Study Guide

Brideshead Revisited Memory and The Past

By Evelyn Waugh

Memory and The Past

He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds – for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight. (prologue.95)

It seems that Charles has shut away the past and moved on completely from Brideshead and the Flyte family. Revisiting the estate, then, is more than just a trip down memory lane – he’s forced to deal with the past that he has shut away.

"Just the place to bury a crock of gold," said Sebastian. "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember." (1.1.20)

Indeed, Charles "digs up" this idea again, towards the end of Book One, Chapter Six. He drives away from Brideshead and feels he will return again "as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures." Interesting…

It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one's stature on the edge of the door. I should like to think – indeed I sometimes do think – that I decorated those rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints and that my shelves were filled with seventeenth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered-silk. But this was not the truth. (1.1.28)

Charles admits the embarrassing "truth" here about the artistic preferences of his youth – but can we trust him elsewhere in his narration?

That luncheon party – for party it proved to be – was the beginning of a new epoch in my life, but its details are dimmed for me and confused by so many others, almost identical with it, that succeeded one another that term and the next, like romping cupids in a Renaissance frieze. (1.1.49)

Charles always admits the ambiguity of memory in his narrative. It’s interesting to see which details he so vividly remembers and which are blurry in his mind.

I was unmoved; there was no part of me remotely touched by her distress. It was as I had often imagined being expelled from school. I almost expected to hear her say: "I have already written to inform your unhappy father." But as I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world. (1.6.214)

Does Charles in fact find this buried part of himself when he revisits Brideshead as the Captain of infantry?

So I set out after dinner, with the consular porter going ahead, lantern in hand. Morocco was a new and strange country to me. Driving that day, mile after mile, up the smooth, strategic road, past the vineyards and military posts and the new, white settlements and the early crops already standing high in the vast, open fields, and the hoardings advertising the staples of France – Dubonnet, Michelin, Magasin du Louvre – I had thought it all very suburban and up-to-date; now, under the stars, in the walled city, whose streets were gentle, dusty stairways, and whose walls rose windowless on either side, closed overhead, then opened again to the stars; where the dust lay thick among the smooth paving stones and figures passed silently, robed in white, on soft slippers or hard, bare soles; where the air was scented with cloves and incense and wood smoke – now I knew what had drawn Sebastian here and held him so long. (1.8.88)

Charles concludes that beauty lies in the primitive and ancient, not in the charm of British modernism; this is a prelude to his trip to South America.

My theme is memory that winged host that soared above 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. (2.1.1-2)

Charles may be a middle-aged captain of infantry now, but he is defined by the events in his past. This may go some way in explaining his new-found optimism at the close of the novel.

It needed this voice from the past to recall me; the indiscriminate chatter of praise all that crowded day had worked on me like a succession of advertisement hoardings on a long road, kilometre after kilometre between the poplars, commanding one to stay at some new hotel, so that when at the end of the drive, stiff and dusty, one arrives at the destination, it seems inevitable to turn into the yard under the name that had first bored, then angered one, and finally become an inseparable part of one's fatigue. (2.2.50)

Charles isolates the past as a completely separate part of his life. The titular "revisit" refers not just to Brideshead, but also to his past, which he explores through his narration.