The description on Goodreads for this book says that this is “the most nostalgic and reflective” of Waugh’s novels. Since this is my first novel by Waugh, I have no comparison, but I agree that it is definitely nostalgic and reflective. In the introduction, it says that Waugh requested 3 months’ leave from the army to write this book, and judging by his journal, which lists how many words he wrote each day, he wrote at a frantic pace. Yet the pace of the story is anything but frantic. It was a pleasure reading it, although the longer I think about it, the less I can say why exactly I liked it.
In essence, it is the story of Charles Ryder’s obsession with the Marchmain family. Charles grows up with a father who is both indifferent and cruel, which might explain his fascination with an aristrocratic and rich family. At Oxford, Charles meets Sebastian Marchmain, and the two develop an intense friendship. Charles is mystified by Sebastian’s extremely religious mother, his father who lives in exile with his mistress, and both of his sisters. Charles’ longing to be a part of the family spans most of his adult life, yet the sense of doom that underlies his the story makes clear that there won’t be a happy ending for him—or the members of the Marchmain family.
I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, and I found many of their actions questionable. The story is bittersweet, reminiscing about glorious pasts, lost innocence, and crushed hopes for the future. There’s not one character who reaches his or her full potential, maybe with the exception of Sebastian’s sister Cordelia, who seems to have the clearest idea of what to do with her life. Everyone else seems to drift without any firm direction.
By chance, this was the second book in a row I read that dealt with faith, Catholicism in particular. Trying to summarize how faith impacts the characters is hard for me, because I was unclear of what point Waugh tried to make. On the one hand, faith doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, as can be seen when looking at both Sebastian and Julia, who both have trouble reconciling what they want to do with what their faith tells them they should do. On the other hand, you have the peace and forgiveness it brings, as can be seen when looking at Lord Brideshead’s dramatic gesture right before his death. And even Charles, a firm non-believer, visits a chapel at the end and afterwards seems “unusual content.”
Maybe that is the message: despite all the changes and disappointment the characters have to face, there is hope and the chance to be content. And maybe that is why I enjoyed reading the book.