Brideshead Revisited

This article is about the novel. For the TV series, see Brideshead Revisited (TV serial). For the film, see Brideshead Revisited (film).
Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder

Brideshead Revisited, 1945 first UK edition
Author Evelyn Waugh
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Chapman and Hall
Publication date
Pages 402
Preceded by Put Out More Flags (1942)
Followed by Scott-King's Modern Europe (1947)

Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder is a novel by English writer Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1945. The story is set in Oxford University, where a group of undergraduates are trying to defend aristocratic values against the threat of egalitarianism. The themes of Catholic conversion, mortal sin and divine grace are explored in depth. The book has been listed among the best English-language novels by Time magazine, Newsweek and the Modern Library. It was successfully brought to the screen in 1981 by Granada Television.


Waugh wrote that the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself".[1] This is achieved by an examination of the Roman Catholic, aristocratic Flyte family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.

In various letters, Waugh himself refers to the novel a number of times as his magnum opus; however, in 1950 he wrote to Graham Greene stating "I re-read Brideshead Revisited and was appalled." In Waugh's preface to his revised edition of Brideshead (1959) the author explained the circumstances in which the novel was written, following a minor parachute accident in the six months between December 1943 and June 1944. He was mildly disparaging of the novel, stating; "It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful."

In the United States, Brideshead Revisited was the Book of the Month Club selection for January 1946.[2] In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Brideshead Revisited No. 80 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 45 on the BBC survey The Big Read.[3] In 2005, it was chosen by Time magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.[4] In 2009, Newsweek magazine listed it as one of the 100 best books of world literature.[5]

Brideshead Revisited was brought to the screen in 1981 in a dramatic serialisation on TV, produced by Granada Television. A film adaptation of the book was released in July 2008. The book was also dramatised episodically as a BBC Radio 4 Extra.


The Old Quad of Hertford College, Oxford

In 1923, protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder, an undergraduate studying history at a college very like Hertford College, Oxford, is befriended by Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the aristocratic Lord Marchmain and an undergraduate at Christ Church. Sebastian introduces Charles to his eccentric and aesthetic friends, including the haughty and homosexual Anthony Blanche. Sebastian also takes Charles to his family's palatial mansion, Brideshead Castle, in Wiltshire[6] where Charles later meets the rest of Sebastian's family, including his sister Julia.

During the long summer holiday Charles returns home to London, where he lives with his widowed father, Edward Ryder. The conversations there between Charles and Edward provide some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel. Charles is called back to Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury, and Sebastian and Charles spend the remainder of the holiday together.

Sebastian's family are Roman Catholic, which influences the Flytes' lives as well as the content of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles, who had always assumed Christianity was "without substance or merit". Lord Marchmain had converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism to marry his wife, but he later abandoned both his marriage and his new religion, and moved to Venice, Italy. Left alone, Lady Marchmain focuses even more on her faith, which is also enthusiastically espoused by her eldest son, Lord Brideshead ("Bridey"), and by her youngest daughter, Cordelia.

Sebastian, a troubled young man, descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where his drinking ruins his health. He eventually finds some solace as an under-porter and object of charity at a Catholic monastery in Tunisia.

Sebastian's drifting leads to Charles's own estrangement from the Flytes. Charles marries and fathers two children, but he becomes cold towards his wife, and she is unfaithful to him. He eventually forms a relationship with Sebastian's younger sister Julia. Julia has married but separated from the rich but unsophisticated Canadian businessman Rex Mottram. This marriage caused great sorrow to her mother, because Rex, though initially planning to convert to Roman Catholicism, turns out to have divorced a previous wife in Canada, so he and Julia ended up marrying without fanfare in an Anglican church that accepts divorced people.

Charles and Julia plan to divorce their respective spouses so that they can marry each other. On the eve of the Second World War, the ageing Lord Marchmain, terminally ill, returns to Brideshead to die in his ancestral home. Appalled by the marriage of his eldest son Brideshead to a middle-class widow past childbearing age, he names Julia heir to the estate, which prospectively offers Charles marital ownership of the house. However, Lord Marchmain's return to the faith on his deathbed changes the situation: Julia decides she cannot enter a sinful marriage with Charles, who has also been moved by Lord Marchmain's reception of the sacraments.

