Brideshead Revisited Introduction
In A Nutshell
Brideshead Revisited was published in 1944 by already famous British novelist Evelyn Waugh and based loosely on his own experiences as a student at Oxford University. The novel tells the story of a young man at Oxford captivated by an eccentric young man and his very wealthy, Catholic family. Like the narrator and protagonist of Brideshead, Waugh ignored his studies, lazed away his days in the company of aesthetes and drunkards, and focused on his personal writing and art at the expense of his grades and reputation. Waugh was an unlikely member of the Royal Marines and on a leave of absence when he decided to write Brideshead. He finished the first 60,000 or so words in fewer than three weeks, and completed the novel in about four months.
Reading Brideshead is about equivalent to sitting down for a five course meal. The narrative abounds with lush descriptions of food of every kind and lots and lots of expensive booze. (Waugh was on limited rations while writing the novel, so you might chock these results up to wishful thinking.) On top of that is the vivid portrait painted of architecture, interior design, and art of all kinds. It’s certainly a trip for the senses.
This literary gluttony certainly caught the attention of the critics, as did the novel’s rendering of the British aristocracy and Catholicism. At the time Waugh was writing, the golden age of aristocracy was coming to a close, and the novel has received criticism for glorifying classism. As far as religion goes, Waugh tried to present Catholicism positively and reflect his own reasons for converting to it; yet many interpret the novel in the opposite light, believing that religion actually brings about the ruin of every character in the story. How does it strike you?
Why Should I Care?
We don't know if you're closer to high school or college graduation (or done with school completely), but we're guessing that you're at least familiar with the concept that school has an endpoint. And what's weird about graduation is that it's always kind of sad that you've ended an era of your life, whether you're glad to leave or not. That's why we here at Shmoop all trooped off to see High School Musical 3. Sure, Zac Ephron, and Vanessa Hudgens may be good looking, and the dancing is to die for, but what we really wanted was the nostalgia we feel for that lost past.
In a way, Brideshead Revisited is like an ode to that moment in senior year when everyone knows that the end of a certain way of life is coming. For some (like, maybe, the Marchmains of the novel), the best years of their lives are already past, the years when they were, say, the captains of the football team or the homecoming queens (if English aristocrats can be compared to high school football captains). What's left after the end of this golden era, for some people, could be a slow decline: alcoholism, adultery, and even death.
We know that Brideshead Revisited isn't literally about high school. Still, if Friday Night Lights is anything to go by, a lot of people look back on their high school years as a period of glory before the anxieties of adult life. And it's pretty clear that Charles Ryder is doing something similar, looking back on those years before World War II as an "enchanted garden," the last gasp of aristocratic gentility and art for art's sake before the chaos of his post-Oxford working life.
What's going on in Brideshead Revisited is the graduation of an entire society, represented in miniature by one family, the Marchmains. We see this family transition from a state of relatively stable social grace to a period of instability and decay. But, just as there really is life after high school, there's some hope at the end of Brideshead. Even as the estate of the novel has fallen apart, among its fragments there are still some remains of earlier, better days that continue in tougher times.