julia, and Lord Marchmain, we see what happens when we choose to remain locked into the attitude of Good Friday, and resist the mercy and graces that Easter pours out on us. In Brideshead Revisited, we get lost in the plot and forget that Easter will come rushing in whether “bidden or not bidden”. And as Easter redemption arrives in the hearts of each character, it presents itself as unsettling and wildly disruptive. One by one, each character finds his way, but never by the same path as another, and never without a war within himself.
“Lady Marchmain, no I am not on her side; but God is, who suffers fools gladly; and the book is about God.” – Eveyln Waugh to Nancy Mitford 1945
The first time I read this book, it was unsatisfying but good. The second time I read this book, I fell in love. I understand that this book still may be a bit of an acquired taste, but I am confident that it is a true book. Evelyn Waugh recoiled at comparisons between him and Flannery O’Connor, but I think they share a certain way of seeing the world. While the manners of Waugh’s characters are more sophisticated than those of O’Connor’s, they accomplish the same goal. When examined closely, both sets of characters reveal things to us about ourselves that we would prefer to ignore.
I think that to understand this book, we need to believe that like real life, characters in well told stories only show us a part of themselves. It is our job as readers to color in the rest.
“Yes I know what you mean, he is dim, but then he is telling the story and it is not his story… I think the crucial question is: does Julia’s love for him seem real or is he so dim that it falls flat; if the latter, the book fails plainly.” – Eveyln Waugh to Nancy Mitford 1945
On my first reading, no. I did not think that Julia’s love for Charles ever felt real or substantial. On my second reading, absolutely. And his for her. On the second reading, I could see how, from the very start, this was always about their love for each other. Maybe this is why this reminds me so acutely of Downton Abbey. There seems to me to be so much Matthew and Mary in this.
“Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy. Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and papa is excommunicated – and I wouldn’t know which of them is happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want…” -Sebastian to Charles, Book 1 – Chapter 4
Early in the text, Waugh has Lady Marchmain read aloud a story from Chesterton’s Father Brown. Much later in the story, Cordelia recalls that reading of Chesterton and this part specifically: “I caught him… with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” I think that in Brideshead we see that God, who suffers fools gladly, has a hook in all of us. In His way, He twitches the thread to draw us back to Him. Waugh beautifully recounts how God has twitched the thread in the lives of each of these characters and then explores the consequences of how their free will responds to that twitch.
This book is so much more substantial than I originally thought. It is hard to review without being specific about spoilers. But, as Waugh says, this is about God. A patient and invested God who loves us despite our free will and efforts to run away. In his essay on George MacDonald, Chesterton paraphrased MacDonald to say, “God is easy to please and hard to satisfy.” I think that Waugh, a lover of Chesterton, was hitting that note throughout this book.
I have this in several spines and well as audio. While I love my vintage spine best, this one has the best formatting. The audio is narrated by Jeremy Irons and is… incomparable. The BBC mini series starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews is classically BBC – a very fair retelling done beautifully. The newer movie is prettier, but moodier and less true to the story. In fact, I think that the movie misunderstands the book a bit. I hate saying that because I love the cast and Emma Thompson in particular.