Some of the books on my Ten Favourite Books list are difficult to review and Brideshead Revisited is one of these: so much has already been said about it that I feel I have nothing original to add to the conversation. However Brideshead is a book I’ve returned to many times since I first read it in October 2000 – I enjoyed it so much on first reading and I discover something new, some nuance or beautiful passage I’ve overlooked before, on every reading. So I had a very pleasurable morning yesterday (OK technically it was the afternoon, but for DJs 1pm is the morning) snuggled up in bed with a large pot of coffee and once again lost in my well-worn copy.
For those of you who haven’t read it, Brideshead Revisited was first published in 1945 and was largely based on Waugh’s own experiences with the Lygon family, documented in the book Mad World, which I reviewed in June 2012. The narrator, Charles Ryder, while studying at Oxford, befriends Lord Sebastian Flyte, an eccentric and charismatic young man who is the youngest child of Lord Marchmain. Charles goes to stay at the family mansion Brideshead Castle where he meets the rest of Sebastian’s family: his devoutly Catholic mother, his beautiful sister Julia, the eldest son and heir Bridey, and the youngest sister Cordelia. Lord Marchmain lives in Venice with his Italian mistress Cara, but has not divorced Lady Marchmain due to her religious beliefs.
Sebastian and Charles grow close, their friendship cemented by boozy afternoons that turn into even boozier evenings, staying at the family seat and at the Marchmain’s palatial townhouse in London. Charles falls under the spell of the Flytes and the book chronicles his experiences with them over a twenty year period, through Sebastian’s growing alcoholism, Julia’s ill-advised marriage, and Lady Marchmain’s worsening stranglehold on her family and their happiness.
Although there is a 2008 film version of Brideshead I would beg you not to watch it (honestly, even the music in the trailer is dreadful), and instead invest in the BBC boxset. The eleven-part series was aired in 1981 and it was widely lauded as being a faithful interpretation of the novel and nominated for armloads of awards.
The casting was perfect: Jeremy Irons, Laurence Oliver, John Gielgud, Diana Quick, Claire Bloom, and in particular, Anthony Andrews, who simply is Sebastian Flyte, there could be no other. A number of English stately homes were used in the production including Castle Howard as Brideshead Castle and Bridgewater House as the Flyte’s town residence. Every detail of the production is stunningly realised.
So if you don’t fancy reading the book, dive into the boxset some rainy weekend, and if you do read the book and like it, I’d recommend A Handful of Dust as your next Waugh purchase.