Revisiting Brideshead Revisited ­– the Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder

Re-reading Brideshead Revisited I was struck by its homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, and misogyny. I say this not to indulge the zeitgeist, but to express my view on how overt this is. A counterargument is, ‘well this is all just how society was back in 1945’. Remember how people said this about Jimmy Savile’s behaviour? Anyway, moving away from politics the real beauty of this novel is how it poetically captures nostalgia via an age bookended by world wars. When having ‘hysteria’ as she puts it, after being told by her brother that she is a full-on sinner, Lady Julia Flyte states she is stuck between the horrors of the past and fear of the future. This sums it up. Julia is unable to live in the present. Haven’t we all been there? Julia’s momentary instability highlights precisely what advocates of mindfulness today are striving for. Fortunately, Julia is fully aware of her position so able to step out of her malaise.

Like millions of others, I imitated Lord Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder following the brilliant 1981 TV adaptation, which had such a long-lasting deep impact on British culture and consciousness. There is also a good 2008 film version (dir. Julian Jarrold), frequently repeated on the small screen so this text continues circulating in a variety of forms building on its myths for each age. We know we should not judge a book by its author, but at one point its author Evelyn Waugh was known as a Nazi sympathizer and regarded as the ‘nastiest’ person in England. While Waugh believed the book was about the operation of grace and divine love, paradoxically this can be read as closer to Luther’s theology.[i] We need to remember the true meaning of reformation and revolution is getting back to the origins, circling back in this case to true Christianity. Charles Ryder’s memories reveal a man unable to truly relate to another, seeing the world second-hand, at a distance through art, metaphor and analogy, much the way a writer or painter as observer does. In this sense it is accurate and in her anger Julia tells Charles just this; who is he really? This is perceptive and hardly a misogynistic depiction.

As a teenager, on one level, I got the wrong end of the stick thinking Charles Ryder was attempting to see through the obscenities of class hierarchy and the more detrimental aspects of Catholicism. That was perhaps inevitable given I attended a Catholic school for ten years. To be fair to Waugh, in the preface to his 1955 edition he states he could never have predicted the British obsession for country houses which indeed grew and has now become a cult both in terms of tourism and endless drama productions on TV. This returns us to politics; the problem is it becomes harder to criticise such an institution as Waugh’s well-loved oeuvre and related material in this jingoistic post-Brexit age. The noticeably empty supermarket shelves reveal Brexit actually means more red-tape. Crackpot GB News rants that we should love paying higher prices for ‘British’ food. In this media discourse to do otherwise is to be a traitor. The freedoms that both Charles Ryder and Martin Luther might have proposed seem to have vanished. Despite accused sex offender Andrew Windsor being back in the news this week, his mother has a major celebration planned in 2022. This will be used to enhance the electability of this government, but should we be celebrating the UK’s shocking inequality gap in such a manner? As Charles Ryder would never say – God help us.

References and Further Reading

[i] the reformation a house divided – Bing

Jason Lee | Times Higher Education (THE)

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