Evelyn Waugh Captures Prewar English Life in

Toward the end of World War II, Evelyn Waugh, previously known as a satirical novelist, wrote Brideshead Revisited, in which he lamented the decline of the English aristocracy and proclaimed the love of God, through Catholicism, as greater than any human love.

Summary of Event

Upon the British publication of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945, 1959), readers could note that he included an “Author’s Note” in which he stated, “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they,” as if to deter anyone from trying to link the fictional tale with biographical details of the author’s life. Nevertheless, much in this Roman Catholic and aristocratic novel suggested that Waugh modeled Charles Ryder, the first-person narrator, partly upon himself. Brideshead Revisited (Waugh)
[kw]Evelyn Waugh Captures Prewar English Life in Brideshead Revisited (May 28, 1945)
[kw]Waugh Captures Prewar English Life in Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn (May 28, 1945)
[kw]Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh Captures Prewar English Life in (May 28, 1945)
[kw]English Life in Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh Captures Prewar (May 28, 1945)
Brideshead Revisited (Waugh)
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Waugh, Evelyn
Waugh, Laura Herbert
Peters, Augustus Dudley

Waugh was the second son in an upper-middle-class Anglican family. Too young to fight in World War I, he went to Lancing College, a public school, and then to Hertford College, Oxford University, which he left in 1924 without earning a degree. He next studied art nonchalantly and taught school before the publication in April, 1928, of his biography of the nineteenth century poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, followed in five months by the publication of his satirical novel Decline and Fall. That year also witnessed his marriage to Evelyn Gardner (“She-Evelyn”), whose adultery the next year led to their secular divorce in January, 1930, an event that occurred eight months before Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism.

Evelyn Waugh.

(Library of Congress)

After Decline and Fall came other novels, including A Handful of Dust (1934), as well as short stories, travel books, articles, reviews, and a biography of the sixteenth century Catholic martyr Edmund Campion. As for his personal life, in 1936 Waugh received a Catholic annulment of his first marriage and, in the following year, married Laura Herbert, a Catholic cousin of his first wife and, like her, an earl’s granddaughter. In the third month of World War II, Waugh joined the British military, in which he served in one branch or another, often to everyone’s dissatisfaction, until September, 1945.

While training as a parachutist in December, 1943, Waugh broke his leg and, on leave, on February 1, 1944, in seclusion at a hotel in Chagford, Devon, he began writing a novel initially titled The Household of Faith. The title would be changed to Brideshead Revisited. In occasional contact with Augustus Dudley Peters, his literary agent, Waugh wrote the novel quickly. Although he did do some traveling to fulfill slight military duties, he did not visit his wife and family until more than a week after the May 13 birth of his daughter Harriet Waugh. On June 20, he sent his novel to the London publishing firm of Chapman & Hall. Five months later, while on a military mission to Yugoslavia, Waugh received the proofs, which he corrected within six days. After a magazine serialized Brideshead Revisited from November, 1944, to February, 1945, with unauthorized omissions, the novel appeared in its first British edition on May 28, 1945, and in the next year it appeared in the United States as a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

The prologue to the novel begins at a bleak army post near Glasgow, Scotland, in the early spring of either 1943 or 1944, by which time the narrator, Captain Charles Ryder, has fallen out of love with the army. Ryder sees a symbol of the decline of civilization in Lieutenant Hooper, a cheerful, incompetent, culturally ignorant, and morally obtuse young man with a little business experience. The morning after his battalion travels by train far south into England and arrives at night at an undisclosed destination, Charles learns that he has returned to Brideshead, the formerly magnificent estate of the Flyte family.

In the version of the novel published in the 1940’s, the two main sections are those of Charles’s memories. The title of book 1, “Et in Arcadia Ego” (a phrase written on a human skull that Charles has bought), may allude to a seventeenth century painting by Nicolas Poussin in which shepherds of ancient Arcadia, supposedly an earthly paradise, realize that death is there too. For Charles, an art-loving agnostic, Oxford University and Brideshead in the early 1920’s seem for a while to be paradise because of his romance with Sebastian Flyte, the marquis of Marchmain’s younger son. Sebastian, however, feels estranged from his family and, like his father, who lives with a mistress in Venice, he hates Lady Marchmain, the intensely Catholic matriarch who, Sebastian believes, tries to control him. As book 1 progresses, Sebastian and Charles leave the university. Sebastian eventually makes his way to Morocco, while Charles, with the encouragement of his widowed, emotionally detached father, heads for Paris, where he studies art. As book 1 ends in 1926, Sebastian has sunk deeply into alcoholism, Charles has begun painting professionally, and Lady Marchmain has died.

