Further thoughts on Brideshead Revisted

This is a follow-up to my previous post as I felt it was different enough to warrant its own. This will focus on the characters of Rex Mottram and Celia Ryder. I didn’t mention either at all by name in the previous post — though they are important characters. Rex was the fiancée and then husband (at least legally) of Charles’ ultimate paramour Julia Flyte. Lady Celia Ryder as can be guessed, was the wife of Charles.  Unlike the Flyte family, the operation of Divine Grace is not (at least visibly) working with these two characters.

I will begin with Celia as Rex will be the main subject simply because there is much more to say about him. Celia has a significant place in the last part of the novel but is not present enough for readers to learn a great deal about her character. I believe this is mainly because there really isn’t much to learn. While Charles may be the narrator and modern “textual criticism” might be more inclined to disbelieve his claims; there is no real reason to doubt she is much as he describes her. It is worth also reminding readers that the subtitle is “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder” and the narrator certainly doesn’t survive his narrative any less unsullied than most other characters do.

We learn that Celia is beautiful as well as an enthusiastic steward of her husband’s artistic career and outwardly the ideal wife for such a man as Charles. We also quickly learn that she is unfaithful to him — as of course, Charles later is to her. Their intimacy when brought back together after a long period of absence is shown to be a mechanical act of obligation and while far from a fractious relationship  — it certainly isn’t a love-match. This is shown most clearly in the total lack of acrimony when Charles seeks a divorce. As soon as the divorce is finalised, she marries a younger man named Robin who we can presume was the very man she was already in an adulterous relationship with. Charles parts with her, their children and their family home as if he had just traded in an automobile for a newer model. As Celia’s brother observes:

‘Well, I think that’s everything,’ said Mulcaster. ‘You know, I’ve seen a few divorces in my time, and I’ve never known one work out so happily for all concerned. Almost always, however matey people are at the start, bad blood crops up when they get down to detail.

A Twitch Upon a Thread, Chapter 4

There is never any reason to feel sorry for Celia (although she is publicly considered the victim in the split), and little sense that she ever thinks outside of her immediate material environment. If she was genuinely distraught or heartbroken, it is never shown and we are led to believe she was satisfied with the comforts provided in the divorce settlement.  Of course Charles isn’t religious during the main events of the novel and his wife doesn’t seem to have any moral sense outside social obligations either.

This brings us to the main object of these further thoughts: Rex Mottram. Rex’s presence in the life of the Flyte family plays a much bigger part in the novel and his character has a lot more to say — with his bluntness doing a great deal to help the reader understand his motivations. What Celia and Rex have in common is their total worldliness which is the direct opposite to the Catholic members of the Flyte family. It matters little whether they are dutiful, struggle or have abandoned their Faith — it is still an important part of their life.

An oddly amusing and a curious way to begin is with Rex Mottram’s gift to Julia before they are married:

It was a small tortoise with Julia’s initials set in diamond in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rug, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when large matters are at stake.

Brideshead Deserted, Chapter 1

This tortoise which still makes me smile to think about and continues to fascinate me, is unfortunately later lost though we learn quickly enough that Julia did not appreciate the gift. The gift does neatly illustrate that Rex is a man of great means because he is able to drop money on such an absurd present. We also directly learn Rex’s interest in Julia:

He wanted a woman; he wanted the best on the market, and he wanted her at his own price; that was what it amounted to.

And his opinion of her religion soon after:

I’ve nothing against her Church; we don’t take much account of Catholics in Canada, but that’s different; in Europe you’ve got some very posh Catholics. All right, Julia can go to church whenever she wants to. I shan’t try and stop her. It doesn’t mean two pins to her, as a matter of fact, but I like a girl to have religion. What’s more, she can bring the children up Catholic. I’ll make the “promises” they want … Then there’s my past. “We know so little about you.” She knows a sight too much. You may know I’ve been tied up with someone else for a year or two.’

Brideshead Deserted, Chapter 1

Everything he thinks is orientated to the world and his place in it. There are no barriers to him except worldly ones. When it comes to marrying Julia, the only appeal of the Catholic Faith comes from the outward beauty of the Church’s architecture, vestments and Holy rites and not the supernatural and invisible majesty they exist to represent:

‘That’s one thing your Church can do,’ he said, ‘put on a good show. You never saw anything to equal the cardinals. How many do you have in England?

