Reading a book after seeing its eponymous film or TV version is an interesting experience. You may discover hidden depths in the literary parent or, alternatively, realise that a gifted director has employed alchemy to turn base-metal into gold.
Having fallen in love with the 1980s television adaptation of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and seen the sumptuous – but less memorable – film, I finally got around to reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel this year.
It struck me that this novel consisted of two parts (possibly because I stopped reading it half-way through!) What had charmed me in the TV series – the Sebastian/Charles bromance, the wistful shots of Oxford, the artful nostalgia – disgusted me in the book. I quickly became bored with the effete, self-indulgent, egocentric young men portrayed by Evelyn Waugh.
However, I recently returned to the book, finished it and enjoyed what I read.
Far from being the insipid narrator of the TV version, Charles Ryder emerges as an unpleasant character; a snob, a man who feels no love or responsibility for his children, a gold-digger and someone who insists on forcing his opinions on others at the most inopportune moments. Although an artist, he lacks sensitivity, except when it relates to his own feelings.
While admitting to his own shortcomings, his honesty fails to captivate the reader – at least, this one. Charles is an intelligent, talented man who – even in his own eyes – never rises above the average. Despite his transgressions, he never completely breaks with the society in which he lives, unlike his friend Sebastian.
In many ways, Sebastian is not so much a character as a comment, an observation. He typifies a kind of exquisite human mayfly whose existence depends on a combination of ephemeral qualities: beauty and charm. With no substance to sustain him, only two options remain: death or decay.
My favourite character is Anthony Blanche. Outrageous and outspoken, he is self-deprecating, spiteful, funny and as indestructible as a cockroach.
In some respects, the book’s themes of marriage and Catholicism are outdated and difficult to grasp from a modern perspective. However, they highlight personal and moral dilemmas which reveal different facets of the characters and define their relationships with each other.
Nostalgia is a recurrent theme in the novel: Sebastian’s desire to revisit his childhood; Charles, haunted by memories of Brideshead, not only witnessing the end of a dynasty, but also the swansong of a class and the great houses in which they lived.
I wonder what elements of our modern lives would fit the phrase Et in Arcadia Ego and evoke such elegiac prose?
Is Brideshead worth revisiting?
A perfect book to read under a tree on a sunny day accompanied by: a glass of Château Peyraguey (Sebastian’s recommendation), strawberries and the chiming of distant bells.
Attributions and Further Information:
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: click here for Amazon
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For more information on Castle Howard, click here