Drawing its title, “A Twitch upon the Thread,” from a phrase in one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, book 2 follows the relationship between Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte Mottram, Sebastian’s beautiful sister, of whom, according to Charles, Sebastian was the “forerunner.” Legally, Charles and Julia are married to other persons, but emotionally their marriages have already ended when they meet again in 1936 on an ocean liner on their way back to England and begin a passionate affair. After a showing of his latest paintings in London, Charles does not go home with his wife, Celia, to see their son and the daughter who Charles suspects is the child of Celia’s adultery. Rather, he travels with Julia to Brideshead, where they spend most of their time in what, at least for Charles, is almost a paradise.

Julia’s brother Bridey shocks the couple into recognizing the reality of their situation, when he tells them that his fiancé, a traditional Catholic, will not visit Brideshead while Julia and Charles are there, living “in sin.” Trying to bring an earthly order to their lives, the two lovers plan to divorce their spouses. Then, however, Lord Marchmain and his mistress return to England early in 1939, as war approaches, to live at his ancestral estate. Having been excommunicated years before and having scoffed at religion, the old man seems unlikely to rejoin the faith. However, when, at Julia’s request, a priest visits him on his deathbed in the summer, urges him to repent, and gives him absolution, Lord Marchmain crosses himself. This miracle, God’s twitch upon a thread, also draws Julia away from Charles and back into her childhood faith and, according to many readers, leads Charles to accept the loss of Julia and to join the Church himself.

In the epilogue, Charles returns to the bleakness of World War II, to the damage done to Brideshead, officially and unofficially, by soldiers lacking respect for the beauty it once had and the order it once symbolized. Charles thinks that he lives now in the “age of Hooper,” and his mind sadly turns to Lamentations 1:1 and Ecclesiastes 1:2. He thinks also of the Brideshead chapel, now reopened, of the flame burning in the chapel lamp, of those who built the great house long before from stones of the castle that had preceded it, and of the “fierce little human tragedy” in which he has acted. Somehow, he sees hope.


Brideshead Revisited became a best seller in Britain and the United States, despite its fundamental seriousness. Many professional critics praised it, although some claimed it was snobbish or objected to its Catholicism. In 1959, writing a preface to a revised edition, Waugh acknowledged that the lushness of his descriptions in some passages had come in response to the privations of the war and that his fear of the disappearance of the aristocracy and their country homes had not been realized. As for dramatizations, talks that Waugh and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer conducted in 1947 did not lead to a film version, but the British television miniseries of 1981, with Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, and Diana Quick, was a great success that renewed public interest in Waugh’s portrayal of a troubled family and his truly countercultural defense of social hierarchy and Catholic Christianity. Brideshead Revisited (Waugh)

Further Reading

  • Davis, Robert Murray.“Brideshead Revisited”: The Past Redeemed. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Gives a close reading of the novel, with an emphasis on how its structure helps present its theme.
  • Page, Norman. An Evelyn Waugh Chronology. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Succinctly tells where Waugh was and what he did on many days of his life.
  • Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939. London: Dent, 1986. Extensively studies Waugh’s life, including his writing, from his birth until November, 1939.
  • _______. Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years, 1939-1966. New York: Norton, 1992. Extensively studies Waugh’s life, including his writing, from December, 1939, until his death.
  • _______, ed. Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. Includes eleven reviews of Brideshead Revisited, along with argumentative exchanges and Waugh’s preface to the 1959 edition.
  • Wykes, David. Evelyn Waugh: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Argues that Waugh’s novels declined in artistic quality beginning with Brideshead Revisited, in which the physical appeal to readers overpowers the spiritual.

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