Waugh, or Three Things to Love About Brideshead Revisited

Blogger’s Note: Four summers ago, I agreed to my friend Jacqui’s challenge to read 15 Classics in 15 Weeks. I continue to press forward, this being number 11 of 15, and at this point 15 Classics in 15 Years seems quite doable…

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was the wildcard in my list of 15 classics, replacing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian on the original list. I was trying to buy all 15 books used, and couldn’t find McCarthy; one previous spring I picked up Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and thought, “What the heck; I’ll read that instead.” — then my friend Fr. Tyler recommended Brideshead. He has proven to be a reliable recommender of books (especially East of Eden), so I added it to the mix.

This is not a book I would’ve chosen without recommendation. An impenetrable title by an author with whom I was not familiar (a man, as it turns out), which, as I flipped through it, skimming pages, seemed another novel about shallow, wealthy people indulging in food, wine, and art and mocking the less sophisticated and the pious. If not for Father Tyler, I might have set it aside, guessing it similar to The Picture of Dorian Gray — which it is not so much. And so…Three Things to Love About Brideshead Revisited:

  • People Change: As in Dorian Gray and The Brothers Karamazov, most of the characters in Brideshead begin as superficial, hedonistic, and not particularly likable, however, through chance and tragedy, as these characters collide and intermingle again and again, they grow deeper and more complex. This is not a story in which the weakness of characters lead them to an inescapable end. These people struggle. They learn from their mistakes (however slowly). They change over time, and emerge different people at the end.
  • The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: One recurring theme in the book is that of a tiny part of a man, pretending to be whole. These upper-crust Brits lead lives of leisure — they have time on their hands and passions and vices they indulge, ignoring transcendental truths, scoffing at faith and virtue and love, and pretending to live. They become artists, politicians, alcoholics, trophy wives, adulterers and mistresses, but can’t figure out to be whole or happy. How many people have we seen like that?
  • All Roads Lead Home: The deeper theme of the book, it seems to me, is that all roads lead to Truth and God — you are never so far away that you cannot get back, and although we may choose to resist, when we do not, He draws us inexorably to Him, with grace and mercy we do not merit. It is, in the end, a very hopeful book.
A side note: I have said numerous time in this journey through 15 classics that it is remarkable how timeless these books are — how the characters are relatable and the themes common to our time. I finished this book yesterday, even as I started a new book for work called Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Out Futures & What We Can Do About It. (Sounds like a page-turner, doesn’t it?) 

Brideshead was published in 1944 and is set between the World Wars; Pinched opens with a 1914 quote from writer and journalist Walter Lippmann: “We are unsettled to the very roots of our being. There isn’t a human relation, whether of parent and child, husband and wife, worker and employer, that doesn’t move in a strange situation….There are no precedents to guide us, no wisdom that wasn’t made for a simpler age. We have changes our environment more quickly that we know how to change ourselves.”
Sound familiar? It is ironic to me that a book published just this year should open with a quote from 1914, claiming there are no precedents to guide us. We’ve been down the path of “unprecedented change” repeatedly* — apparently in 1914, for example. Waugh’s great novel, to me, insists that the wisdom “made for a simpler age” is unchanging, still relevant, and even necessary. We are simply slow to learn.

—–

*If change wasn’t unprecedented, it wouldn’t really be change, would it?

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