Like Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence, Brideshead Revisited features sympathetic but heartbreakingly human protagonists, possessing both grace and flaws, placed in a setting rife with rigid societal/religious constraints and then forced to choose between societal/religious conformity or personal happiness. I keep hoping the protagonists will choose personal happiness, but they never do.
This novel features a trio of perhaps the most charismatic and tragic protagonists in literary history: gay, tormented Sebestian Flyte, his beautiful sister Julia, and family friend Charles Ryder. In Age of Innocence, it’s the rigid constructs of society that eventually bruise and break the characters. In this outing, Catholicism is the wall against which each character, one after another, tragically dashes themselves: first, Sebestian’s father, trapped by Catholicism in a loveless marriage; next, his heartbreakingly fragile son Sebastian, trying desperately to repress his homosexuality; after that Julia, who tragically discovers her love for Charles after she has married another; and finally Charles who, though a non-believer, is swept up by the tide of Marchmont tragedy and himself broken.
All of which would have you thinking of this story as rampantly anti-Catholic, except that Waugh was himself a convert to Catholicism and, accordingly, ensures that each character, though deprived of earthly happiness, ultimately rescues their hope of ultimate grace. Even Charles, the skeptic and non-believer, has by the end of the tale begun to pray. Which, I suppose, is meant to provide consolation of a sort, though not enough to keep me from tearing up throughout the final chapters.
Provided you can deal with all the tragedy, there’s much in this novel to admire and, yes, to love. The writing is gorgeous. The evocation of period is brilliant. And each of the three protagonists is hauntingly memorable – especially Sebestian, whose transformation from dazzlingly charismatic schoolboy to gentle but ravaged alcoholic adulthood is wholly riveting.
You know how some books don’t seem particularly notable at the time but as the years pass you come gradually to comprehend their wisdom and insight? I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books, and that Waugh’s insights into faith, duty, loyalty, morality, beauty, friendship and love are destined to haunt me for years to come.