The plot concludes in the early spring of 1943 (or possibly 1944 – the date is disputed).[7] Charles is "homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless". He has become an army officer, after establishing a career as an architectural artist, and finds himself unexpectedly billeted at Brideshead, which has been taken into military use. He finds the house damaged by the army, but the private chapel, closed after Lady Marchmain's death in 1926, has been reopened for the soldiers' worship. It occurs to him that the efforts of the builders – and, by extension, God's efforts – were not in vain, although their purposes may have appeared, for a time, to have been frustrated.[8]



Catholicism becomes a significant theme of the book. Evelyn Waugh was a convert to Catholicism and the book is an attempt to express the Roman Catholic faith in secular literary form. Waugh wrote to his literary agent A. D. Peters, "I hope the last conversation with Cordelia gives the theological clue. The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that the theologians won't recognise it."

The book brings the reader, through the narration of the initially agnostic Charles Ryder, in contact with the severely flawed but deeply Catholic Flyte family. The Catholic themes of divine grace and reconciliation are pervasive in the book. Most of the major characters undergo a conversion in some way or another. Lord Marchmain, a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, who lived as an adulterer, is reconciled with the Church on his deathbed. Julia, who entered a marriage with Rex Mottram that is invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and is involved in an extramarital affair with Charles. Julia realizes that marrying Charles will separate her forever from her faith and decides to leave him, in spite of her great attachment to him. Sebastian, the charming and flamboyant alcoholic, ends up in service to a monastery while struggling against his alcoholism.

Most significant is Charles's apparent conversion, which is expressed very subtly at the end of the book, set more than 20 years after his first meeting Sebastian. Charles kneels down in front of the tabernacle of the Brideshead chapel and says a prayer, "an ancient, newly learned form of words" – implying recent instruction in the catechism. Waugh speaks of his belief in grace in a letter to Lady Mary Lygon: "I believe that everyone in his (or her) life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It's there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there's a particular time – sometimes, like Hubert, on his deathbed – when all resistance is down and grace can come flooding in."[9]

Waugh uses a quotation from a short story by G. K. Chesterton to illustrate the nature of grace. Cordelia, in conversation with Charles Ryder, quotes a passage from the Father Brown detective story "The Queer Feet": "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."[10] This quotation provides the foundation for Waugh's Roman Catholic treatment of the interplay of free will and grace in the moment of conversion. Aside from grace and reconciliation, other Catholic themes in the book are the Communion of Saints, prayer, faith and vocation.

The same themes were criticised by Waugh's contemporaries. Henry Green, a fellow novelist, wrote to Waugh, "The end was not for me. As you can imagine my heart was in my mouth all through the deathbed scene, hoping against hope that the old man would not give way, that is, take the course he eventually did." And Edmund Wilson, who had praised Waugh as the hope of the English novel, wrote "The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not – painful to say – meant quite seriously." A reviewer of the book at the time of its publication regarded it as an apologia for Catholicism.

Nostalgia for an age of English nobility

The Flyte family is widely found to symbolise the English nobility. One reads in the book that Brideshead has "the atmosphere of a better age", and (referring to the deaths of Lady Marchmain's brothers in the Great War) "these men must die to make a world for Hooper ... so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat, wet handshake, his grinning dentures".

According to Martin Amis, the book "squarely identifies egalitarianism as its foe and proceeds to rubbish it accordingly".[11]

Charles and Sebastian's relationship

The precise nature of Charles and Sebastian's relationship remains a topic of debate; whether they are simply close friends or if Waugh hints at a sexual relationship between the two is not definitely established.[12] Given that much of the first half of the novel focuses on the initial encounter, blossoming friendship and eventual estrangement of these central characters, this issue continues to pique the curiosity of readers.

Readers who interpret the relationship as overtly homosexual quote such lines as the fact that Charles had been "in search of love in those days" when he first met Sebastian, and his finding "that low door in the wall ... which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden" – an image that some interpret as a Freudian metaphor for homosexual sex, though it recurs when Charles is expelled from Brideshead by Lady Marchmain, suggesting it refers more generally to the glamorous world Sebastian represents: "a door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford." (A reference to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll).

