Come 1943, Captain Charles Ryder and his platoon have spent four years being shuffled from billet to billet, waiting to see action. Their latest move doesn’t take them any closer to battle either. Their new billet is the sprawling Brideshead estate, which Ryder has visited before, some 20 years earlier.
In 1923 the young Charles goes up to Oxford, where everyone he meets is rich, charming, sharp, intellectual, and utterly, utterly dull. Then he meets Sebastian Flyte and his near-constant companion, the teddy bear Aloysius. Richer and more aristocratic than anyone else Charles has ever met, Sebastian comes from a class that can afford never to grow up. In the early 1920s Brideshead is just one big nursery for the overgrown children who live there.
As someone whose childhood was blighted by the loss of his mother during the First World War, and who spent a lonely adolescence with a father wrapped up in his own private grief, Charles is attracted to Sebastian’s apparent infantilism. Afternoons are spent at leisure, hiding from the rest of the family and sunbathing naked on the roof. Charles gets to have the youth he missed out upon.
But when he meets the rest of the Marchmain family he gradually learns that bluster is superficial, beneath it there is a hidden sadness, that things are always more complex than they seem, and that nothing lasts forever. At its most basic level it is a story about growing up, and how growing up often means growing apart, but it’s not just Charles and Sebastian’s relationship that suffers from this natural entropy.
Even on Charles’s first visit he finds the house at Brideshead in a state of casual disrepair. Rooms are abandoned, unused or simply filled as storage, and the private Catholic chapel that has been the spiritual heart of the house for generations is threatened with deconsecration by the bishop. Evelyn Waugh is capturing the twilight days not just of the house or the Marchmain family, but of an entire incongruously antiquated aristocratic class, expecting to live like they have always done whilst the rest of the country progresses without them.
That’s the nature of aristocratic freedom, Waugh seems to say. As Charles realises, too late for himself, to be at the top is to be alone, and isolation lets loneliness ferment into something destructive, which must be inherited along with the house and the title. As it is, Sebastian may escape the novel but Charles does not.
The Marchmains don’t see themselves as being at the top, of course. Above them is the bishop, and then the cardinals, the Pope, Christ, God. They sit quite a way down that hierarchy. With plenty of broken marriages and infidelity to go round, the Marchmains are hardly the most devout sons and daughters of the Church, but they allow their catechesis to create an impeding structure of rules and restrictions that convinces them they are not as free and as blessed as they really are.
As such, for all its breezy lightness in the early chapters following Charles and Sebastian’s exploits, and despite later moments of pure comic gold (including an almost blasphemously funny attempted conversion to Catholicism that makes mention of sacred monkeys that live in the Vatican…), Brideshead Revisited ends up being something of a tragedy, about unrequited love, missed opportunities, and unfulfilled potential.
Though it’s also worth mentioning there’s a bit where Charles and Sebastian make a concerted effort to avoid the boys of the Bullingdon Club, so some things clearly haven’t changed.