“The definition of ch-ch-ch-ch-charm”, so famously stuttered by Anthony Blanche in the 1981, 11-episode Granada TV Production, “is the ability to get the answer, without asking the question”. This could only be spoken by a character from the famous Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.
Brideshead Revisited: a member of the Grand Cru class in English literature, and a book that should always be included in a bookstores’ literary collection, Waugh’s novel is also a compulsory read for many students of English Literature. The story is an epic family drama, which explores Catholicism, with particular reference to religious conversion (as most of the main characters convert at some point). There is a three-way love triangle between the main characters, and an observant social commentary running throughout the plot. This is all set against a backdrop of nostalgia for the English aristocracy - a feeling that perhaps things were better ‘back then’, and that the light of that bygone era (or, the atmosphere of a ‘better age’) is fading?
So, dear reader, a quick recap for you, just in case you didn’t receive an Anglo Saxon education…:
The novel is set in the 1920s and 1940s, starting with the latter, when the protagonist (Charles Ryder) revisits Brideshead Castle towards the end of the Second World War, along with his battalion. Charles’ memory is jogged, and he starts to reflect on the time he spent at Brideshead in the ‘20s. The core story is told by Charles, from a retrospective perspective. Eventually, we learn how Charles falls in love, not just with one character, but with the entire family and their privileged (increasingly old-fashioned) lifestyle.
The author drives a stake into both of his main characters (Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder), revealing how polarized they really are. Sebastian: the wealthy aristocrat raised in a traditional family, religious, in love with his childhood, non-academic, and desperately trying to escape Brideshead. Charles Ryder: the thoroughly middle-class and (supposedly) mature adult, agnostic, raised by a single parent, and totally drawn to Brideshead. A case of ‘opposites attract’. Perhaps Waugh also wanted to reflect upon the changing landscape and future of England through his characters?
Charles first befriends Lord Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University. Sebastian introduces Charles to his eccentric, homosexual friends, and later invites him to stay at his palatial home, Brideshead Castle, in Wiltshire. Charles meets Sebastian’s sisters (Julia and Cordelia), his mother (Lady Marchmain, a devout Roman Catholic), and his brother (Bridey). Sebastian’s father, Lord Marchmain, has fled the household and marriage to live in Venice, Italy.
The story continues, with Sebastian sinking into alcoholism and later fleeing to Morocco – ironically, he ends up living in a monastery. He remains a casualty throughout the book. Charles Ryder marries and has two children, but he is unhappy in his marriage, and is clearly still in love with bygone days. He eventually forges a relationship with Julia, and they decide to abandon their marriages and remarry, but Julia concludes that by doing this she will be separated from her religion forever, and she breaks off the engagement. This is ironic, because the young (1920s) Julia is so determined not to be constricted by religion. Such is the tragedy (or reality) of charm.
Anthony Blanche, one of Sebastian’s school friends, who Charles meets at university, delivers the sharpest and most cutting speech about Sebastian, warning Charles about the Flyte family:
“I warned you expressly, and in great detail, of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”
Or, is this perhaps the voice of Evelyn Waugh, who was also famous for his sharp, painful comments?
Waugh’s writing in Brideshead Revisited is full of concise words, and a good comparison would be TS Elliot’s Four Quartets.
If you are looking to curl up with a book for hours on end, then look no further than this classic English family drama. The story will dwell in your thoughts and feelings about England forever. I looked at Waterstone’s website: https://www.waterstones.com, and you can buy a paperback copy for £7.99. Even better, visit your local Waterstones and pick up a copy to treat yourself!
I thought it very brave of the Amsterdam Waterstones branch to take on such an epic novel, with so many subplots, but they did. I am glad that they used the title Brideshead Revisited: An Appreciation, because that’s exactly what it was.
The Waterstones bookstore has a strong literary community and, as usual, the room was packed to full capacity for the Brideshead Revisited event. Tim Butler has a significant following in the literary scene, and he knows exactly how to pull in, and deliver to, a crowd of bookworms. Tim adds personal value to Waterstones by making book presentations such as these (focusing mostly on classic novels) a monthly focus for the store. For more information about community events at Waterstones, please take a look at: https://www.facebook.com/WatAdam/. All events are free.