The line "our naughtiness [was] high on the catalogue of grave sins" may also be a suggestion that their relationship could have a homosexual element, which, if acted upon, would be a mortal sin in Roman Catholic dogma. Reference is made at one point to Charles impatiently awaiting Sebastian's letters. It is also suggested in the book that one of the reasons Charles is later in love with Julia is the similarity between her and Sebastian.

Another interpretation is that Charles and Sebastian had a passionate yet platonic relationship, an immature albeit strongly felt attachment that prefigures future heterosexual relationships. Waugh himself said that "Charles's romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years." In the book, Cara, Lord Marchmain's mistress, says to Charles that his relationship with Sebastian forms part of a process of emotional development typical to "the English and the Germans".

Principal characters

Minor characters

Related works


In 1981 Brideshead Revisited was adapted as an 11-episode TV serial, produced by Granada Television and aired on ITV, starring Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Lord Sebastian Flyte. The bulk of the serial was directed by Charles Sturridge, with a few sequences filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. John Mortimer was given a credit as writer, but most of the scripts were based on work by producer Derek Granger.

To mark the 70th anniversary of its publication in 2003, BBC Radio 4 Extra produced a four-part adaptation, with Ben Miles as Charles Ryder and Jamie Bamber as Lord Sebastian Flyte. This version was adapted for radio by Jeremy Front and directed by Marion Nancarrow.[18][19]

In 2008 BBC Audiobooks released an unabridged reading of the book by Jeremy Irons. The recording is 11.5 hours long and consists of 10 CDs.[20]

In 2008 Brideshead Revisited was developed into a feature film of the same title, with Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder, and Ben Whishaw as Lord Sebastian Flyte. The movie was directed by Julian Jarrold and adapted by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies.

References in other media


  1. Memo dated 18 February 1947 from Evelyn Waugh to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, reproduced in Giles Foden (22 May 2004). "Waugh versus Hollywood". The Guardian. p. 34.
  2. Jeffrey M. Heath, The Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and his writing (1982), p. 186
  3. "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 19 October 2012
  4. Richard Lacayo (16 October 2005). "All-TIME 100 Novels. The critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo pick the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME.".
  5. "Newsweek's Top 100 Books: The Meta-List – Book awards – LibraryThing".
  6. "100 Local-Interest Writers And Works". South Central MediaScene. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  7. David Cliffe (2002). "The Brideshead Revisited Companion". p. 11. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  8. Giles Foden (22 May 2004). "Waugh versus Hollywood". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 December 2012. Evelyn Waugh's disdain for the cinema is revealed in memos he sent to the 'Californian savages' during negotiations over film versions of Brideshead Revisited and Scoop. Giles Foden decodes two unconventional treatments
  9. Amory, Mark (ed). The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. Ticknor & Fields, 1980. p. 520.
  10. Chesterton, G. K., The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, story "The Queer Feet", Ignatius Press, 2005: p. 84.
  11. Amis (2001)
  12. "Adam-Carr (1982): Evelyn Waugh and the Origins of Brideshead Revisited". Gay Community News. July 1982. Archived from the original on 14 March 2012. Retrieved 21 March 2016.
  13. Trevelyan, Jill (28 March 2009), "Brideshead revisited", NZ Listener, archived from the original on 3 June 2009.
  14. Donald Bassett, "Felix Kelly and Brideshead" in the British Art Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Autumn 2005): 52–7. Also, Donald Bassett, Fix: The Art & Life of Felix Kelly, 2007.
  15. Copping, Jasper (18 May 2008). "Brideshead Revisited: Where Evelyn Waugh found inspiration for Sebastian Flyte – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 22 August 2011.
  16. "Aloysius, The Brideshead Bear". Retrieved 1 September 2011.
  17. Frank Kermode. "Introduction". Brideshead Revisited. Everyman's Library. p. xvii. ISBN 978-1-85715-172-5.
  18. Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. BBC Radio 4 Extra.
  19. Brideshead Revisited
  20. Brideshead Revisited


Further reading

External links

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