Thoughts on Brideshead Revisited

I mentioned a few years ago in a post that I had been intending to re-read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited along with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. After finishing the former late last week, I decided I needed to write something about it. Not least because I had wondered why it was so popular with Catholics given some of the subject matter. To be specific, I remember an acquaintance once wondering aloud why it was considered the “quintessential Catholic novel” — while clearly not agreeing with such a claim. As I wrote this, I thought I’d do a quick search through Catholic booklists online and it certainly does show up frequently. As I first read the novel before I was Catholic and have just re-read it having been one for almost six years; I think I am in a better position to address this.

To get the obvious out of the way, Waugh directly states in the preface to my edition that the novel’s theme is “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” Most of the major characters in the novel are Catholic to fluctuating levels of piety and the narrator Charles Ryder himself states relatively early in the telling, that he had later come to believe in the supernatural. Although a complicated man (as great writers invariably are), Waugh was certainly a serious and devout Catholic himself. So on the basics, it is certainly a Catholic novel. 

At the same time, we have to allow for a level of subconsciousness in writing. Although the author’s intention certainly matters, the creator can often lose control of his creation to some extent. And even when in full command of the prose, the reader can still take away what he wants to. Consider for example Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Nabokov was quite explicit that the protagonist Humbert Humbert was a wicked man who took gross advantage of a vulnerable young girl. I even remember it mentioned in an interview that he and his wife actively checked various European language translations to make sure they were consistent with the original. Yet, to this day, it is often seen as sympathetic to sexual predators and even a disturbing Japanese perversion called “Loli” is derived from the title. I don’t advise looking any further into the latter.

With regards to Brideshead Revisited it seems to be a mixture of problems with the author’s intention and how it was received. For one, I think a lot of people know it merely from the miniseries starring Jeremy Irons in the 1980s. Coincidently (or perhaps not), he also played Humbert Humbert in the more recent adaptation of Lolita. I have seen the television series but it was shortly after reading the book years ago and I’ve not since seen it again in full. For people who have read it, it seems like they may have only read Book 1 and ignored most of the rest of the novel — certainly the ending.

Moving now to the novel itself, it is important to first address the nature of the relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. Waugh is anything but explicit and I’m not sure if he was ever asked directly whether or not they were sodomites. Certainly the character Anthony Blanche is. It is claimed by many critics that it is an intense friendship but plenty still scoff at this. I have to say that while I am in general, ruthlessly dismissive of people who ceaselessly take the most base interpretations of literature to support their filthy perversions — that the perverts likely have it right in this case. An example of the text that they point to is below:

Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.

Et In Arcadia Ego, Chapter 2

This particular section seems to suggest as much but then again: it is still ambiguous and there are unfortunately a great number of grave sins to choose from when you catalogue them. Still, he isn’t suggesting they murdered anyone and while drunkenness can certainly be grave, this seems to be removed as a possibility with the separate mention of the liqueurs. There is also the earlier picnic where they were drinking champagne and eating strawberries which to use more modern parlance; sounded “pretty gay” to me but it may not have been thought so a century ago. What most seems to indicate the accursed sin though is not so much textual evidence but that this was a documented problem at English boarding schools and colleges. I recall C.S. Lewis referring to it (though I don’t remember where). And I noticed one of the scoffers was Christopher Hitchens who himself has openly admitted to the same vile behaviour when he studied at Oxford a few generations later.

Accepting this doesn’t mean that Waugh approved — as the last two thirds of the novel certainly indicate. Sebastian develops a serious alcohol problem that all but destroys him. Although falling far short of the grace of God, he never abandons his Faith and is drawn again and again back to the foot of the cross as a broken sinner. Ryder, though reflecting on these times with apparent nostalgia, hasn’t continued on this path and whatever passion he had for Sebastian is transferred to his sister Julia. Later in the novel after Ryder has found success as an artist when Anthony Blanche briefly reappears late to his latest exhibition and takes him to a “pansy bar” where Blanche is clearly predating on young men and has become an even more pathetic creature. None of this would suggest Waugh saw any good in their youthful “naughtiness”.

This aspect of the novel has also apparently had the ill effect (though I’ve not witnessed it), of attracting sodomites to Latin Mass communities. They are obviously not attracted to the religious side but the aesthetics of Catholic culture and so they can LARP as characters from the novel complete with 1920s fashion. Strange if true and I’m glad I’ve not witnessed it directly. 

