Brideshead revisited: Classic literature and the power of LGBTQ+

Most of us are likely tired of hearing how the pandemic of the past year has been a historic event and surely are even more tired of the endless talk about the unclear future. The news, snapshots of each rough unpredictable day, steadily build to create a narrative for the media. However, the news does not often ever say anything real or substantial about the complexity and strength of the human condition in crisis. Good literature helps us step into each other’s shoes, so this month dedicated to LGBT+ history is the perfect opportunity for us all to read widely. For us to read and listen to these largely unheard voices, reading to learn more deeply about the past. The LGBT+ community has made monumental progress and to strengthen this fought confidence we have to actively discover our own history – true, provocative and unburdening.  

The power of reading past LGBT+ voices today is that it ensures that history is enjoyed and continually reinterpreted. Looking back is the theme of Brideshead Revisited, the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh that was later captured in the 1981 ITV Granada mini-series. A faithful adaptation deserving of its many awards, but for me its long running time and well-done ‘love that dares does not speak its name’ scenes made it unfinishable during the emotionally susceptible lockdown. The series, however, did find its way into my daily consciousness with the distinctive music back in my mind when the third lockdown began. A small memory that made me think of the characters and think of the gay experience. There are special thoughts you have when you are LGBT+, thoughts that do connect you to living people before and this empathy is true to all good historical fiction, regardless of your identity. My favourite discovery in fact from picking up Waugh’s famous novel, was how relevant Brideshead’s social commentary still is to anguished pandemic Britain. 

The novel Brideshead Revisited is about one very flawed gay man who suffers and like many gay men of the twentieth century, is not able to live the life he wants. Charles’ character is almost dictated by his whole world’s overbearing, restricting and divisive nature epitomised in one of the novel’s main settings: a hierarchical 1920s men only Oxford college. Waugh’s strong writing succinctly passes through the 1920s to early 1940s, astutely touching on the General Strike, on socialism and on the gained emancipation of women which regresses – integral to the novel. 

Image Credit: ITV

Charles lacks a backbone to say the least and is terribly ‘lookist’, the best word frankly to describe his prejudice against the men who are not in his eyes sexual objects and women who are essentially dehumanised from younger sisters to maligned wives. This obsession with appearance, with youth and with celebrity is still present in today’s society, but what the novel hints on is how the ideals of beauty develop into fascist ideals. This mindset clouds the gay love, boyfriends who live briefly together, and it brews in this case into a lost gay man choosing to further harm in his life. Charles falls in love with the gorgeous Sebastian, his appearance poured over. Charles is complacent with the way his should-be good friend Anthony Blanche is racially picked out and discriminated against. The novel escalates to war and permissive Charles himself is responsible too. The roots of fascism can be plucked out from the history of individuals. The greatest insight from Brideshead Revisited is its layered, politically ambiguous scenes reflecting its controversial author Waugh: a complicated, anti-Semitic, racist gay man. 

Brideshead Revisited reminded me much of An Inspector Calls, another work of literature that straddles the two World Wars. I found Brideshead far more sophisticated, opening up important deeper discussion on race, sexuality and insidious British fascism. The central aristocratic family in the novel, a rare Catholic horror, are detailed to reveal how the past upper class wrangled their children as well as any unconventional love. This is linked to the portrayal of how class imprisons gay men with marriages which further imprison women. The emancipation of all groups to love freely was won in unity. This will not be reneged by so called ‘wokeness’. 

We need more excuses to read as adults. LGBT+ history month is a great start for anyone to get back into reading and Brideshead Revisited, despite its flaws, was a great place to start. It made me want to read more: about Evelyn Waugh, about gay oppression and their liberation. Embrace history, be proud and further educate yourself through literature.

Image Credit: Robert Anasch