Reading by Ear: Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
read by Jeremy Irons

I think my first exposure to Brideshead Revisited was my mother trying to introduce me to the BBC miniseries and failing—as we watched Charles and Sebastian stroll arm in arm around Oxford, she anxiously assured me that they weren’t gay. Well, then, there’s nothing for me here, young Clare concluded to herself, and cut her losses. But I did eventually read the novel, before the most recent film adaptation came out. I enjoyed both novel and film adaptation immensely, but it had been some years since and, anyways, I finally got my hands on a copy of the audiobook as narrated by one Jeremy Irons. It was time to revisit… okay, that’s so bad I’ll stop myself.

Brideshead Revisited is the story of the unhappy Flyte family, as seen through the eyes of the painter Charles Ryder. When he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte in Oxford, the young Charles is dazzled by the young aristocrat’s charm, beauty, and lifestyle. Despite Sebastian’s best efforts to keep Charles away from the rest of his family, Charles meets the rest of the Flytes and becomes further involved in their family drama—a father living in sin in Italy, their staunchly Roman Catholic mother, and Lady Julia, Sebastian’s beautiful elder sister. As Charles floats in and out of their lives over the course of his life, he watches—and becomes involved in—the last gasp of the English aristocracy, as World War II looms ever closer and the family falls further apart…

As I mentioned in my review of Out of Oz, Brideshead Revisited is brimming with beautiful language. (Of course, having Jeremy Irons, who played Charles in the BBC miniseries, narrate certainly can’t hurt.) This is the only novel of Waugh’s that I’ve read, but now I’m keen to explore his bibliography. Charles, whom I often thought cruel upon my first read, is an artist through and through, focused on aesthetics. Charles is not a man ever given over to passion, even when he and Julia, both married to other people, begin an affair in the third section of the novel. As a result, the novel is dripping with gorgeous prose as the Flytes and their stately home, the Brideshead of the title, fall into decay. Waugh himself, in the introduction to the 1959 revised edition of the novel, said that “the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful”. But I’m fond of such rich fare, and it never seems excessive; Charles is, even when he might triumph, distant from these events. It’s an inherently nostalgic novel, able to call up nostalgia even in people (such as myself!) who have never experienced anything like this before.

And it’s partly because Charles is such a human character. He’s not sure what he wants, beyond spending more time with the Flytes, even as things get rougher and rougher. He’s almost as much an observer as the reader; his family life is essentially nothing, hence his longing for the Flytes. (Who’d have thought Harry Potter would make me understand this novel more?) His distance isn’t particularly a choice, but only because he doesn’t understand the importance of religion to the Flytes. In the past, I thought the ending was about Charles losing the Flytes forever to religion, but I’ve realized I read it wrong as a kid. Religion is a large part of the novel; Charles and Rex, Julia’s fiancee, are both more or less areligious, and their misunderstandings are the subject of quite a bit of discussion. I have always been sympathetic towards Sebastian (I may have willfully forgotten how his story ends in order to maintain him happily in Morocco in my head), a cheerful, charming degenerate whose tragic fall into alcoholism is hastened by his interfering family. But on this reread, I was most struck by Cordelia, the youngest daughter, a would-be nun who balances the charm of her older siblings with a straight-forward devotion to her faith, despite her naughtiness.

Really, it’s such a beautiful novel that I can’t quite go further with it before starting to sink my academic teeth in. It’s like one of the last days of summer; you try to enjoy what you have, but there’s something on the horizon that will blot it out… or will it? Irons’ narration is fantastic, and I love the idea of an actor who has played the role returning to the original novel to do the audiobook, especially when it’s all from Charles’ perspective. His voices are nicely distinctive without being distracted, and his calm, slightly rumpled voice is perfect for the tone of the novel. If you can seek out Irons as a narrator, do.

Bottom line: The drippingly gorgeous, human, and nostalgic Brideshead Revisited is brilliantly narrated by Jeremy Irons, who played Charles in the 1981 BBC miniseries. Well worth a listen.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

3 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Brideshead Revisited

  1. You know what, I’ve never read, listened to or watched Brideshead Revisited… I own the book, I’ve added it to my Classic Club list and I have some vague ideas about it. But your review really makes me want to push it up my list and get it read soon. And maybe then listened to the Jeremy Irons audio version – his voice would be perfect for audio books!

  2. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: 2012 in Review « The Literary Omnivore

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