‘Only one, darling.’

‘Only one? Can we hire some others from abroad?’

It was then explained to him that  a mixed marriage was a very unostentatious affair.

‘How d’you mean “mixed”? I’m not a nigger or anything.’

‘No, darling, between a Catholic and a Protestant.’

‘Oh, that? Well, if that’s all, it’s soon unmixed. I’ll become a Catholic. What does one have to do?’

Lady Marchmain was dismayed and perplexed by this new development; it was no good her telling herself that in charity she must assume his good faith; it brought back memories of another courtship and another conversion.

‘I don’t pretend to be a very devout man, he said, ‘nor much of a theologian, but I know it’s a bad plan to have two religions in one house. A man needs a religion. If your Church is good enough for Julia, it’s good enough for me.’

Brideshead Deserted, Chapter 2

Becoming a Catholic is nothing to him except paperwork — as it is to many who join simply to marry in the Church today. There is no sincerity and any impediments are simply more barriers to be shattered. As when Julia’s older brother discovers Rex has been married (and therefore still is in the eyes of the Church):

‘I thought I’d better make some inquiries about my prospective brother-in-law, as no one else seemed interested,’ said Brideshead. ‘I got the final answer tonight. He was married in Montreal n 1915 to a Miss Sarah Evangeline Cutler, who is still living there.’

‘Rex, is this true?’

‘Sure it’s true,’ he said. ‘What about it? What are you all looking so het up about? She isn’t a thing to me. She never meant any good. I was only a kid, anyhow. The sort of mistake anyone might make. I got my divorce back in 1919. I didn’t even knw where she was living till Bridey here tol me. What’s all the rumpus?’

His sincerity was so plain that they had to sit down and talk about it calmly. 

‘Don’t you realize, you poor sweet oaf,’ said Julia, ‘that you can’t get married as a Catholic when you’ve another wife alive?’

‘But I haven’t. Didn’t I just tell you we were divorced six years ago.’

‘But you can’t be divorced as a Catholic.’

‘I wasn’t a Catholic and I was divorced. I’ve got the papers somewhere.’

‘Anyhow, what about your Italian cousin, Francesca? — she married twice.’

‘She had an annulment.’

‘All right then, I’ll get an annulment. What does it cost? Who do I get it from? Has Father Mowbray got one? I only want to do what’s right. Nobody told me.’

It was a long time before Rex could be convinced of the existence of a serious impediment to his marriage.

Brideshead Deserted, Chapter 2

This was a lengthy series of quotes but they are very illustrative of a certain type of mindset found in people that I have long found troubling. I have met people like this in many works of life and I often wonder how God could ever reach them. Rex comes off as incapable of taking the moral law of the Church with any seriousness. He looks at its laws as things that can be overcome on technicalities or just ignored: not as in any sense binding. In the same chapter he even suggests hiding his previous marriage from the church — which would of course invalidate the marriage. We know also that Rex is in an off-and-on relationship with a socialite named Brenda Champion and that Julia is aware of this. Julia while Catholic, is for much of the novel living in sin but despite this, the Grace of God is always working on her conscience. 

If the Grace of God is working through Celia Ryder and Rex Mottram, we never learn of it. The former disappears from the novel without our ever finding out and Rex is only concerned with his political career as shown in the endless drivel uttered in political discussions leading up to the Second World War. His character is based on a number of real British politicians (including one that was from Canada). Rex’s mindset is certainly more common in political figures but it is also seen in plenty of other walks of life — particularly anywhere where there is power and prestige to be gained.

I don’t have anything to add beyond this. As I state above, I find this reality of the human condition disturbing but then we learn of these people from our Lord himself. These people are not as simple to understand as a thief, an adulterer or even a murderer — there is no real way to punish or discourage this sort of indifference. I do wonder at how the inner-workings of God operates with these people though. Are they consciously rejecting the Grace of God or does a sense of the supernatural simply never occur to them? I don’t know the answer of course but Brideshead Revisited contains very realistic depictions of such people.

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