I haven’t seen the movie, and I probably won’t, even though it stars Ben Whishaw.
The first part of the book is basically an undergraduate story, following Charles Ryder through the two years he spends at Oxford and a little while after. Ryder is from a well-off but not fashionable background. His father has some vague aesthetic or scholarly interests, not deep enough to offer him a career, which he keeps to himself. Charles has some idea of doing something similar, and perhaps of becoming a don and writing books about art history. He arrives at Oxford knowing little of how to behave there, and he makes a set of similarly vaguely scholarly friends. But then he meets Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche and their set, and discovers, as he puts it, the secret door in the garden wall that leads to the life Oxford truly promised. Sebastian is the second son of an aristocratic Catholic family riven by marital conflict, and Blanche is more than a little dubious, and their high-born friends are really quite rowdy. These men drink too much, spend too much, and behave irresponsibly (to themselves and to one another), and Ryder is led to follow their example. For him, the center of it all is Sebastian, in whose rooms the crowd usually meets.
Sebastian eventually invites Charles to his family home, called Brideshead Manor, and Charles is duly impressed by the house and, eventually, by the family. They travel to Europe and visit Lord Brideshead and his mistress, in Venice. In their second year, the two cast off their other friends, and Sebastian begins drinking much too much. At Oxford and at Brideshead, Charles engages in behavior that today would be called “enabling,” giving him money on the sly and lying to Sebastian’s family about it, and is thrown out of the house by the pious Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother.
When Sebastian isn’t allowed to return to Oxford—instead, he’ll travel in Europe with a donnish friend of the family, who’s promised to keep him from drinking—Ryder decides not to return, either. His father doesn’t care to have him stay in his large London house with him, so he moves to Paris and begins to study painting.
This first part of the book is a fine, early example of the kind of novel in which a fairly sensitive undergraduate becomes infatuated or obsessed with a classmate who seems even more sensitive than they. Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which has many similarities to Brideshead, makes a good comparison. I think Simone de Beauvoir’s account of her friendship with her classmate Zaza, in her memoir and in the final story of When Things of the Spirit Come First, is an even better one. The Secret History is in something of the same vein, and even The Great Gatsby, and I’m sure there are many more examples out there. Ryder wants to save Sebastian, in some way, even as he defers to Sebastian’s most destructive wishes. He wants Sebastian to be as good and noble as he appeared to be at first. He perceives Sebastian’s family and their religion as obstacles to Sebastian’s well-being.
The second part of the book is shorter. A chapter relates the marriage woes of Sebastian’s sister Julia, who is unfortunately stifled by the lack of suitable young men, in her court-centered set, who are either Catholic themselves or far enough from the succession that they’d marry one (though she’d accept a royal prince, were there one available), and marries a Canadian businessman of sketchy background and what Ryder agrees is lamentably poor breeding. A chapter relates Ryder’s and his friends’ reaction to the general strike of 1926: they join a reactionary group, in their minds in defense of the state, drive around lookers for strikers and others they consider undesirable, and beat them up. We find out what happened to Sebastian: he slipped away from his minder, stole or wheedled some cash, and set up in North Africa with a penniless and somewhat weak-minded German who’d self-inflicted an apparently uncurable wound in order to desert from the French Foreign Legion. By this point, no one in the family believes it would be worthwhile to go look for him, whether to visit him or to persuade him to come back home. Ryder has returned to England and set himself up as a painter of important houses, including the Flytes’ London town house, which are slowly being demolished in the ineluctable processing of modernity.
These chapters are the ones where what I think of as the Waugh style shine through, often witty and sharply observed. The narrator’s voice never passes judgment on those whose actions and beliefs he describes, but he makes it plain that he knew nothing of such rarefied social circles before he’d met them. That makes it sometimes difficult for the reader to know how clear-sighted he is in his observations and reports of their lives.
In the third and last part of the book, Ryder is returning from a painting tour in South America, where he’d gone to try to rejuvenate his career, and to add some more fashionably artistic tinge to it. He’s married and has two young children (whom he makes no attempt to see, and in whom expresses no interest, in the entire course of the novel), and his wife is being unfaithful. On the return trip by sea to England, he begins an affair with Julia Flyte, and continues the affair at home, to the extent of moving into Brideshead, where she nominally presides with her husband. Her husband, though, is an MP and an important man in government—it will be war soon, and he is steadfastly opposed to Hitler—and so almost never comes home. When he does, though, he happily tolerates Ryder’s constant presence. He generally ignores Julia anyway, while he and his cronies argue incessantly about politics and what the future will bring.
