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Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh’s novel remains easily the most popular Catholic-themed work of fiction in the English language. Why?

"Brideshead Revisited", the most famous novel by Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) was first published in 1945. (Photo of Waugh in 1940 taken by Carl Van Vechten | Wikipedia)

In the late spring of 1945, as World War II was drawing toward a close, a novel called Brideshead Revisited made its appearance in Britain; its first U.S. edition came out the following January. Whatever else might be said of it—and a great deal has been said—three-quarters of a century later this book by Evelyn Waugh remains easily the most popular Catholic-themed work of fiction in the English language.

After all these years it is interesting to reflect on what accounts for the extraordinary success Brideshead has enjoyed from the start. The much praised 1981 TV miniseries based on it certainly helped, yet the novel itself still stands firmly on its own, occupying a special place in the affections of countless readers. Why?

Before its publication, Waugh was best known for a series of biting satires puncturing the empty-headed pretensions of a decadent British upper class between the two world wars.They included such highly readable–and still read–volumes as Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust, and Scoop.

Brideshead Revisited marked a new turn in the author’s career. The book’s romanticism and its richness of style touched exactly the right nerve in readers just emerging from the perils and privations of wartime and heading into a postwar era of uncertainty and (in Great Britain) austerity. Yet a novel about the foibles of a wealthy British Catholic family would seem at first glance to have little natural interest for most readers. So what was it that made—and for many still makes—Brideshead so very special?

Two things in particular seem to me to account for the book’s lasting appeal.

One is its nostalgia for happier times, especially strong in the story’s first section, which paints an idealized picture of undergraduate life at Oxford in the early ‘20s. Several of the themes and characters introduced here take on darker hues as the story progresses, but the early days, as Waugh depicts them, are cloudless and golden. Although precious few people attended Oxford in the 1920s or any other time, Waugh’s idyllic version offers readers who ever went to any school any place a vicarious experience of carefree youth as they’d have liked it to be.

The second source of the book’s enduring popularity is, I think, its triumphalistic treatment of Catholicism. Waugh, a convert, makes being Catholic sound not just interesting but fashionable, delivering the message that the cleverest, most attractive, and ultimately most serious people are Catholics. It’s all summed up in the book’s great deathbed scene in which even the agnostic Charles Ryder, the story’s narrator, falls to his knees to pray for a sign of final repentance by the imperious, adulterous lapsed Catholic Lord Marchmain.

Waugh was a brilliant stylist, but his writing in Brideshead Revisited has sometimes been criticized as being too self-indulgently lush. Perhaps so, yet this very lushness is part of the story’s attraction. And, as one critic remarked of Waugh, “however badly he writes, he always writes well.”

Among Waugh’s books, on the whole I prefer his World War II trilogy Men at War, and I also confess to having a soft spot in my heart for The Loved One–admittedly an odd reaction to so relentlessly ferocious an assault on American culture. But after 75 years Brideshead holds a firm place in the esteem of very many readers, and it’s no stretch to think that may still be true 75 years from now. There are not too many books you can say that about.


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About Russell Shaw 211 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

6 Comments

  1. It is also intriguing to reflect on Brideshead in the age of Amoris. What sets the novel apart is not its stylistic merit alone nor even the Catholic ethos with which it is almost paradoxically suffused, but the breathtaking clash between the lavishness of the lifestyle of Sebastian and his siblings over against the rank interior poverty with which they each, in one way or another, are forced to contend. This tension comes to a head, of course, in the traumatic breakup of Charles and Julia who have–or who, as the scoffer Lord Marchmain struggles for his last breaths, expect to have–everything there is to be had in this world, save the truth. The poignancy of the novel derives from its illustration of the reality that he who saves his life shall lose it, and vice versa.
    Append to Waugh’s reflection Footnote 351, however, and Brideshead’s theme itself is diabolically extracted. Not only Lady Marchmain’s chapel but every human heart and the cosmos at large are metaphorically left, in Cordelia’s apt phrase, but an oddly decorated room. Perhaps Brideshead’s enduring popularity may be at least partially attributable to the fact that we need it now more than ever.

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Shaw, The Lord of the Rings is the “most popular Catholic-themed work of fiction in the English languag.”

  3. A great book and the film was also very good, it is a shame at present it seems slightly less well known in the UK at the moment.

  4. Probably the best British novel ever written! If you don’t want to read it, get a hold of the audiobook narrated by Jeremy Irons. He does a superb job with the reading, changing his voice as the different characters speak. I believe Irons did the book narration before he went on to star as Charles Ryder in the movie vesin of Brideshead Revisted, which was superbly casted and does justice to Waugh’s work, unlike the more recent remake which fell far short.

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