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Literature / Brideshead Revisited

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"Its theme — the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters — was perhaps presumptuously large, but I make no apology for it."
Evelyn Waugh, preface to the 1945 edition

Brideshead Revisited is a 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh that follows, from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of Charles Ryder, a middle class man, most especially his friendship with the Flyte siblings; the lovable, but dipso, manchild Sebastian and his sister Julia, both members of a decaying family of English Roman Catholic aristocrats.

Made into a successful mini-series by ITV in 1981 starring Jeremy Irons as Charles, Anthony Andrews as Sebastian and Diana Quick as Julia (with Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain and John Gielgud as Edward Ryder) and a feature film in 2008 with Matthew Goode as Charles, Ben Whishaw as Sebastian, and Hayley Atwell as Julia (with Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain).

The novel provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Sebastian starts as a young, tormented guy, and a major point in his part of the story is when he becomes an alcoholic. The problem is exacerbated by Sebastian's mother's belief that the only solution is ever-tighter supervision, even though Charles points out that Sebastian drinks less when he feels himself free of his overwhelming family, and Charles and Cordelia enabling his alcoholism by slipping him booze and money they know he'll spend on booze.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Sebastian's elder brother, whose name is also Brideshead, acts so "logically" and "to the point" most of the time that he typically treats his siblings coldly.
    • Actually, "Brideshead" and "Bridey" is not his first name (that one is never revealed), but shortcut for his title, that is "Earl of Brideshead" (actually his father's, Marquess of Marchmain's second title, according to the title rules of English nobility). The fact he is constantly being addressed with the title instead of his name (to the extent his Christian name is never even revealed to the reader) DOES correspond with his aloofnes and overall character, however.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Charles's relationships with Sebastian and Julia suggest this, although he shows no interest in men other than Sebastian. It's also worth noting that romances between Oxford undergrads were ubiquitous at the time and not seen as indicative of future orientation.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Sebastian's orientation is never outright stated, but he clearly prefers the company of men — some of whom are openly gay — and shows no interest in women.
  • Ambivalent Anglican: Charles is a nominal Anglican in the way that most of the English upper-middle and upper classes were at the time, but in an earlier part of the book he speculates that actual belief in God has waned significantly since the First World War.
  • Big Fancy House: Brideshead itself is an old mansion, with a full staff and enough rooms that Sebastian and Charles can be comfortably away from the rest of the family while Charles visits.
  • Bittersweet Ending: By his own admission, Charles ends the book homeless, childless, loveless and middle-aged. Lady Marchmain dies knowing she has failed Sebastian; Sebastian never recovers from alcoholism; and Brideshead is robbed of his titular inheritance at the last minute. But for all that, Sebastian's journey through faith has him find peace through his personal suffering, and Lord Marchmain returns to the faith in his final hour and makes a deathbed confession, which inspires Julia to call off her pending adulterous union with Charles. And Samwise and Rex, the closest the book has to antagonists, wind up with their ambitions thwarted.
  • Brick Joke: Early in the book, Mulcaster is involved in hazing of Anthony Blanche. Anthony predicts that the men who did it will remember this while they live boring lives. Halfway through the book, Mulcaster brings up the incident.
  • Camp Gay: Anthony Blanche. He is a flamboyantly dressed aesthete who is outspoken about his sexuality and even buys Charles a drink at a gay club at one point.
  • Comedic Spanking: Sebastian wanted a hairbrush for his teddy bear: not to brush him with, but to threaten him with a spanking when he was sulky.
  • Converting for Love: It's a given that anyone who wants to marry into the Flyte family must convert to Catholicism. Rex Mottram's attempt to do so is an Epic Fail—partly because he doesn't give a hang for religion, partly because Cordelia feeds him false information as a joke (he believes, for instance, that you can condemn anyone's soul to Hell by paying the Church a small fee).
  • Cure Your Gays: Very ambiguously implied when Rex mentions that the sanitorium he plans to send Sebastian to treats sex cases as well as alcoholism. Lady Marchmain seems to miss this as she responds by wondering about the kind of company Sebastian would have there.
  • Ensign Newbie: Charles's World War II Military service is hindered by the clumsy, but well meaning Lieutenant Hooper.
  • Everybody Smokes: Justified given the time period.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Played straight and then subverted — Charles initially is little more than an outside observer upon Sebastian and his family, but after the Time Skip becomes the novel's proper protagonist.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: The bulk of the action takes place between 1923 and 1939.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: In-universe; Charles is relieved to have a valid reason to hate his wife due to her infidelity but cheerfully abandons his own family for Julia.
  • Heroic BSoD: Julia has one of these when Lord Brideshead calls her out on her adulterous relationship with Charles.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Charles and Sebastian. Maybe.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Charles consistently refers to Caroline as his wife's baby, indicating his belief that she is not his daughter but the product of Celia's adultery.
  • Manchild: Sebastian is this, at least at the start. Complete with teddy bear.
  • Minor Injury Overreaction: Sebastian sends a telegram to Charles saying that he's dying; Charles arrives to find that Sebastian really just broke a tiny bone too unimportant to name.
  • The Mistress: Cara, Lord Marchmain's mistress.
  • Missing Mum: Charles's mother passed away when he was young.
  • The Not-Love Interest: Sebastian is this to Charles, and the "forerunner" to his later loves.
  • Parental Abandonment: Charles doesn't really care for either of his children, emphasized best when he goes to London to begin his serious affair with Julia instead of returning home to meet his son and daughter, the former who made him a Welcome Home banner for the occasion and the latter who was born when he was away and who he never even met!
  • The Plan: Arguably played by God, of all people. Almost all of the characters eventually find religion in the end, despite their attempts to run away.
  • Second Love: Charles's first love is for Sebastian but when Sebastian becomes more distant due to his alcoholism problem, Charles—after an unhappy marriage—ultimately courts Sebastian's sister Julia (which turns out to be another ill-fated relationship). There are shades of the Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest here because Charles notes the striking similarity between Julia and her brother when he first encounters them. Towards the end of the novel, Charles considers his feelings for Sebastian a sort of forerunner to his devotion to Julia.
  • Settle for Sibling: How one can interpret Charles's feelings for Julia.
  • Speech Impediment: Blanche, as well as Kurt.
  • The Spock: Bridey
  • Trophy Wife: Mottram sees Julia as one and finds himself disappointed after he marries her and finds it going nowhere.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: The relationship between Sebastian and Anthony Blanche, as the latter paves the way for Sebastian's entry into the seedy side of university life.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Bridey thinks he's made quite the catch with the divorced mother Beryl, but pretty much everyone who meets her is turned off by her appearance and demeanor; multiple people wonder why one of the most eligible bachelors in London chose her.
  • World War II: The framing narrative is set during the war, which sees Charles posted to the requisitioned Brideshead and reminiscing about his time with the Flytes.
  • Villain Protagonist: As the novel progresses, Charles' own lack of moral fiber begins to have an increasingly negative effect on the people around him. He enables Sebastian's alcoholism, abandons his children and wife to run off with Julia, and becomes more supportive, internally if not vocally, of Lord Marchmain's resistance to confessing his sins as his death approached, as he knew that Julia's faith, if she began to take it seriously once more, was the only thing that stood a real chance of motivating her to cut off their adulterous relationship. For those familiar with St. Augustine, Charles, and other figures like Anthony Blanche, would represent the City of the Devil, which stands at odds with the City of God.

