I first read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited back in college. It’s one of those books that I know I liked but that didn’t stick with me. The excellent miniseries, which I watched four or five years ago, refreshed my memory—but only temporarily. When the 2008 movie version was released, I realized that it was time for me to revisit Brideshead.
In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder tells the story of his long relationship with the Marchmain family, particularly the youngest son, Sebastian, and his sister, Julia. But more than that, it’s the story of how God keeps tugging at the hearts of his children, trying to bring them back home. For some readers, this constant tugging may feel like oppression, as when Lady Marchmain closely monitors Sebastian’s alcohol intake. For me, however, it’s a moving story of how we’re never too far gone for God’s grace even though God may ask us to put aside other idols.
One of the best things about this book is the complexity of the characters. Waugh himself was a Catholic, and I suspect that he generally sympathized with the more devout characters in the book. But this sympathy does not cause him to make them perfect. For example, Lady Marchmain’s efforts to curb Sebastian’s drinking sometimes seem misguided and even counterproductive. Waugh’s Catholicism also does not prevent him from creating sympathetic characters who are outside the faith. Charles Ryder, an agnostic, is likable, and his point of view frequently makes very good sense to someone who does not share the Marchmain’s Catholic faith, and perhaps even to some who do.
The audiobook that I listened to was read by Jeremy Irons, who played Ryder in the 1981 miniseries. I love Irons’s voice, and having seen the miniseries, it was easy for me to picture him as Ryder. He also handles the voices of the other characters well, giving each one’s voice a distinct quality without hamming it up too much. An excellent audio experience.
I am curious about the new film version. The reviews I’ve encountered have been decidedly mixed, and leaning negative. I’ve gotten the impression that it takes an anti-Catholic stance, which is troubling to me. I think it’s possible to see this book as not particularly pro-Catholic, but an outright anti-Catholic reading seems wrong. I wonder, however, if some of the criticism comes from people who wanted it to take a “hooray for Catholicism” tone rather than something more nuanced. If you’ve seen it, let me know what you thought.