Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How to Read Brideshead Revisited

If you've read this blog for any time at all, you've heard me rhapsodize about Brideshead Revisited. It's one of my all-time favorite novels. I think it's one of the most beautiful books ever written and ranks high on the list of great Catholic works.

However, I have a confession to make. The first time I read it, I didn't like it. Nope, not one bit.

You see, Brideshead Revisited is a difficult book in a lot of ways. For one thing, it's tragic. For another, it has a lot of questionable moral content that makes it unsuitable for a younger audience. Finally, its appeal for Catholics is very subtle, and you might miss it if you're not playing close attention. I missed most of it my first time around.

The thing is, Evelyn Waugh wasn't writing for the casual reader. Waugh was a master literary stylist whose eloquence with the English language was nearly unrivaled. Furthermore, he really "got" human nature and depicted his characters very realistically, in all the complexity of their sins and prejudices and sillinesses. As his greatest work, Brideshead Revisited needs time, patience, and close attention to be really understood.

On top of that, there is no traditional happy ending in Brideshead Revisited. There are no unequivocally "good" characters, and in fact there are very few likable ones. Everyone in the story is deeply flawed, or else a little flat. Everyone makes really awful mistakes and most of the characters suffer deeply. There is a lot of beauty, but there is also a good share of ugliness and a lot of sorrow.

If you prefer clear-cut "good"/"bad" characters and obviously happy endings - and I don't blame you if you do, I often do myself - you might have a hard time liking Brideshead Revisited.

If, however, you are up for reading what Father Robert Barron calls "the best Catholic novel of the twentieth century," here is my unofficial and non-academic guide on how to get the most you can out of it.

1. The first step is to set the scene for the chapters on Oxford, in the first half of the book. Read a little about Oxford's Mercury Fountain and the Bullingdon Club for context.

Those Wikipedia pages are shockingly lacking in the juicy details, by the way. The Mercury Fountain has a small statue of the god Mercury in the center of it (no surprise) which the occasional Oxford undergraduate tries to pull down when inebriated. It has been pulled down three times, and legend has it that each man who got it down went on to become Prime Minister of England.

Despite the threat of a heavy fine, Oxford students still regularly jump in Mercury when drunk and have a go at downing old Mercury. As the statue is now welded to its base, however, this feat is a lot more difficult than it was in years past, and I don't know anyone who has succeeded (although I do know someone who cut his foot on the pedestal while attempting to ensure his future career as Prime Minister. Shhh, don't tell!).

Also, the Bullingdon Club is the most ridiculously exclusive group in British undergraduate life, and probably in the world.

Among other things, they are notorious for destroying restaurants/hotels/clubs that they party in. They leave the place an absolute wreck and then pay the damages, which as Wikipedia accurately notes, makes it "prohibitively expensive" to join.

Of course, being in Bullingdon pretty much guarantees that you'll eventually become Mayor of London or Prime Minister of England. Members of the Bullingdon Club excel at getting into positions of power.

They also excel at sitting around the place looking pensive in fabulous waistcoats.

2. Having set the scene for the Oxford portion of the novel, my next recommendation is that you read the chapter on Brideshead Revisited in George Weigel's excellent book Letters to a Young Catholic (most of that chapter is available online).

Warning: the chapter contains plot spoilers. So you may prefer to wait until after you've read the book to read it. But it offers a great philosophical explanation of Brideshead, so I recommend reading it first as a framework for understanding the book properly.

3. My final recommendation is about the way you ought to approach the story. Ultimately, the main actor in Brideshead Revisited isn't actually any of the human characters; it's Divine Providence itself. The book is essentially an extended exploration of how God's grace works - slowly, subtly, and very strangely - on one dysfunctional British Catholic family. It's brilliant and beautiful, and completely imperceptible to non-Catholics, who will absurdly claim that the book is actually about the First World War or something similarly inconsequential to the plot.

As a side note, if you can, try to read it slowly and really savor the language. Waugh wrote so beautifully! It blows me away sometimes. Even some tiny passages, such as the description of a certain wine drunk at dinner in Paris, are evocative, powerful, eloquent, haunting. What Waugh did with the English language was no small feat. I can only dream of someday writing half as well as he did.

Finally, make sure you read the epilogue, and especially the final few paragraphs. They gently convey the point and theme of the entire book.

Anyway, a lot of people whose opinions I respect don't like Brideshead at all, and I can see that their criticisms are valid. It's difficult to relate to many of the characters. The book is sad, sometimes awfully so, and a lot of characters play fast and loose with morality. It's certainly not for everyone.

Perhaps, like me, you really won't like it the first time you read it. In that case, please wait a few months, or even years, and try it again. It worked for me. Perhaps it will work for you too.

And then, please come back and tell me what you think about it.

Special thanks to Brandon, whose question inspired this post.

Also, here is a lovely little reflection on Brideshead Revisited and Catholicism by my sister, Lillian.


  1. I too have heard this book thrown around before. However, I've also heard that it's best read by adults because of content. I'm 17 -- would you recommend waiting to read it, so I can more thoroughly enjoy it?

    --Liz B

  2. That's a really good question Liz. Honestly, I would say to wait. I think that at this point, if you're not used to reading stuff like that, some parts will be too shocking for you to really get much out of it. You might want to ask your parents if they think it would be ok, but if you can wait, I would. I first read it when I was 20 and even that, I think, was almost too young. I appreciate it so much more now at 22. So overall, my verdict is to wait until you're in your 20s.

