This book surprised me. I read it for 2 reasons.
1) It seemed like one of those decently famous books that I should probably have read.
2) I wanted a hint into why anyone would name their son Evelyn.
I didn't receive an answer to my second inquiry, though I did discover that Evelyn Waugh married a woman named Evelyn. How weird is that?
The novel is distinctly British in tone. Waugh's writing reminded me, more than anything else, of E.M. Forster. (Passage to India is very good.) It's the Britain of the early 20th century, at least as I know it from novels. The England of Oxford and that unique time period between two world wars, populated by the semi-elite, who drink fine whiskey and have butlers and think they have put all the wars in the world behind them. There is a certain bitter irony to reading such characters, enjoying their youth in the 1920s and knowing how much suffering lies ahead. Waugh, who lived through such times, expresses that emotion well with his narrator, Charles Ryder. The book starts and ends with a scene from the Second World War, our narrator looking back on his youth, knowing as he tells his story that those times and places and relationships wouldn't last. It's a melancholy book, yet it doesn't feel sorry for itself. Ryder is a thorough narrator. He's an artist, an observer, and although he features in each of the novels scenes and events, he is never quite the central figure.
That role belongs to the sometimes eccentric, often loveable, occasionally horrific Marchmain family. The title of the novel comes from this family's historic English home, Brideshead. Ryder is introduced to the Marchmains and to Brideshead, through Sebastian, the second-born, eccentric, and alcoholic son. Sebastian is and has everything that Ryder is not and does not have. He's quickly seduced by the charismatic Sebastian in a manner that raises, but doesn't quite answer, a few questions.
One of the themes I found most interesting in the novel was Sebastian's alcoholism. It is introduced slowly, disguised at first as typical, youthful exuberance and by the early 20th century propensity of the English upper class to fine whisky and wine. It is not until a trip to Venice, where a character points out the difference in the way Ryder and Sebastian drink (although they drink the same amounts) that a darker shadow settles over this world and their friendship. The attitude towards Sebastian's drinking is especially fascinating. Although those around him realize he has a problem, it is never suggested that he stop drinking altogether, merely that he moderate his habits. His family drinks freely in front of him and maintains their usual six o'clock cocktail habits, demonstrating how vastly our ideas of addiction have changed in the last hundred years. The following quote brutally captures Ryder's experience of his friend's alcoholism.
A blow, expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull and sickening pain and the doubt whether another like it could be borne – that was how it felt, sitting opposite Sebastian at dinner that night, seeing his clouded eyes and groping movements, hearing his thickened voice breaking in, ineptly, after long brutish silences.
A major theme of the novel is a religious question. While our narrator is an atheist (something he insists repeatedly to those around him throughout the novel) the Marchmain family is Catholic and this heavily influences their relationships, as well as Ryder's experience with each of them. Waugh uses the four Marchmain siblings – Brideshead, Sebastian, Julia, and Cordelia – to demonstrate four unique views on religion, as well as the ends to which that view may lead.
I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him.
The ultimate conclusion of the novel (and Ryder's relationship with the Marchmain family) comes to a religious crux, a spiritual and emotional decision. And there I could suddenly see that this acknowledgement, this character's moment of realization, was what the story had been leading to all along. Whether or not you agree with that final decision, the journey is well worth travelling.
I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.