I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this. I listed it as my “out of my comfort zone” read for a read-a-thon, because I was afraid Waugh was one of those “golden agers” lumped in with Steinbeck and Fitzgerald…the self-absorbed literary lions that write boring, misogynist novels I despise.** Well, I was wrong. By almost a generation, as this wasn’t published after the First World War like I thought, but the second. I also thought it was about the war, which it really wasn’t, though two wars do hem in the story. Talk about having a wrong impression of a book.
The beginning (actually, the prologue) is bleak and vague. We know our main character is a Captain in the army and he’s surrounded by incompetence but I was unsure where they were or what they were doing. The writing is so amazing and you are caught up in this atmospheric, almost weighty gloom that has fallen over our main character. We get the sense the army has moved he and his men around a lot, the new head officer is an officious jerk and Ryder tells us he has fallen out of love with the army. I liked the writing but I was bummed out , and hoped the whole thing wouldn’t be this way. At the end of the chapter, he asks the name of where they have been moved and is suddenly overwhelmed. He knows the place very well.
The story takes us down the rabbithole of nostalgia, flashback, personal history. Next we see Ryder in his college days and the beginning of his relationship with Brideshead and the family, the Flyte’s, that belong to it. Sebastian Flyte is an Apollo – a rich, handsome young man who has come to Oxford to be seen, and to party. At first, Ryder is not impressed with this callow fellow (their first introduction was Sebastian, drunk on too much wine, stumbling into Ryder’s open window and throwing up in his rooms). However, very few people can hold out against his charms and Ryder is soon caught up not only with Sebastian, but all his friends and eventually, Sebastian’s family.
This is really more about the Flyte family, their ups and downs than Ryder’s. His mother died in the first world war and his father is a weird man, older than his years, who treats his son like a neighbor rather than his own child. But the Flytes…. First of all, they are Catholic and that is a heavy theme. Ryder is staunchly agnostic and butts heads with the more religious members of the family, especially Lady Marchmain. (Last names in England are confusing because the peerage who are duke of this or baronet of that use their title as their last name. She is Lady Marchmain, her children’s last name is Flyte) She is referred to often as bloodless and a ruthless killer. Basically, she’s a snooty old lady who everyone hates in their own way. I was surprised that she came off as very sweet. The father, the Baronet, lives in Vienna, in perpetual disgrace. He came back from the war with a mistress and was given his marching papers by his wife. He is also an alcoholic, but as the matriarch is Catholic, there will be no divorce. The oldest brother is named Brideshead, after the house. If that isn’t weird… especially as he doesn’t marry until he’s well into middle age, I mean the sexual innuendo alone. Who names their kid after a house? Julia, Sebastian’s younger sister, seems more in the bloodless killer line if you ask me. She doesn’t understand why her alcoholic brother can’t just behave like everyone else.
There is not a lot of plot, really, like so many early and mid century literary novels. The thing I noticed about halfway through is that I can’t say there was a lot of character, either. Well, there is and there isn’t. The people who surround Ryder are richly developed and unusual. There is Sebastian, who has a teddy bear named after a saint (I think, I can’t remember the name), his odd family, a vibrant homosexual named …. who Ryder seems to despise and I liked right away. But Ryder doesn’t like anyone on first meeting. Beyond that, I had very little sense of him as a character. Everything is about the people around him. A little comes out when Sebastian begins to tumble into alcoholism. I was frustrated by how often Ryder didn’t speak, either to point out to his friend the stupidity of his erratic behavior, or to be actively helpful rather than just thinking things should be allowed to go on. He could have said something to explain things to the family, either for himself or his friend and he never did. He doesn’t apologize for anything or explain, even when he is misunderstood. I just didn’t get him.
When I became aware of this non-existence of the main character, it started to bother me. Then we come to the last part of the novel. It turns left while we’re still going straight. Ryder has lost touch with the family after one of Sebastian’s drunken Christmases and become an architectural painter. Apparently, he’s been off in the wilds of Africa for two years and is married. “His wife” has two children. At this point is when I discovered this guy is just a grade A asshole. He took off on this trip when his wife was pregnant. He doesn’t know the child’s name or sex and constantly refers to the children as hers. I mean you’ve got to be kidding me. No sooner is he back and he falls for Sebastian’s sister Julia. At this point, I wish I could say I cared. I mean, I loathed Rider and was a little sick of the family’s whinging, their manufactured troubles, their failed marriages and their alcoholics. The ending went on too long, so despite the beautiful writing, and the first blush of enjoying all these people in their dissipated, indolent, rich lives, I felt that I aged and grew embittered with them. And that makes for an interesting reader experience.
**disclaimer: yeah, the main character is misogynist, and there is no plot, and it had a lot of pages full of grand ideas but it didn’t bore me, it made me feel stuff. I like when books make me feel stuff.