  3. Thanks Tess! It's not like I don't already have enough on my reading list. And I fully do believe that some books can only be appreciated after a certain time. But I'll keep a note to read it later on in my life :)


  4. Tess, what is your thought on watching the Grenada TV series first? That's what I did at my mother's suggestion, and while I usually abhor seeing movies of good books without having read the books, in this case I think it was a good idea. I think the series brings out some of the more subtle beauty of the book and, if you don't know the setting, the movie provides the atmosphere in a way that the book doesn't. Agree/disagree? I suspect that had I read the book first, I wouldn't have liked it.

    Liz, I was first exposed to BR in high school, probably junior year, and I was not too young to benefit, nor did it shock me terribly. If you are particularly sheltered (I don't use the word in a negative sense) you might want to wait longer. I do think it's true that I appreciate BR more now (at 20) than I did at 17, but I think that's more due to having gone through depression than simply a question of experiencing more years.

  5. Hi Wandering Heart! Thank you for the comments. I have to admit that I've never seen the entire tv series - more because of lack of time than lack of desire, as I love the half of it I have seen. So I can't speak to whether it would be better to watch it before reading, although I'm so glad that it helped you to appreciate the book more, and I do hope to finally finish the whole thing one of these days! My boyfriend and I have it at the top of our "Movies to watch" list, which somehow seems to get longer every day...

  6. Thanks for the helpful guide! Even though I've read BR several times over, I never quite got all the Oxford stuff.

    I first read the book at age 17, for English class at my Catholic high school. I hated the ending. But then class discussions helped me understand some of the deeper meaning. Now I re-read it almost every year and find new insights every time. Since it follows Charles Ryder through his adult life, you can always find some aspect to relate to.

  7. Hi. Interesting review.
    I'm Ed. I live about 30 mins from Oxford in the UK. I've read Brideshead about 10 times!
    Like you the word "beautiful resonates" with this book. One scene in particular where they're drinking champagne, eating strawberries, and smoking sweet Turkish cigarettes on a fine summer's day near Oxford.
    You mention "Bulligdon". You're right.
    For me one of the best things about the book is the comedy. In particular that between Ryder and his father. All the more brilliant because of the subtlety of the comedy. I for one laugh out loud.
    And Sebastian is a bit of a hopeless figure, but he reminds me a bit of the lost son in the Prodigal Son. Despite his addiction, there is still a sort of innocent charm to him that is special.
    I could go on.
    Best wishes and God Bless,
    Ed (Hampshire, UK)

    1. Ed, that's fantastic! How fun to have an Oxford reader. I got my information about Bullingdon and Mercury fountain from an Oxford undergrad who lived in Christ Church, so it's good to know other Oxford locals corroborate his story. :)

      Waugh does have a gift for comedy - an extraordinary thing given the penetrating sadness and beauty the book also holds. He could truly write in any style, and I think the inclusion of varying styles is what makes Brideshead his finest work.

      I'm so glad you found my guide helpful. Thank you for reading!

  8. I loved the way Waugh illustrates--over time--the *slow* conversion of his characters. But the conversion is there, for all of them (I think). Waugh's fiction presents faith as a part of the fabric of the (dysfunctional) characters lives, not as something tacked on to their life as an afterthought. Their faith is real and messy and exists even in sin (which is how my faith exists, too) and is one of the reasons I loved the book.

    I'm going to read that Weigel chapter now. Thanks, Tess!

    1. Yes! There is that phrase he uses - the "economy of grace" - and of course the memorable "twitch upon the thread." He really *got* faith and the way grace works like almost no other author I've seen. It's incredible and bears rich contemplation.

      So glad you found this helpful!

  9. Great post! Brideshead is my favorite novel of all time and had a lot to do with my conversion to Catholicism. I'm always befuddled when other people don't love it like I do and I think you give some great suggestions for how to make it accessible and how it should be approached on that first read.

    1. Haley, that's beautiful that Brideshead influenced your conversion - I remember you quoted it in part of your conversion story. Isn't it amazing how that twitch on the thread can come out of nowhere - but when it comes, there is no avoiding it?

      I love finding other people who love that book - there really is quite a community of us, and I think Brideshead fans all share a certain approach to faith, and of course a huge love for literature!

      By the way, this goes without saying but I'm a bit starstruck to have you commenting on my blog. Thanks for reading!

  10. Love this post! I've been wanting to read this for a while, but feel like now is the opportune moment, especially in terms of where I am in my faith, so I'm excited to hopefully read it this winter break!!

    Also, I'm taking a Young Adult Literature course and our final project is to write up a proposal and syllabus, either for a college course or high school english class, and for mine I'm working on a syllabus for a senior english class in a Catholic high school and I'm mixing YA books and classic books, and one section is on Religion, and Brideshead Revisited is my choice for that (along with 2 others), and that's how I found your wonderful blog, which I'm so excited to have found!

    1. Jess, thank you so much for your sweet comment! Oh my goodness, what you said got me really excited and gave me a lot to think about. The class you're taking sounds fantastic - and if you need help writing a syllabus for Brideshead, let me know, because I think all the time about how I would teach this book and have lots of ideas for it. :)

      Also, I'm thrilled that you're planning to read Brideshead! Good luck (it can be a hard read the first time around) and do let me know what you think of it, if you get the chance!

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