Memory, Desire, and a House: An Intertextual Study of Saltburn and Brideshead Revisited

After I watched Emerald Fennell’s 2023 film Saltburn, I couldn’t stop thinking about its intertextual use of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. The two texts begin similarly: the protagonist (Oliver and Charles respectively) attends Oxford and becomes fascinated by the son of a very wealthy family. This new friend/love interest invites the protagonist to stay at his family home (the titular Saltburn and Brideshead Castle), where the protagonist falls in love with the house itself and is drawn into the family’s web. The protagonist begins a romance with his friend’s sister, who is implied to be a proxy for the friend himself (although this plotline is more significant in Brideshead). Ultimately, the protagonist becomes estranged from the wealthy family, although at the end of the text, he gains more of an attachment to their house than they have. At the beginning of Saltburn, Oliver mentions that his friend Felix’s life sounds like a Waugh novel, and Felix says that Waugh was obsessed with Saltburn. Peter Bradshaw writes that the purpose of these lines is “[t]o pre-empt the obvious Brideshead comparison”, but I interpret it as an affectionate direct allusion by Fennell to the text which inspired her and helps to unlock her film (n.p.). Bradshaw also describes Saltburn as “a Brideshead-lite, a Brideshead nobility without the Catholicism or the pathos or the wartime regret” (n.p.). I see it more as an exploration of some of Brideshead’s themes and ideas through a contemporary lens: Fennell has replaced the novel’s interest in Christianity and spirituality with an examination of class and privilege, and her central love story is both more explicitly queer and transgressive. In his book Intertextuality, Graham Allen writes that “[t]he act of reading…plunges us into a network of textual relations. To interpret a text, to discover its meaning, or meanings, is to trace those relations” (1). In this blog post, I want to trace the textual relations between Brideshead Revisited and Saltburn, in the hopes of understanding Saltburn better by understanding its relationship with Brideshead.

Like Brideshead, Saltburn begins by informing its audience that it is a story about memory. As the novel’s title suggests, Waugh introduces a framing device of Charles “revisiting” the Brideshead estate by chance when he and his company are sent there during World War II. Charles’ return to the house sparks his memories of his time at Brideshead and with the Flyte family. The novel is narrated by an older Charles looking back at his past, thus encouraging the reader to question the reliability of Charles’s memory, and to keep in mind that this is his subjective telling of events – the novel’s full title is, after all, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. Saltburn begins with Oliver, in the present, telling the audience, “I wasn’t in love with him [Felix]”. This direct address to the audience is followed by a montage of Felix, where each shot is from Oliver’s perspective and framed in a romantic light. Even more so than Brideshead, Saltburn immediately establishes its narrator as unreliable: it has allowed him to say his piece, but contradicts him by depicting his own (necessarily subjective) memories, as objectively as it can – by simply showing us viewers these images. Brideshead employs a more nostalgic use of memory; Charles fondly looks back at his experiences at the house, despite his moments of conflict with the Flytes. Fennell takes the theme of memory from Brideshead and refashions it into something darker in her film. In the first line of the film, Oliver refers to Felix in the past tense, suggesting that something bad has happened to Felix, or at least to Oliver and Felix’s relationship. Even from its opening scene, Saltburn engages with its intertext by creating its own, more sinister take on Brideshead’s themes.

Saltburn‘s opening scene contains a montage of images of Felix from Oliver’s perspective. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

In her Rolling Stone profile of Fennell, Charlotte Manning writes that Fennell was inspired by Brideshead and “set about intending to make a film about “longing and desire”” (n.p.). Longing and desire are at the heart of both Saltburn and Brideshead, but their treatment of these themes varies. While Saltburn is interested in portraying the dark (and even violent) side of desire, Brideshead’s depiction is more romanticised and nostalgic. However, both depictions are united by their queerness. They also begin similarly, with the protagonists noticing their love interests from afar. Charles notes: 

I knew Sebastian by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour, which seemed to know no bounds (Waugh 30).

Charles first notices Sebastian because of his beauty. Similarly, when he first arrives at Oxford, watches Felix from his bedroom window; Felix stands out because he faces Oliver (although he doesn’t realise) and because of his striking appearance. Charles mentions that he was “in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden” (32). Charles finds the love he was searching for with Sebastian, and Sebastian brings Charles into the “enchanted garden”: the world of wealth and beauty that is Brideshead. The queer nature of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship has been debated by critics for decades, but reading it through a contemporary lens, it comes across as romantic. Charles describes the “naughtiness” of his time with Sebastian as “high in the catalogue of grave sins”, implying homosexuality, which the Catholic Church was fervently against (46).

