The story opens with Captain Charles Ryder and his troops, who at the end of Word War II, arrive at an old house which has been converted into an army barracks. Upon learning of the name of the house, Ryder realises that it is Brideshead, a house where he spent a considerable amount of his youth…
Ryder starts to recount his life as an under-graduate at Oxford, who becomes infatuated with the charming but immature Sebastian Flyte, a beautiful fellow student. As Sebastian introduces Charles to his family at Brideshead (the family home), he becomes fascinated with the unusual family, and particularly later on, with Sebastian’s sister Julia.
I feel almost guilty that while the story itself is full of promise, this book left me cold. I thought it might be that none of the characters is particular sympathetic or even likeable (with the sole exception of the Sebastian’s younger sister Cordelia), but on reflection, I don’t believe that that was what put me off. The writing is undoubtedly eloquent and at time comedic, but the book did not stir any emotion in me.
Sebastian’s family are Catholic, and Catholicism is a strong theme throughout the book. Sebastian and Julia both struggle with their religion – although both turn to it in times of anguish – while their mother and their siblings, Cordelia and Brideshead, seem more at ease with it. Religious versus secular love, and the conflict which this can cause, is portrayed well, as is the changes which came about in Britain during the years the book is set in, where the aristocracy is starting to mean less, and people are looking for different values.
I wish I had enjoyed this book more – I expected to, and I wanted to – but in the end I simply felt a mild sense of relief at finishing it. That said, I have read many many reviews of this book, and most seem to rate it extremely highly, so I would not wish to discourage others from reading it; I would just hope that they get more out of it than I did.