Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"a thin bat's squeak of sexuality"

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945).

This book is hilarious, romantic and also, disappointingly, a little bit rubbish. I loved the social satire (fits on my shelf with Nancy Mitford), I loved the critique and the sadness of the crumbling classes, and the homoerotic relationships ... and the language! It is divine! I dog-eared all the pages and underlined all the lines.

The story opens to Charles Ryder as a middle-aged army captain, who happens to be stationed at a big country house during WWII - called Brideshead. But! It is not Charles' first time here, and we are then swept back into his memories of being a young man and in the company of the enigmatic and ever-so-slightly troubled Sebastian Flyte.
Just the place to bury a crock of gold,' said Sebastian. '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.'
...I must write to you as I am mourning for my lost innocence. It never looked like living. The doctors despaired of it from the start.
Sebastian is much devoted to Aloysius, his teddy bear. How this made me laugh! A teddy bear driving a car?! What ho! Sebastian writes in a letter to Charles:
I have a good mind not to take Aloysius to Venice. I don't want him to meet a lot of horrid Italian bears and pick up bad habits.
All the interactions between Sebastian and Charles are charged with sexual energy, lots of references to lips and faces. But Charles is drawn to Sebastian's sister Lady Julia, too. When he first meets her (rushing to the sickbed of Sebastian, who has actually only sprained an ankle) she asks him to light her a cigarette:
It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked this of me, and as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers, I caught a thin bat's squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.
But he feels peace when not with Julia. Is it because their love overwhelms him? Charles is a bit of a softy. Also, it is obvious he is in love with Sebastian.

But years later, a now alcoholic and mostly useless Sebastian having floated off to North Africa, Charles is returning to England via a fancy cruise ship from a painting trip he took in South America. Here, he and Julia succumb to their mutual love over the course of a couple of days, while the ship is buffeted by very rough seas and poor Charles' wife is seasick and in bed. These scenes on the ship are wonderful. Surreal, almost, and romantic.
Ten hours of talking: what had we to say? Plain fact mostly, the record of our two lives, so long widely separate, now being knit to one.
And they are a little hilarious. When Charles' (cheating) wife is seasick he unsympathetically describes her suite as a maternity ward and she is so wan and pathetic when she receives a bouquet of flowers:
as though the game were a private misfortune of her own for which the world in its love was condoling with her ... my wife seemed to make a sacred, female rite even of seasickness.
Then, especially towards the end of the novel, religion becomes (well, it was a theme throughout but really dug itself in here for the long haul) a big part of it - and ruins the story for me. According to the notes at the front of the book, Evelyn Waugh became a devoted Catholic and this book is kind of a hodgepodge that he wrote in a very short amount of time, which represents his conversion. But it made the story so unsatisfying for me: so C and J can't be together because she is too much of a sinner? And poor, poor Sebastian who thinks he is mad, or has indeed gone mad, and has gone to live with monks/priests? No one seemed to be happy, they had happiness but they threw it away because of Catholicism. So strike me down and call me sacrilegious but I could have done without this part, Evelyn.

I enjoyed A Handful of Dust more. But that is for another day. Tell me, what did you think of this one? What am I missing? Am I just a sucker for a happy ending?


  1. Sucker for a happy ending Kate. I don't think you missed anything; that level of avidity for Catholicism is hard to understand now, but I'm afraid i think it is The Point. Bravo for picking out some of the nicest bits.

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