How Gay is Brideshead Revisited?

How Gay is Brideshead Revisited?

Does Waugh's modernist masterpiece count as queer lit?

You'll often find Brideshead Revisited included on lists of the finest in gay literature. It's a brilliant work, to be sure: it's Evelyn Waugh's magnum opus and a masterful endpiece to modernism. Yet just how "gay" it is remains up for debate. 

The novel's first book revolves around the relationship between two Oxford boys. Their early scenes together are perhaps the most iconic in the work, the ones adopted by producers of Brideshead adaptations for promotional images. Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte make a great pair, and they share some sweet moments in the English countryside within the novel's first few chapters. Both reveal themselves to be very complex characters throughout the novel, which grapples with the significance of Catholicism in the 20th century. But despite the tenderness with which their friendship is described, Waugh never details any kind of physical relationship between his two characters. In fact, there is enough evidence within the text to suggest more clearly that Charles and Sebastian never engaged with each other sexually. In fact, the only sex scene within the entire novel is of a heterosexual nature.

Does that mean that Brideshead Revisited can't be ranked among gay literature? It comes down to what you mean by "gay." If you only consider homosexuality within your definition, then no, perhaps it can't. It's no Maurice, after all. Waugh's a little more subtle. But I like to complicate my definition of "gay" to include relationships that don't necessarily include the manifestation of sexuality.

The novel makes it clear that Charles and Sebastian are, in their way, in love. Their relationship is named romantic by one character, who goes on to label it as the type of thing that happens before adulthood romance--an incipient, boyish affection, childlike and simple. After all, neither Charles nor Sebastian have any experience with women at this point, either. They are each other's first romance, and it's a romance innocent enough to preclude sexuality. 

I'll happily invite homoromanticism under my "gay" umbrella and claim that Brideshead Revisited does indeed count as queer lit. Plenty of young queer kids manage to relate to it despite its lack of gay sexuality. Sometimes romance alone is the important force in a connection between two people. Charles and Sebastian may not be "gay" in the strictest sense, as we never see either of them engage in any kind of physical homosexuality. But there's homoromance aplenty between them, and that's been good enough for plenty of readers to include Brideshead in their queer libraries.

(image via TVRage)