The mini-series provides examples of:

  • The Ghost: In the miniseries, Mrs. Muspratt never quite makes it onscreen.
  • Tone Shift: Most apparent in this adaption, where the first half of the series offers an almost nostalgic window into the lives (and loves) of aristocratic young Englishmen, whereas the second half of the series feels more like a very staid, cold analysis and commentary on religion.

The movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Cordelia is described in the novel as having grown up plain to the point where Charles is at first disappointed to see her; Felicity Jones, however, is too adorable to ever be considered "plain."
  • Adaptational Context Change:
    • In the novel, Julia's marriage to Rex Mottram is in many ways an act of rebellion, as it happens over her family's objections. In the movie, the family want her to marry Rex, and agreeing to do so makes Julia seem much more weak and dominated.
    • In the novel, Jasper warns Charles off of Anglo-Catholics in general, saying "they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents". In the movie, Jasper remarks, "Sodomites, all of them!", but is speaking specifically of the Roman Catholic Sebastian and Anthony Blanche, turning a piece of rhetorical bigotry into a specific comment on the characters' sexuality.
  • Adaptational Curves: Julia is waifish in the books but is played by the much more buxom and curvaceous Hayley Atwell (Emma Thompson fought the demands for Atwell to lose weight for the role). This makes her look a lot less similar to the appropriately waifish Ben Whishaw, eroding one of book!Charles's motivations for falling for her (that she resembles her brother).
  • Adaptational Villainy: Lady Marchmain.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Oddly kind of inverted in the film, with the nominal Catholics behaving more like Evangelicals.
  • Death by Adaptation: Charles learns near the end of the film that Bridey died in the Blitz.
  • Scenery Porn: The movie was filmed on location at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. There are a lot of nice shots of Oxford and Venice, as well.
  • Sibling Triangle: In the 2008 movie, Sebastian has a thing for Charles, but the latter and Julia are in love. In the book and mini-series, Charles's relationship with Julia comes ten years after the friendship with Sebastian has ended and there are no signs of a love triangle.