Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.

Beautiful, reflective, and charmingly nostalgic, Brideshead Revisited paints a captivating picture of the British aristocracy in the prosperous age before the Second World War. This is a novel that speaks of religion, love, art, social class, and youth – the quintuple that forms the quintessence of life. It traces the life of Charles Ryder and his relationship with the affluent, privileged, and somewhat notoriously complicated Catholic family of the Marchmains, all the whilst contemplating the nature of relationships, both in the interactions between the complex web of humans and in relationship with God.

Far from being deeply philosophical (but rather, gently so), Brideshead Revisited is the sort of novel that one would read on a lazy Sunday – a breezy, serene, and tranquil afternoon devoted to literary enjoyment. Without provoking too much introspection, it divulges little gems of calmly contemplative mutterings –

Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that other have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types, and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

What is love? Waugh seems to suggest that all loves simply precede the next – we’re always searching for something, something elusive and undefinable – perhaps that next love. Charles love for Sebastian (yes, for it really is love, in an incredibly romantic sense – some readers believe that a homosexual relationship exists between them; however I think that’s a bit of a stretch – it is, in my opinion, simply a romantic brotherhood) precedes his love for Sebastian’s sister, Julia. Perhaps we never truly let go of those we love, but will simply love a similar other. There’s something hauntingly melancholic, but at the same time, bitterly sweet about that sentiment.

Love, or at least, the disillusionment with love, is also used as a metaphor for enlistment in the army. The war plays a minor role in the novel; it is hardly referred to at all – but the undercurrent of wistfulness that permeates the narrative voice is a constant reminder that the golden years of Ryder’s youth are gone. This tone, however, is truly what compels readers – Waugh has mastered the narrative voice. All at once it is a complex amalgamation of melancholy and yet barely-shadowed passion; grim irony, and yet heart-rendering emotional involvement…

I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom.

Serendipitously, I happen to be studying Wilfred Owen’s war poetry; it speaks of the ambition, the naive eagerness of youth – and the subsequent disillusionment with the long, grueling hours of marching and patrolling – the months of waning anticipation and wasted youth, the brutal horrors of the battlefield…

Youth. The idealism, the capricious moods, the freedom!

The languor of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life. These things are a part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.

There is something in every seventeen year old; a restless fidgeting in our hearts yearning to grow older, to mature and take on that responsibility of being a barely-fledged adult, all at once embracing the privilege of that underwhelming term, and yet clinging on to that liberating Youth.

But we all eventually grow old.

Free as air; that’s what they say – “free as air”. Now they bring me my air in an iron barrel.

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