Brideshead Revisited is maddeningly slow – just like real life

Watching it now, I am reminded how valuable it is to encounter art repeatedly: some things give up their full meaning slowly.

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Brideshead Revisited first aired in America in the winter of 1982. I was in art school then, and living with my parents because we couldn’t afford the extra expense of me living on my own. I had never travelled outside my country; I grew up in Chicago and all my ideas about the rest of the world came from reading books. The only thing I had read by Evelyn Waugh was a short story, “The Man Who Liked Dickens”.

Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, when he was 42 years old. He had converted to Catholicism in 1930. The book marked a change in tone: it is sincere and meditative, unlike his earlier satires. The television adaptation is faithful to the novel, so much so that I cannot read the book without imagining Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick and the rest of the very fine cast.

I was entranced by Brideshead Revisited when I was 18. Like Charles Ryder, the story’s chilly and somewhat repressed narrator, I was “in search of love in those days” and, like Charles, I fell in love with the aristocratic, doomed Flyte family and their ridiculously huge stately home, Brideshead. I loved the serene Oxford, I loved the period clothes, I loved the way that everyone smoked non-stop (I smoked then, for the look of it, and quit the day I graduated from art school as I was too poor to afford such a habit).

I had recently left the Catholic Church and I cheered every time Charles said, “You know it’s all bosh,” to various members of the very Catholic Flyte family. I loved the implied gay love affair between Charles and Sebastian Flyte (I’d never seen such a thing on television, though most of my art-school friends were gay) and I was delighted when Charles and Julia Flyte fell in love.

The ending surprised me. It seemed quite out of character for Julia to give up Charles over something so trivial (as I thought) as religion and for Charles to capitulate (as it seemed to me) to Catholicism was disappointing. I missed the point. I was too young and had not lost anything of consequence. I had never been in love but I couldn’t imagine that anyone might value grace more than romantic love.

Watching it now, at the terrifying age of 53, I am reminded how valuable it is to encounter art repeatedly: some things give up their full meaning slowly. Brideshead Revisited is intended for persons who have reached a certain age and suddenly thought, “What am I doing here?” The characters experience love, but they also lose love. The slow unfolding of each life – the incremental changes in their relationships to each other and to their God – appears before us perfectly articulated. Seeing Brideshead again, I empathise as the characters make difficult choices and try to understand each other. As the world changes around us, we try to find truth and grace. This is a gorgeous reminder that other people are also searching for goodness, that we are all making mistakes.

It is maddeningly slow, but so is life; it is an apologia for religion but that won’t hurt you. It’s good to give in to yearning now and then and to revisit the things that we loved and misunderstood when we were younger. It will be interesting to watch Brideshead Revisited again in 30 years, to see how I have changed. 

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016