Vivid and original descriptions, sparkling streams of consciousness with perfect grammar and impeccable punctuation, telling observation of character, sharp dialogue, and high comedy mixed with bitter irony – all the evidence for Waugh's reputation as one of England's greatest novelists is here. I can appreciate his nostalgia for a no doubt rose-tinted view of a past way of feudal life and the novel also provides some intriguing social history of the lives of a privileged few between two World Wars, as when an Oxford undergraduate casually expects a friend's drunken vomit from the night before to be cleaned up by a servant.
On the other hand, the snobbishness, treatment of "the lower classes" as a lesser breed, and frequent racist and chauvinist comments which seem to be a product of his own prejudice prevent Waugh from seeming a great novelist in terms of vision.
The most interesting aspect of the novel for me is the parallels to be found with Waugh's own life, despite his attempts to deny them. The bored Captain Charles Ryder doing his war service is Waugh stuck in England on petty exercises rather than seeing real action. Ryder's infatuation with Brideshead and the Marchmain family is Waugh's with Madresfield and the Lygons. Sebastian Flyte is partly the captivating, alcoholic drifter Hugh, and Julia is modelled on his beautiful sister Maimie, denied the opportunity to marry royalty because of a family scandal. Julia's fiancé Mottram's comical attempts to convert to Catholicism at any price are reminiscent of Waugh's own rather bizarre exchanges with the priest he had to satisfy to achieve his own conversion. The flamboyantly gay, precociously effete Anthony Blanche is, on Waugh's own admission, two-thirds Brian Howard and one-third Harold Acton, reciting poetry through a megaphone.
A weakness in the plot seems to me to be the scandal of the Earl's flight to Venice with his mistress Carla – his offence does not seem "bad" enough to justify the blight on the Marchmains. In this, truth was more dramatic than fiction: Earl Beauchamp (William Lygon), a major Whig politician, was forced into exile to avoid an Oscar Wilde-type humiliating trial when his officious brother-in-law threatened to make public his rampant homosexuality.
The part I find hardest to understand is Waugh's treatment of Catholicism which he saw as crucial to the work. He suggests to me that Hugh and Julia are "screwed up" by a religion that tortures them with a sense of guilt over the "sins" they are too self-indulgent to deny themselves. Using Ryder as mouthpiece, Waugh does a pretty good job in sending up Catholicism, exposing the confusion and illogicality of its practice. Yet, he clearly implies that, like him, Ryder converts to this faith, but Waugh does not supply a clear explanation as to why and how this occurred.
Whilst being a compelling read, this is one of those novels which need to be revisited to appreciate it fully. It is also ideal for a book group, since there is so much to discuss about style, structure, plot, characters and aim, plus it is likely to divide opinion quite sharply.