I read Brideshead Revisited over the weekend. What Willa Cather accomplished in painting a portrait of a particular time in Shadows on the Rock or My Ántonia, Evelyn Waugh accomplished with Brideshead Revisited. I’m glad to have finally read this book.

In December 1945, John K. Hutchens reviewed Brideshead Revisited and called it Waugh’s finest achievement:

“Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues. …

Unless “Brideshead Revisited” finds you a very new member of the Waugh public, you realized with his first novel (“Decline and Fall,” 1928) that his equipment as a social satirist was just about perfect. In the first place, he obviously knew what he was talking about: this was reporting at first- hand by one who had been in that world if not of it. He wrote with a sharp thrust which smote a victim or merely pinked him, as circumstances dictated. His style was clean and fast. From one sentence to another you read with a virtually sensuous delight in his gift for the exact word, his remarkable use of a detail to summarize a place or a person, his wonderful sense of the ridiculous. …

In the beginning it is gay enough–an affectionately ironic picture of Oxford in 1923, the sunflower estheticism, plovers eggs and getting drunk at luncheon, the lively, small banter, the happy irresponsibility, “Antic Hay.” It is there that Ryder meets Lord Sebastian Flyte and forms a romantic friendship with him; Sebastian, the brilliant, charming “half-heathen” second son of an old Catholic family that is verging on dissolution which, Mr. Waugh seems to suggest, parallels England’s change from the old order to the new. Then, the story’s arrival at Brideshead and its baroque castle, the tone changes to a somber hue as the themes develop: the love story of Ryder and Sebastian’s sister Julia, of which Ryder’s and Sebastian’s friendship had been a spiritual forerunner; the Church giving haven to the soul-torn, drunken Sebastian and reclaiming Julia and even the Byronic father who comes home at last from Italy to die. …

There will be, quite certainly, no little discussion and even controversy about the problem he poses, or rather the conclusion he offers. Mr. Waugh, a Catholic, is also, politically, a Tory. As a writer, as a story-teller and an artist, he insists on nothing. Of Catholicism as a factor in the lives of the Marchmains he writes so objectively, seeing it through the eyes of the non-Catholic narrator, that it could actually be construed as the slightly sardonic report of an unbeliever confronted with (and baffled by) “an entirely different outlook on life.” What he is saying in effect is that faith is a saving answer to anyone who has it or had had it; which could scarcely be called propaganda, though he will surely be charged with propaganda. It will be said, too, that his political conservatism is patent in his reluctant acceptance of social change, and this will be true: the end of a Brideshead is to him a matter for regret and misgiving, for he believes in “order” and the continuity of tradition. Above all, he believes in responsibility, the absence of which in his own class he has castigated so fiercely.