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My experience with reading Brideshead Revisited was yet another moment recently when I realized that challenging myself to broaden my reading circle is making me empathize more with my students, and what their experiences are often like with the literature they read for my classes.
I found Brideshead on a shelf in my classroom, left behind by a previous occupant, and since the title rang a bell and the description seemed intriguing, I took it home and gave it a shot. I knew nothing of the recent and controversial film version, much less the original miniseries that apparently put Jeremy Irons on the path to stardom after playing Charles Ryder, the novel’s narrator and protagonist. I also had no idea whether author Evelyn Waugh was gay or what real-life figures appear disguised in the novel. Frankly, I didn’t know much about Waugh’s work at all. I came to this book relatively cold, with none of the careful preparation I usually give my students.
But while reading it, I think I wondered what they often do: does this mean what I think it means? Is there a subtext here, or am I making it up? Did Sebastian’s teddy bear represent a lost innocence, or was it a symbol of decadence, its childish connotation highlighting the adult activity going on all around it? Was Charles in love with Sebastian, or Sebastian with him? Did Charles marry his wife, Celia, to serve as a beard, and were her children actually his, or did they have another father? I felt some confidence in trusting my instincts and my ability to make inferences and educated guesses, and many were proved correct by the end, but would I have felt so confident without the decades I’ve spent strengthening my reading skills? How can I help my students feel more confident, and trust themselves more?
As you can see, there’s a lot to puzzle out in Brideshead, a book that is richly layered and dense with subtext and elegance, an artifact of a disappeared world in a certain time in a certain place, with dramatic characters and complicated romantic dynamics. The novel centers around the life of Charles Ryder, who becomes entangled with the Flyte family when he meets Sebastian at Oxford and first travels with him to Brideshead, the ancestral Flyte manor. Over the next decades, we see Charles marry and divorce and fall in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia while Sebastian spirals out of control, wrestling with a drinking problem and silkily manipulative mother. While there are no explicit mentions of homosexual behavior or emotions in the book, it has become generally accepted that these overtones exist in the connection between Sebastian and Charles, and that Sebastian, at least, spends much of his life struggling to reconcile his family’s Catholicism with his own nature and “inclination,” as the society of his time might have worded it.
I found Brideshead to be engrossing for sure, and it also reminded me strongly The Great Gatsby. I think Ryder shares some similarities with Nick Carraway, another somewhat cagey narrator who finds himself entranced, even fixated, with a decadent wealthy world that in the end, repulses him with its excess and ability to destroy its inhabitants. Julia Flyte, while a decidedly more moral character than Daisy Buchanan, seems just as trapped, as doomed, as Daisy is, unable to escape or embrace the only world she knows. Does that make Sebastian a Gatsby figure? That I’m not as sure about, but I think the comparison could certainly be fruitful, in the right group, in the right hands. There’s certainly precedent for queering elements of Gatsby, and juxtaposing Gatsby and Brideshead could open new avenues. Of course, this might also just be my former life as a cultural studies scholar cropping up again!
All in all, Brideshead Revisited was a wonderful read, captivating and thought-provoking for any audience, but especially those concerned with gay themes, England in the early-mid 20th century, or just plain great literature.