This is a re-read for me. It’s one of those books that I will always go back to (to which I will always return, pardon my grammar). I love everything about it, much like I love everything about Evelyn Waugh’s writing. I have to admit that my first introduction to the story was via PBS, although that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The book came much later, in adulthood.
The story opens during WW2, where a nearing-middle-age Captain Charles Ryder is reflecting on his time in the army and realizing that he is miserable and does not care at all what happens. His company is assigned to a place in the English countryside. They arrive in the middle of the night, and Charles has no idea where he is. In the morning, he thinks to ask where they are stationed, and when he finds out,
[I]t was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, fully of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.
Charles is at Brideshead, the ancestral home of some people he once knew. Charles tells one of his men, “I’ve been here before.” Much like Proust’s madeline, the mansion transports Charles back 20 years, to the point where. . . .
Charles is at college. He has ground floor rooms, although he had been warned against them (too many visitors). Charles had been at school for a couple of terms, and was doing fine. A few friends, deep conversations, things like that. He had seen Sebastian Flyte around school. Everyone knew who Lord Sebastian was, because he was beautiful, and because he carried a large teddy bear around. Charles disapproved. Then one night, when Charles had a few friends over, there was noise in the quad. It is Sebastian and his friends, wandering drunkenly about. Sebastian leans in Charles’ window and vomits. His friends carry him away, and one returned to apologize. It’s the best apology ever. “The wines were too various, it was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.”
Sebastian’s apology is typically excessive, his teddy bear is mortified, and Charles is invited to lunch. The lunch changes Charles’ life. He is introduced to an entirely new way of living. The boys become friends. Love grows between them, although Waugh keeps most of the action off stage. Charles starts to neglect everyone and everything, as he is more and more consumed by Sebastian. Sebastian is terribly unhappy, apparently because his family is Catholic and he can’t seem to fit himself into the expected roles. Charles just seems to float along, not terribly affected by anyone or anything.
Sebastian brings Charles to Brideshead and introduces him to Nanny Hawkins. Charles eventually meets all of the Flytes, and quite becomes part of the family. The Flytes are more screwed up than most families, but Charles is somehow only slightly touched by all of them. Years pass, Sebastian drifts away into drink and isolation. Charles marries someone else, has a couple of kids whom he doesn’t see at all, falls in love with Sebastian’s sister, and ends up on the other end alone, unloved, and reminiscing about what has passed and what might have been.
I love this book, and will read it over and over again until my copy wears out. Then I will buy a new one.