Brideshead Revisited; The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge…

Brideshead Revisited; The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh; (originally published in Britain, 1944); Back Bay Books, 2020. 402 pages; $17.99 (paperback); reading level: adult.

In 1944, as Waugh’s magnum opus was going to press, he observed that Brideshead Revisited “is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that theologians won’t recognize it.” At times, he even seems to be arguing against his adopted Catholic faith. His narrator, middle-class Charles Ryder, is an atheist—sorry, agnostic—student at Oxford, who is thrown into the midst of his new friend Sebastian’s aristocratic, Catholic family members, all wrestling with faith issues and none looking more saintly for the struggle. Charles often interacts with them at Brideshead, their lavish family estate—at its pinnacle in the 1920s and 30s. But the main action, which is set in those years, is framed by a prologue and epilogue in which Charles looks back on it all from World War II, when the crumbling Brideshead has been requisitioned to quarter his war-weary troops. Charles’ love for Sebastian—and for Sebastian’s sister Julia—pulls the story along and the writing is laced with wry humor, lush descriptions, insightful character insights and stylized prose perfectly in tune with the historical setting. But it is, indeed, the theology that drives the plot and faith that triumphs in the end. This is not a perfect novel: Charles and Julia’s first spouses are too-easily sent packing, characters move on and off stage at a dizzying pace, and Julia’s “outburst about mortal sin” (Waugh’s words) is overwrought. But these are small quibbles. The novel is well worth reading—or re-reading—even if you’ve seen the big- or small-screen adaptations.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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