The first thing you need to know about Brideshead Revisited is that it is a heartbreaking tale of an Oxford dropout who, due to the overbearingness of Catholicism and the slow decay of aristocratic norms, finds himself middle-aged, loveless and alone, commanding a British Army company during World War II. The second thing you need to know is that the book is astonishingly gay.
The problem with queer literature today is that it doesn’t really concern itself with being literature. Obsessed with representation and presence and politics, queer stories today lack subtlety and metaphor. They’ll kill you with an explosion or rip your heart out, but none of them have the craft to prick you and let you bleed slowly from your heart. Not like Evelyn Waugh could.
He called his novel his magnum opus (yes, Evelyn Waugh is a man), and opens the book with an author’s note, “I am not I; you art not he or she; they is not they.” This is no mere pronouns pun, the novel was published many decades before that was possible, but rather a reminder that this work is no self-insert. I wonder at this. Can I really believe that a cisgender, straight author could write this book? (Aside: perhaps Waugh was not so straight after all.)
The novel’s prologue open with Captain Charles Ryder traveling with his British Army company to some pointless manor in countryside England during the War; traveling the night, he awakens and learns the name of the place, Brideshead. The novel strides through his memories of the land he’d been to before, first when he was younger and a student at Oxford.
Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte, a son of the Lady of the house, a scoundrel and a tramp. They partake in debauchery, and Sebastian brings Charles lamentingly to his home. Sebastian is not fond of his family, though they grow quickly fond of Charles. In a scene as they are underway to the home, they pause alongside of the road, and Charles recollects his happiest memory of the place: “that day was the beginning of my friendship with Sebastian, and thus it came about, that morning in June, that I was lying beside him in the shade of the high elms watching the smoke from his lips drift up into the branches.”
The love Charles and Sebastian share is never explored in graphic detail, but neither is it hidden. Sebastian’s father’s mistress once tells Charles, “it is a kind of love that comes to children before they know its meaning… It is better to have that kind of love for another boy than for a girl.” And later, his mother says to Charles, “you see, Charles, I look on you very much as one of ourselves. Sebastian loves you – when there was no need for him to make an effort to be gay. And he wasn’t gay. I slept very little last night, and all the time I kept coming back to that one thing: he was so unhappy.”
Gay, of course, refers to Sebastian’s contentment; his sexuality is no doubt implied. The central friction between Charles and Sebastian is Sebastian’s alcoholism; his family drives him away after Charles gives him money for drink. Charles and Sebastian are eventually apart. Charles drops out of Oxford and becomes a painter of some repute. He marries and travels the world, and it is only some time later that he comes to love Sebastian’s sister, Julia.
Eventually, during some time apart, Charles finds liberation in his wife’s infidelity. On a cruise to New York, some many years after Sebastian drifted away, Julia happens to be on board the same ship as Charles and his wife. They reconnect and fall in love and as they talk, Julia asks Charles about his relationship with Sebastian. “You loved him, didn’t you?” she asks. “Oh yes. He was the forerunner,” says Charles.
Julia and Charles agree to divorce their spouses and marry each other. This is less problem for Charles, an agnostic, than it is for Julia and her Catholic upbringing. It’s only as her father dies that she has a crisis of faith as a priest administers last rites. Her devotion forbids her divorce, and Charles, having already secured his, is left alone. A story of Sebastian’s fate is shared by his other sister: Sebastian befriended a German mercenary, Kurt in Morocco, cared for him before the war, traveled across Europe together, until the German army forced him back. Sebastian went to Germany to convince him to return, which he nearly succeeded in doing. The Nazis caught Kurt and put him in a concentration camp, where he hung himself. Dejected, Sebastian returned to Morocco and spent his days in the care of a monastery.
There is no choice but to read Sebastian’s character as explicitly gay, and no way to see his friendship with Charles as any other than a homosexual one. Charles marries a beautiful woman but does not love her. He falls in love with Julia but notices the similarities in her appearance to Sebastian. Sebastian was the forerunner, he says, and she wonders if she, too, is a forerunner.
It doesn’t matter. Charles is in Sebastian’s past, but Sebastian is very much in Charles' present. There’s no happy ending for Charles Ryder, the youthful romanticism he could never let go of was spoiled by aristocracy and catholicism and drink and the pain and his pain and his lamentation follows him like a shadow until his destiny returns him to Brideshead, lonely and remorseful. There’s an extraordinary honesty in this tale, a queer story the way that queer stories used to only be.
Brideshead Revisited is a book with unquestionably gay characters. In today’s era of fascist attacks on LGBT+ people, it’s a slight wonder that there’s not been a renewed effort to ban it. The most serious of these efforts came in 2005, when an Alabama politician proposed legislation supporting its censorship on the grounds that its characters were gay. Even though Waugh does not champion homosexuality in this book, it was enough that Sebastian and Charles existed in the narrative. The proposed legislation did not succeed. Today’s attempts at banning queer books are nothing new. It’s important for us to remember our history.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.