Aug 13, 2020
In the late spring of 1945, as World War II was drawing toward a close, a novel called Brideshead Revisited made its appearance in Britain; its first U.S. edition came out the following January. Whatever else might be said of it – and a great deal has been said – three-quarters of a century later this book by Evelyn Waugh remains easily the most popular Catholic-themed work of fiction in the English language.
After all these years it is interesting to reflect on what accounts for the extraordinary success Brideshead has enjoyed from the start. The much praised 1981 TV miniseries based on it certainly helped, yet the novel itself still stands firmly on its own, occupying a special place in the affections of countless readers. Why?
Before its publication, Waugh was best known for a series of biting satires puncturing the empty-headed pretensions of a decadent British upper class between the two world wars.They included such highly readable – and still read – volumes as Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust, and Scoop.
Brideshead Revisited marked a new turn in the author’s career. The book’s romanticism and its richness of style touched exactly the right nerve in readers just emerging from the perils and privations of wartime and heading into a postwar era of uncertainty and (in Great Britain) austerity. Yet a novel about the foibles of a wealthy British Catholic family would seem at first glance to have little natural interest for most readers. So what was it that made – and for many still makes – Brideshead so very special?
Two things in particular seem to me to account for the book’s lasting appeal.