"Brideshead Revisited" has been made into about five movies over the past decade or so, apparently all of them starring Jeremy Irons. Or so it seems. Fortunately I have not seen any of these, so I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up, which is generally the way I like it. Here's what it turned out to be about: booze, rich people, and religion, specifically Catholicism.
The narrator and main character of the book is Charles Ryder. The novel opens with Ryder an officer in England during World War II. In the book's prologue, his company is sent to a new camp in the English countryside, and it turns out to be on an estate of the Flyte family, whom he knows quite well. The story of the novel is then told in flashback form. And that story is all about Charles's relationships with the Flyte family. The Flytes are an old, aristocratic family, with a huge estate (Brideshead) and a lot of money, although we learn in the course of the novel that that money is diminishing. The Flytes are Catholic, not the norm in Protestant England, and their relationship to Catholicism forms one of the cruxes of the novel.
As the story opens, Charles is a freshman at Oxford University. One evening, as he's hanging out with friends in his room (or suite of rooms...the characters in the novel all lived in style), a drunken student sticks his head in Charles's first floor window and, as students would say, ralphs. Charles is understandably a bit put off by this, but the student, Sebastian Flyte, is profusely apologetic, sends flowers, and invites Charles to lunch. They are soon inseparable. Sebastian is incredibly charming, loves to party, and carries a stuffed bear named Aloysius with him everywhere. He introduces Charles to his small circle of friends, all hedonistic wits and heavy drinkers. In other words, the kind of people we all wish we'd hung out with in college. Charles and Sebastian become very close, and it's a mystery as to exactly how close. Is their relationship platonic only, or is there a physical element? We never really know, although I don't think it's critical that we do know. Their relationship is close, and they bond intensely. It's what kids today would call a "bromance".
Sebastian brings Charles to Brideshead where he meets the rest of the Flyte family. Well, most of it anyway. Sebastian's parents are separated, with the father, Lord Marchmain, living in Venice with his mistress, while the mother, Lady Marchmain, lives at Brideshead with her older son, Brideshead, and her two daughters, Julia and Cordelia. The family are all oddballs, in their own way. The mother is fiercely Catholic, which causes Sebastian to rebel (i.e. reject Catholicism). Julia is engaged to Rex Mottram, a Canadian who is clearly a pompous and empty buffoon, albeit a wealthy one. Julia is not religious, having given up the Catholic church like Sebastian. Cordelia, the youngest, is fiercely Catholic like her mother. And Brideshead (the son, not the estate) is just odd...somewhat shy, not totally comfortable in social situations. In the later part of the novel he becomes an avid collector of matchboxes.
The summer before school Sebastian and Charles travel to Venice to see Sebastian's father. While they are there, the father's mistress says privately to Charles that even though he and Sebastian both love to drink, she can tell that it's different with Sebastian, that he can't control it. She proves to be quite prescient. As they enter their second year at Oxford, Sebastian's drinking indeed becomes a problem. He's failing his school work, staying out late, and drunk most of the time. He and Charles visit the Flytes at Brideshead over the holidays and things are really falling apart...Sebastian is always drunk, and makes a few scenes. The family tries to keep the booze away from him, but it doesn't work. He drops out of Oxford and takes off. Charles only sees him again once or twice. He eventually makes his way to Morocco, sick and drunk, and ends up living in a monastery. We don't hear from him again.
Sebastian's drinking problem is tragic and sad, especially given his wonderful personality and his youthful promise at the story's start. But his story rings true. I knew many heavy drinkers in college (after all, isn't that the definition of a college student?), and there were a few that were clearly destined for problems. Somehow you could tell them apart...they had a deeper need for drinking than most people, and were clearly marked for trouble. Who knows why some are touched but not others.
Perhaps it's ironic that I'm sipping on some Guatemalan rum as I write this.
Charles ends up dropping out of Oxford to go to art school, and becomes a painter. He's an architectural painter, painting portraits of houses of wealthy aristocrats for commissions. We're lead to believe he has talent, but is by no means a great artist. He marries, and has a couple of kids, and takes off to South America to paint for two years after his wife has an affair. Despite the affair, it doesn't seem like he was ever close to his wife (of course the affair was probably a symptom that it was mutual). On his return to Europe he meets Julia Flyte on the ship. Julia is now separated from Rex, who she can't stand anymore...a year or two of marriage to him was enough for her to realize how empty he was. She and Charles begin to have an affair. Charles was always attracted to Julia, not in the least because she looked like Sebastian. They fall in love, and make plans to marry after they both get divorced. Could this novel end up ending happily? Yeah, right...the tone is way too bittersweet for that to happen.
So here's what happens: Lady Flyte has died, which allows Lord Flyte to come back to Brideshead (he couldn't come while she was alive because he absolutely could not stand her anymore). When he returns, he's quite ill and is slowly dying with heart failure. This produces a conflict between the children (Julia, Brideshead, and Cordelia). Should they bring in a priest to give the father his last rites? The father had been Anglican, but converted to Catholicism to satisfy his wife. But when they separated (25 years earlier) he left the church, and felt no attachment to it. The children decide they want a priest to come and see the father (even Julia, who had been a lapsed Catholic). Charles is against this, but what can he do? So a priest comes, and the father throws him out. But then the father gets sicker and is finally very close to death. This sets up the most poignant scene of the novel. The children bring in the priest again, and he gives their father his last rites. They pray that the father will give them some sign, and the father crosses himself. A few hours later he dies. Both Julia and Charles are deeply affected. Charles, who had been totally against the priest giving their father his last rites, on the grounds that the father did not want it, seems to have a religious experience while they're around the deathbed. He fervently prays for God to forgive the father's sins, and he is deeply moved when the father crosses himself. This is the first time in the novel that he's shown any religious inkling at all. After the father dies, Julia comes to Charles and says she cannot marry him. Charles says he understands. They part ways. End of story...well, not quite, as there's an epilogue back in the "present" World War II days.
Upon first reading this I was like "What the f$ just happened? Why won't Julia marry him?". But the I realized it was all about religion. Charles was divorced, and she had been having an affair with him, both really bad things in the eyes of the Catholic church. Julia, newly repentant and a Catholic again, had to reject him. Charles, having had his religious experience, recognizes and accepts this. While intellectually I can understand where they're coming from, it's hard for me to emotionally relate to this. I'm not from a religious family, so taking ones religion so seriously as to not marry the person you love because the church doesn't like that they were divorced...well, it makes a good story, I guess, but it's definitely outside the realm of my emotional comprehension.
This book reminded me, ever so slightly, of Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks", which I read years ago. That book is about the decline of a German upper middle class family. This book is also about a family in decline, in it's own peculiar way. The days of aristocracy are waning, and the family members all lead saddened lives (some sadder than others). And in fact, one of the things that attracts Charles to Julia is her sadness. None of the family members faces a particularly prosperous future. At the end, each of them in their own way finds solace in their religion, but in the end, their lives are still sad. As is Charles's. Not tragic, or catastrophic, just sad and wistful. Sigh...if only they had kept Aloysius around...