Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Book cover of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve put off reading Brideshead Revisited. A friend of mine read it when we were 17 or so and adored it – unfortunately when I picked it up based on her recommendation, I couldn’t get past the first page. I’m not sure what made me pick it up now – other than my new TBR challenge, anyway. Perhaps I just felt particularly masochistic that day. Did I enjoy it? Umm… well, parts of it. Read on.

Plot summary: The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

‘The golden age?’ Seriously? If this is golden, I’d hate to see what the ‘grey and depressing age’ looked like.

Even when I’d pulled this from the shelf and settled down in my chair to read it, it took me forever to start it. You know when you’re holding a spoonful of particularly nasty medicine and you’re aware of how awful it’s going to taste, so you keep bringing it to your mouth but then inadvertently stopping yourself? Yeah, that. It took me about 30 minutes to read the first line after a continuous pattern of opening the book, finding the right page… and then snapping it shut again immediately.

Once I eventually had begun reading, I was pleasantly surprised. The prologue is a little dreary as it’s set in a rainy military camp, but I understand why that was a necessary part of the plot. After that the book changes completely and becomes rather charming.

I love Sebastian (even though I can’t seem him as anyone but Hugh Laurie in my head) and his teddy bear, Aloysius. He’s eccentric but in a loveable way – he reminds me of a more mischevious Jay Gatsby. Every single page was a pleasure as I delighted in the light-hearted atmosphere of their days at University.

“That,” said the barber, as I took his chair, “was Lord Sebastian Flyte. A most amusing young gentleman.”
“Apparently,” I said coldly.
“The Marquis of Marchmain’s second boy. … What do you suppose Lord Sebastian wanted? A hair brush for his teddy-bear; it had to have very stiff bristles, not, Lord Sebastian said, to brush him with, but to threaten him with a spanking when he was sulky.” 

I was beginning to wonder what people were talking about when they stated how bogged down in religion and morality Brideshead Revisited is. I just didn’t understand – there was only teddy-bears and wine! And then I knew. Oh how I knew.

So we have the prologue which is miserable but necessary, and then it switches to light-hearted teddy-bear romping. Unfortunately it then changes back but adds an extra dash of sheer despair for good measure. My god this book is depressing. Nobody is happy in this book – alcoholism, unrequited love, Catholic hand-wringing… it’s all here.

It seems like nothing actually happens – there are lots of problems and issue, but none of them are ever resolved. I don’t mind sad novels if there’s a point to them, but I just don’t understand what that would be in Brideshead Revisited. Obviously there is one as it’s a hugely popular classic novel but honestly, I lost interest in trying to figure out what that might be (other than Catholicism = misery). I still don’t understand certain key aspects, such as why Charles and Julia couldn’t get married. 

It doesn’t help that nobody is actually likeable in this book; not after they leave University, anyway. I felt that Sebastian was the key figure and I missed him when the narrative moved away from him – everybody was too busy swanning about in despair to actually make me like them.  

I can sort of, kind of, maybe see why this is a classic, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. 

Don’t think I’m not aware of what a philistine-ical (hey, that’s a word) review this is – just whining about how depressing Brideshead Revisited is and completely missing all of the themes etc. In my defence, I read and review for enjoyment. Frankly and finally, I did not enjoy this.

Help me out – what am I missing with Brideshead Revisited?


  1. Jimjamjenny says:

    I've never really even considered reading this, but the bit about the teddy-bear is kind of making me want to. But the rest of the review put me off again, so maybe I'll give it a miss! Maybe I can find a copy somewhere and just selectively read the teddy-bear based bits!

    1. admin says:

      When I say ONLY the teddy bear parts are interesting, I do mean that literally. The rest of it was miserable.

      I'm torn because I really DO want to recommend those bits, but I really DON'T want to put you through the rest of it!

    2. Jimjamjenny says:

      Hehe, maybe I'll see if my parents have a copy when I go back to the UK for Christmas and just find and read those parts 😀

  2. Ellie says:

    "You know when you're holding a spoonful of particularly nasty medicine and you're aware of how awful it's going to taste, so you keep bringing it to your mouth but then inadvertently stopping yourself? Yeah, that." THIS IS WHY I LOVE YOU.

    I'm still planning to read Brideshead though. I have to, our shop teddy was called Aloysius. I have to admit, a lot of the charm in my anticipation of the novel stems from the university frivolity – but hopefully I'll engage enough to enjoy the rest too. I don't have a copy yet – my old copy was so horrible I culled it pre-move – but I will. 😀

    1. admin says:

      Haha, I wasn't being pithy… I meant it entirely literally.

      I LOVED THAT TEDDY-BEAR. I just wish those parts were longer.

  3. I have memories of really quite enjoying this, but that's just because the Oxford scenes, drunken Sebastian and his teddy bear were so memorable. Thinking about it, I would agree with you – the rest of the book left no impression at all.

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