Brideshead Revisited: lost youth and impossible love

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead character Sebastian has been a constant companion and inspiration force for author Kate Scelsa, since she first read the book as young adult, and budding lesbian

My junior year of college, with most of my friends away on their year abroad, the school housing lottery landed me in a house with an eclectic group of senior girls that included the very cool sister of a very cool rock star, a girl whose English boyfriend was secretly living in her room and would periodically make us scones as a thank you for not telling on him, and a Mormon girl who threw epic theme parties (our Halloween party was the hit of the campus), and who found herself having to explain her religion to puzzled, drunken uber-liberal liberal arts undergrads most weekend evenings.

Photograph: PR

When she graduated, my housemate gave me a paperback copy of the book Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. On the title page she wrote this note: “To my dearest Kate. A book I think you might enjoy. A chuckle here, a chuckle there & a cover that can’t be beat. May you go on creating fabulous things for a very very very very long time.”

Kate Scelsa, clutching her precious copy of Brideshead Revisited. Photograph: PR

I didn’t know anything about Brideshead Revisited or Waugh, but of course it was a lovely sentiment, and I promptly put the book aside for the next seven years. I don’t know why I finally picked it up when I did. Maybe I was feeling depressed and the promise of a chuckle sounded good. Maybe it was time for whatever spell she had cast on the title page to take effect. But when I picked it up again I started reading Brideshead and I didn’t stop. And I got to the last page and turned it over and started again.

The book didn’t strike me as funny. It’s all about unbearable nostalgia and lost youth and impossible love. The narrator Charles Ryder’s yearning is so extreme that, in the Granada adaptation in the 1980s miniseries version of the book, Jeremy Irons’ voiceover sounds like Eddie Izzard making fun of Merchant Ivory movies. “Those were the days… when we were young… when it seemed the summer would never end…”

The most surprising thing to me about the book was the character of Sebastian, Charles’ best friend at Oxford and the tortured object of his tortured affections. The book was published in 1944, and, with Sebastian, Waugh had created this incredible gay man, who yes, was tortured, but not for his sexuality. Or at least it was more complicated than that. Sebastian’s demons had to do with his family, his god, and his alcoholism. Also, he carried around a teddy bear named Aloysius. Had my friend known when she inscribed that note that she was giving me one of the queerest books I would ever read? Is it possible that that’s actually why she gave it to me, her little budding lesbian friend?

I become obsessed with Sebastian, arguably the first literary manic pixie dream boy, and obsessed with the strange trajectory that his life takes in Waugh’s book. He doesn’t exactly meet a tragic end, as most gay characters were required to do in any work created before, say, 1990. He just sort of fades away. I was furious with Waugh for this choice. Sebastian was the most interesting character in the book and he just abandons him. It was as if Fitzgerald had tacked on an extra hundred pages to the end of The Great Gatsby about Nick and Jordan just casually dating.

After that Sebastian kind of followed me around for a while. He showed up in my dreams as a beautiful boy who liked to steal things. Then he sent me back into some old memories of a boy I had known and loved in a way that only a mostly queer 15- year-old girl can love a mostly queer 15-year-old boy who paints elaborate portraits of Liz Phair and sharpies words onto his white t-shirts can. And when I turned 30 and took a trip to Provincetown with some of my closest friends, where one of them tried to impress a seen-it-all karaoke hosting drag queen, and we all stayed up too late conspiring like kids at a sleepover, feeling a kind of strange magic and gleeful, unsupervised freedom, even as adults, somehow Sebastian was there then too.

Fans of the Impossible Life
Photograph: Pr

So as Brideshead and Sebastian came with me on this period of transition from childhood to actual, bonafide adult life, they came to symbolise something for me about an intensity of feeling and emotion that you encounter most strongly as an adolescent, but catch glimpses of later in life, maybe when you fall in or out of love, or experience victory or defeat, or simply live with a kind of unexplained longing for a while. And there’s something very beautiful and human about those moments of return.

Writing Fans of the Impossible Life became about exploring this intensity of emotion that sometimes borders on insanity, and understanding its place in my own life. It was about honouring the friends that we love so dearly that they feel like they are a part of us, and the inevitable moment when they need to go away. And it was about Sebastian and what he had meant to me in this place of beginning to understand what it means to lose things and to get lost and, if you’re very lucky, to find your way back.

Kate Scelsa

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