In two parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue that depict Ryder at war, having returned to Brideshead in order to repurpose it as a military base. Main themes include memory, war, religion, and painting. Sebastian Flight is the lovable drunkard with whom Ryder class in love as a young man at Oxford. But Sebastian slowly goes to waste and exits the novel almost all together. he dies off screen, or does not, one is not sure. His sister, Julia, takes center stage in the second half of the novel. Ryder, now a successful painter of houses and married to Celia, falls in love with Julia while on a boat. They become lovers, but when she returns to the Catholic faith at the end of the novel, Ryder and her (despite both getting divorced for each other) decide not to get married.
Curious book to put into dialogue with The Return of the Solider and other novels that mourn the loss of innocent after World War I. Here, it is War World II that triggers a memory that returns to that pre-war state. The portrait of Oxford is a bit anachronistic, compressing the days of Richards and Empson with the days Pater and Wilde. Anthony Blanche is the token “aesthete,” and Ryder finds himself caught up in a new decadence that will string between the two wars. The wars themselves seem to squeeze together to the degree that intervening years are reduced to a couple of family squabbles: Julia says famously, “I see the past and future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” Indeed, the finance capital vulgarians like Rex and the regressive Catholics like the Marchamids seem to be the only options for Julia and Ryder: they are therefore both unhappy at the end.
Use the meal with Rex to show the differences between Ryder’s older continental proclivities and Rex’s modernizing impulses, etc.
The novel gives the lie to the narrative that would reconsolidate England after the war. There are folks like Rex, who is similar to the Dalloways in his relationship to industry, his desire to ignore the war. The Marchmaid family, on the other hand, are trying to live an existence that belongs to another century. It isn’t that this lifestyle is unfit for 20th century, but that it in fact self-destructs: modernity must be described as “uneven development” with regard to its secularizing drive, etc.
As the war approaches, there is a moment in which Julia and Ryder, on the boat, no longer speak in their voices, but in the voices of the English who wish to deny that war is coming. They repeat in almost stichomythic fashion a battery of cliches about how the Germans have no money, etc.
Ryder is a painter of architecture. His painting can be seen as a synecdoche for Waugh’s mode of writing. He prefers drawing buildings that show the encrustations of each age–showing how each has made use of the building. Brideshead itself is shown repurposed multiple times, and the closing scene is of a lamp meant to be purely symbolic of epic and tragedy, hanging in a chapel, now burning in prayer for all the solders in France, etc. Relate this to Larkin’s poem “High Windows,” where he claims that each generation needs to find its own limits, and that there is not a single lyric voice that can consolidate their various attempts at self-transcendence.