“My Theme Is Memory…”

I just finished Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I am not sure what I expected from this novel, but it certainly wasn’t what I encountered. The story of a young man’s relationship with a strange, almost mysterious, family (first befriending and loving the youngest son, then an affair later on with the oldest daughter) between the World Wars gives us a glimpse of that period in which an era of splendor, beauty, and wealth sought to cling to the comfortable, known past while the rest of the world charged ahead, leaving change and bewilderment in its wake.

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life–for we possess nothing certainly except the past–were always with me.”

The undulating themes in Waugh’s story took much sorting as I read, and the plodding narrative at the beginning, quickly changing to a fast-paced plot, took adjusting to. The characters were wooden and verbose, and there wasn’t anyone in Waugh’s novel whom I could identify with. I nearly gave up on it, but determined to finish what I’d started, I kept on reading. What a surprise as the wooden facades slowly fell away and the jumbled speech of the characters finally began to make sense. I don’t think it an accident that as readers we are as confused for much of the book as the characters within its pages. Gradually sense takes shape as the novel’s characters face a new reality dawning upon them, and we begin to understand them more as they grapple with a world on the brink of war, with family alcoholism and alternative lifestyles, with the slow loss of  wealth and splendor that had been theirs for as long as they could remember, and a world that had once been their refuge and understanding, slipping from them in a way that they could not grasp.

“Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”

The novel’s protagonist scorns the religion that his fiancée, Julia, and her family run from, then turn to, at different points in the novel. We see the contempt the children of this family feel for their mother and her piety, and then we watch as slowly, one by one, as they encounter a life full of tragedy and uncertainty, each child is drawn to the very faith that they had sought to flee from.

“The worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him.”

I gave the book 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. I felt that the story had so much unrealized potential; as if Waugh was on the brink of something absolutely great, and then pulled back from it each time. If only the story’s characters were written for us to relate to them in some way, or the story had a moment of redemption for the readers to share in – that would’ve made it complete. I do plan on visiting Evelyn Waugh’s books again, reading either A Handful of Dust or Put Out More Flags the next time around.

You can purchase the book here. Read a summary and reviews here. I found this old article from The Atlantic about Waugh, with summary and commentary on his well-known works, an enjoyable read.

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