The power of the novel genre in general comes from the way it can show a realistic portrayal of humanity that though fictional, is drawn from human experience and grounded in truth. This means that novels can also present evil as it really is and often in order to show the destruction it causes. The more modern the novel, the less this is true but the genre certainly began this way. Brideshead Revisted has the explicit adulterous affair between Charles and Julia which while clearly demonstrated to be wrong by the end — is still shown as exciting and enjoyable for the participants while it lasts. As was the case with the youthful relationship between Sebastian and Charles. The cruise across the Atlantic with the hint of danger in the rough weather only adds to this. And this is the problem with fiction as it is in life — sin can be  (and often is) pleasurable. The danger of a novel portraying this in a realistic way is that people will find the idea romantic despite the consequences and admonitions that come later. Another example that comes to mind for similar reasons is The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton though it has been twenty years since I read it. The author ultimately doesn’t have much control over what the reader takes away from their work even when the overall theme of the work contradicts exactly what readers want to take away from it. 

In re-reading the novel, I found Charles to be in many ways a pathetic character himself. He seems to have had little joy in his life when you consider the experiences he narrated involve the destruction he witnessed within a single Catholic family. He doesn’t ever seem joyful in his worldly success, his marriage, his children or really anything he has done outside of his youthful encounter with the Flyte family. This happiness is briefly rekindled in an adulterous relationship which destroys his own marriage and leaves his children without their father. And this affair only left both Charles and Julia even more broken than before. I don’t think Waugh would have disagreed with this assessment either.

Ann Barnhardt has suggested that Beryl Muspratt, the widow who marries Julia and Sebastian’s older brother Bridey is the more important character. This is simply because it is reported by her fiancée that she would be uncomfortable meeting on friendly terms with an adulterous couple. I am sympathetic to this but I also see Lady Marchmain as analogous to Saint Monica who maintains her Faith despite being abandoned by her husband and never ceases praying and hoping for her husband and children to come back to the Church. The ending of the novel gives us hope that this will come to pass for most if not the entire family. Her stubborn-to-the-end husband’s final gesture is to make the sign of the cross before dying leaving the hope that he reconciled himself to God in his final moments. Witnessing the power of prayer leads Julia to abandon her adulterous relationship with Charles and live in accordance with the Faith — even if it means being alone. I was struck by this towards the end of Julia unloading herself on Charles before she later decided to end their relationship:

‘A word from so long ago, from Nanny Hawkins stitching by the hearth and the nightlight burning before the Sacred Heart. Cordelia and me with the catechism, in mummy’s room, before luncheon on Sundays. Mummy carrying my sin with her to church, bowed under it and the black lace veil, in the chapel; slipping out with it in London before the fires were lit; taking it with her through the empty streets, where the milkman’s ponies stood with their forefeet on the pavement; mummy dying with my sin eating at her, more cruelly than her own deadly illness.

‘Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot; hanging over the bed in the night-nursery; hanging year after year in the dark little study at Farm Street with the shining oilcloth; hanging in the dark church where only the old charwoman raises the dust and one candle burns; hanging at noon, high among the crowds and the soldiers, no comfort except a sponge of vinegar and the kind words of a thief; hanging forever, never the cool sepulchre and the grave clothes spread on the stone slab, never the oil and spices in the dark cave; always the midday sun and the dice clicking for the seamless coat.

No way back; the gates barred; all the saints and angels posted along the walls. Thrown away, scrapped, rotting down; the old man with lupus and the forked stick who limps out at nightfall to turn the rubbish, hoping for something to put in his sack, something marketable, turns away with disgust. 

‘Nameless and dead, like the baby they wrapped up and took away before I had seen her.’

A Twitch Upon The Thread, Chapter 3

Cordelia also acts as an anchor for her family’s bark despite being the youngest. This is wonderfully shown in the hopefulness she has for Sebastian’s salvation despite in all ways worldly, being the most tragic member of the family:

‘I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of, the community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, “Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,” and then he’ll come back dishevelled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He’ll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. They’ll bring him forward to act as guide, whenever they have an English speaking visitor, and he will be completely charming so that before they go, they’ll ask about him and perhaps be given a hint that he has high connections at home. If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Home of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.

A Twitch Upon The Thread, Chapter 4

So by the end, we can see that grace has indeed been in operation on all the characters including Charles and we can hope that even the ones that struggled the most will get to their eternal reward in the end. Waugh certainly achieved what he set out to do and so it can be fittingly described as a Catholic novel.

I think what appeals to people more than Waugh’s actual intention is the time when it was written and his introduction certainly indicated he was aware of this. Brideshead Revisited was written and completed towards the end of the Second World War which was also the final nail in the coffin for the British Empire and British society as it had existed for so long. It was of course decaying before this — as the novel shows; but it was truly lost by the time the guns finally fell silent. This time-capsule is what appeals to non-Catholic readers who I think simply gloss over the theme and focus on the aesthetic qualities of the novel and the world it describes. This is not all bad either as it is certainly one of the greatest novels of the 20th century on its own terms and well worth reading if you haven’t. I would certainly read it again but I think I’ll have to allow time to once again fog my memory of it before I do.

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