But then the oldest brother decides to marry and kick the three of them out. And then the father returns from Italy to die, and kicks the eldest brother and his family out. And after much discussion about the propriety of calling a priest to perform the Last Rites for a converted but subsequently apostate Catholic who frequently declares his lack of use for any church, a priest is inevitably called (for the sake of the family, that is, presumably, the “ladies”).
Meanwhile, the youngest daughter, who has been volunteering as a kind of nurse in the Middle East, has news of Sebastian. He was abandoned by his German, inevitably. Left without a purpose in life, he begged at the door of a monastery until they let him in. His sister imagines a life for him of surreptitious drunkenness and intermittent escape, but generally a minimally, at least intermittently helpful life in a holy place, until he dies and is absolved.
Julia decides to leave Charles, to save her soul, and eventually follows her sister into war service. We leave Charles there, pretty much, having experienced some unexplained epiphany through the events surrounding Lord Marchmain’s death, and with no definite future in sight—except for the framing device.
The novel is framed by Ryder’s war service, when suddenly his unit is assigned to an adapted manor house that turns out to be Brideshead. (There’s no mention whatever of his life before or outside of the war.) Ryder is tender toward his subordinates and has contempt for his superiors and for Army rules, but he mostly has contempt for the upwardly mobile officers that he feels are the face of the New England. We are to associate these young, petty-bourgeois officers with Julia’s crass and venal husband, with the probably-Jewish, overtly gay Anthony Blanche, and with the destruction of graceful townhouses and the glittering society that took place inside them. We associate them, most of all, with the transformation of glorious Brideshead, built by people with the money to purchase beauty and shape nature to their will, into a shabbily utilitarian office space for men who couldn’t care less.
But Ryder (who, it’s been mentioned in passing, has either taken up a deep interest in religion generally or actually converted to Catholicism) notices that the manorial chapel has been opened, and hopes that although the past is being destroyed, something will be transmitted, to, or for, the future.
I admit I don’t know how one is meant to take this. Are the commercial class and the lower middle class masses—seen by Ryder as the new ruling class—to have a Catholicism for themselves, as the Flytes once did? Or are they instead going to have an opportunity to become small-scale fascists as Ryder did in his own youth? Is all this marriage-and-wealth apparatus of the novel supposed to be recognized as meaningless in the face of the greater importance of religious truth? (If so, it’s sort of a kick in the face way to end a novel.)
The entire novel is fairly ambivalent. Sebastian is set up as an Ur-Romantic figure, a presumably artistic sensibility, driven by lack of outlets (and possibly poor parental choices regarding his education) to despair and drink. The family exhibits a kind of death instinct, with the women unmarried and the somewhat eccentric eldest son, years after having been persuaded not to become a Jesuit, eventually marrying a widow too old to bear him children. The one really “marriageable” daughter is compelled, by the narrow way society construes her possible mates, to choose a wealthy person of less than impeccable breeding, to apostasize, or to remain single. These are staples of the late nineteenth century novel. Although Waugh builds these tropes into an enjoyable whole, he wields them slightly superficially, and he allows his narrator to be more than a little too dazzled by the class difference to navigate it safely.
How class is connected, in his mind, to religion itself, is also more than unclear. Ryder remarks to the Flytes that Sebastian could have been happy without his religion, and they readily, though sadly, agree. Sebastian’s youngest sister suggests that Sebastian is really sufficiently happy as a lonely, alcoholic hanger-on in a North African monastery that took him in only faute de mieux, and Ryder, to all appearances, similarly readily agrees. Neither of them is seen repenting of having given Sebastian money so that he could sneak around and drink. For that matter, though Julia is thrown into despair by her consciousness of sin at having committed adultery, he doesn’t evidently care. And Ryder appears to be pining for a lost age, without ever evidently questioning whether the Flytes are fallings-off from the heroic age, or typical representatives from it. He knows what he hates, but it isn’t obvious that he knows what it is he loves. He describes his love for Sebastian, and then for Julia (but not for his wife), as steps in a kind of ascension, through love, to (presumably but unmentioned) God; but Waugh doesn’t quite convey what, other than the words they spoke to him about faith, made them worthy of being loved in a way similar to the way God is loved. Their appearance of nobility really is more aesthetic than it is moral. It is really a very good novel, but I would hate to have a young person take it too seriously as representing truths about the world; that would probably be slightly dangerous.