Later in the novel, Charles begins a romantic relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia, and at times she seems to be a substitute for Sebastian. David Leon Higdon notes that Charles is initially attracted to Julia because her physical appearance so closely resembles Sebastian’s (85); Charles references “the physical likeness between brother and sister, which, caught repeatedly in different poses, under different lights, each time pierced me anew” (Waugh 172). Oliver also engages in a romance with Felix’s sister Venetia, which serves to make Felix jealous, tear a rift between the siblings, and simulate a form of intimacy with Felix that he thinks he can’t have. Oliver has sex with Venetia outside her cousin Farleigh’s window with the knowledge that Farleigh will tell Felix; when Felix confronts him about it, Oliver lies that Venetia initiated it, thus bringing him closer to Felix by positioning Venetia as a common enemy. Later, Oliver also has sex with Farleigh, who also appears to act as a proxy for Felix in Oliver’s eyes. In Saltburn’s references to Brideshead’s twisted web of relationships, its tragedy is even bleaker. While Charles and Sebastian can’t be together because of the contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality and the damage Sebastian’s alcoholism does to their relationship, the film suggests that Oliver could have had a romantic relationship with Felix if he had pursued it differently, if he wasn’t determined to convince himself that he wasn’t in love with Felix. 

Oliver has a complicated relationship with Farleigh, whom he perceives as threatening his relationship with Felix and his position at Saltburn. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

These two texts have a fascinating contrast in the ways they approach queer desire. Higdon believes that Waugh “condemns” the queer relationship between Charles and Sebastian (87). Martin B. Lockerd writes that the novel “presents queer desire—and homosexual experimentation in particular—as part of an imperfect but potentially enriching element in a process of spiritual maturation” (240). Both critics agree that Waugh’s view of queer desire in the novel is complicated and not entirely positive, although it is (at least initially) romanticised in Charles’s recollection of his time with Sebastian. While Waugh’s depiction of queer desire was somewhat progressive for its time (even if it can be read as subtextual), he isn’t committed to representing a truly progressive or challenging form of desire in Brideshead. Fennell, however, takes her exploration of queer desire further; hers is much more provocative than Waugh’s. Early in the film, Oliver watches Felix have sex with his girlfriend Annabel, in the first suggestion of Oliver’s unhealthy obsession with Felix. Later, at Saltburn, Oliver watches Felix masturbate in the bath and then drinks the remaining bathwater once Felix has left. Depictions of queer relationships and sex on-screen have often historically been transgressive, and Fennell adheres to that trend while playing with the blueprint of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship in Brideshead, twisting it into something much more shocking.

Saltburn also engages with Brideshead’s themes of identity and belonging. While Brideshead is mostly interested in Catholic identity and faith, Saltburn is interested in class and wealth. Both Charles and Oliver are fascinated by their friend’s family’s lavish lifestyle, even though both characters are middle-class. But despite their middle-class status, neither character ultimately belongs in this upper-class world. Charles is eventually estranged from the Flytes after Julia decides she can’t marry him because of her Catholic faith, and Oliver has to resort to scheming and even murder to finally feel at home at Saltburn. Throughout Saltburn, Fennell uses mirrors and reflections to highlight this theme of identity, and to question who exactly Oliver is and how he exists in the world. Is he in love with Felix? Is he, as he tells everyone, from a working-class family affected by substance abuse, or is he in fact middle-class, and can he ultimately become upper-class? In both texts, the image of the house is crucial to these questions of identity and belonging – after all, they both take their titles from the names of the houses. For both characters, the house represents incredible, (initially) unattainable beauty. At the end of Brideshead, the house represents what Charles could have had and has lost (a wealthy lifestyle; a life with Sebastian or Julia), but also what he has gained: his Catholic faith. In Saltburn, Oliver’s character arc is motivated by his desire to both covet and belong in Saltburn. Towards the end of the film, Farleigh tells Oliver that Saltburn isn’t for him, but Oliver makes it his – the final scene, where he dances naked through the house (which is now legally his), signals that he finally belongs in this world.

Fennell often uses images of mirrors and reflections to raise questions of destabilised identity. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Ultimately, knowledge of Brideshead enriches the experience of watching and interpreting Saltburn. Understanding the plotlines, character archetypes, and themes that Fennell is playing with makes her film appear more accomplished; we can see how she uses these elements within Saltburn to create a darker and more provocative story than her intertext. 

Works Cited:

Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2021.

Bradshaw, Peter. “Saltburn review – hot Brideshead soup needs more seasoning.” The Guardian, 4 Oct. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2023/oct/04/saltburn-review-hot-brideshead-soup-needs-more-seasoning. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Higdon, David Leon. “Gay Sebastian and Cheerful Charles: Homoeroticism in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 25, no. 4, 1994, pp. 77-89.

Lockerd, Martin B. “Decadent Arcadias, Wild(e) Conversions, and Queer Celibacies in Brideshead Revisited.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 64, no. 2, 2018, pp. 239-263.

Manning, Charlotte. “Emerald Fennell: ‘Saltburn is a love story that never happened’.” Rolling Stone, 17 Nov. 2023, https://www.rollingstone.co.uk/film/emerald-fennell-saltburn-interview-34453/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Saltburn. Directed by Emerald Fennell. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2023.

Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. 1945. Penguin Books, 1951.