Brideshead Revisited

When the weekend of March 9th finally arrived, the stage was set for Dr. David White’s series of four conferences-the longest ever given during the normal Seminary year. Remarkably, he had never taught the novel publicly, having only used it in private as a means of presenting the Catholic Faith to young people who came to him “with a certain gleam in the eye.” Not surprisingly, this apologetic use was a major motive for his presentation of the novel to seminarians, who must evangelize concrete modern man, in all their real-life imperfections. They must be able to see the hand of God working even in (one may say especially in) the disaster areas of modern life, as God gets through to people with His grace in seemingly unlikely ways.

“The book is about God,” said Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) to a friend in 1944. He had been given leave from the British Royal Marines in order to write it, and he considered it his best work, certainly his first openly apologetic work.

Many critics hated Brideshead Revisited: the non-Catholics because it was so Catholic, the Catholics because it was so shocking. Typically, in the era preceding Vatican II, Waugh’s Catholic critics were divided between the conservatives (who, detesting the sins described, hated the book and made harsh judgments about its author) and the progressives (who abhorred Waugh’s stubborn insistence on God’s order in the world and the real Faith as the only cure for the world’s madness).

Waugh on an Atlantic crossing with his wife Laura (1916-1973) in November 1950.

ust as the real God is often surprising (My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways,” Isaiah 55,8), a book which is really about the real God will most likely be surprising as well. Waugh himself had been caught by the real God, becoming a Catholic in 1930 after his thorough familiarity with the modern world convinced him that the Catholic Faith was the only alternative to chaos and destruction. He despised modernity because he saw right through it from first-hand experience. His upbringing in the wishy-washy Anglican Church had already proved to him that being “nice” and keeping up a minimum of external “religion” were no answer to the central problem of Ja world running away from God. He would live tomourn the disastrous Second Vatican Council as the logical outcome of such foolishness, which had been implicit in the “?Catholicism” of many Catholics for decades before. Waugh’s integral Catholicism, based on the adherence of mind and will to objective truth, was thus set on a collision course with both neo-pagan critics and with Catholic critics whose Faith, based more on “niceness” and sentiment than on cold, hard truth, was already turning slightly askew.

Perhaps some VERBUM readers who have tried Brideshead without liking it will dispute that it is “about God.” While it is undisputedly true that the Almighty never makes an obvious intervention in the lives of any of the novel’s characters, nevertheless He is the central figure. The characters’ acceptance or rejection of His grace-in every detail of their daily lives as much as in moments of tremendous decision-is the key to understanding the entire book.

As Dr. White points out, “Waugh designs a novel chronicling the impact of grace on human beings. It is impossible to show this directly, but it can be seen indirectly throughout the novel by the characters’ acceptance or rejection of grace.” As Waugh himself said in a jacket note published with the first English edition, the purpose of the novel is “to trace the workings of the Divine Purpose in a pagan world,” and particularly in a Catholic English family “already half pagan themselves.”

Before going any further in an effort to examine Waugh’s surprising answer to the problems of modern man, it is necessary to present briefly the plot of Brideshead and to respond to some objections which will surely arise concerning the sins of many characters.

The first-person narrator of Brideshead is Captain Charles Ryder, an English officer serving in 1942 during the lowest ebb of Britain’s fortunes in the ghastly Second World War. In a sudden change of encampment, Charles finds himself stationed at Brideshead Castle, the family seat of the Flytes of Marchmain, the noble English family already mentioned. Since the family is scattered to the four winds by the War, the entire story of Charles’ association with them is formed by his own reminiscences from his new “camp.” The novel thus forms “the sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder,” as Brideshead is sub-titled.

As Dr. White explained, the retrospective nature of the entire novel emphasizes the difficulty of seeing the pattern of events clearly while they are happening. It is necessary to look back, to take stock. Charles is a Catholic in 1942, but he first came to Brideshead as an agnostic Oxford student in the 1920’s. The entire book is, in a sense, the story of his conversion, seen clearly by hindsight.

Charles’ friendship with the Flytes begins by his chance meeting with Lord Sebastian, the younger son of the Marquis of Marchmain. Sebastian is the “most remarkable young man” of his year at Oxford, and he is even then quickly slipping away from the practice of the Faith by a hedonistic life which Charles gladly joins. Sebastian rapidly descends into alcoholism, but he nevertheless retains his grip on the principles of the Faith. He knows it is true, but he does not live up to it.
Charles begins to suspect that Catholicism is the cause of Sebastian’s unhappiness and says to to the Earl of Brideshead, Sebastian’s elder brother (always called “Bridey”). In his characteristically blunt way, Bridey agrees that it is possible. To him, however, one’s happiness or unhappiness is secondary to living up to the Truth.

If Charles thinks the Church cruel in Bridey, he is taken aback by the simplicity and innocence of Lady Cordelia, the youngest sister of Sebastian, who “?scatters grace everywhere she goes,” according to Dr. White. Named, of course, from the truthful and innocent daughter of King Lear, Cordelia presents a more cheerful-if a bit odd-face of Catholicism to Charles. Upon hearing that he is an agnostic, she promises to pray for him (as she does for Lloyd George and for her pig).

The Marquis of Marchmain, having abandoned his wife-as well as the Church-after the First World War, lives an openly sinful life in Venice. He is much more Charles’ idea of a reasonable man. The Marchioness, on the other hand, saintly and sympathetic though she is, seems always to contradict Charles’ ideas about what is good for Sebastian. To him, she seems an over-protective mother and a bit of a religious fanatic. He is puzzled by the fact that such intelligent people can believe such “nonsense.”

Finally, Lady Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s dazzlingly beautiful sister, shocks the entire family by “marrying” a divorced man, just after Sebastian exiles himself to a life of wandering dissoluteness in Europe and North Africa. The Marchioness’s death from cancer completes the first cycle of the family’s destruction, and Charles goes off to marry and to become a famous artist.

Returning from America a few years later as a failed artist and husband, Charles finds that Julia is also on the liner. They renew their old acquaintance, and they “fall in love.” The eventual end of both their marriages is sealed when they begin to live more or less openly “in sin” at Brideshead Castle. Bridey’s off-hand remark concerning their state leads to Julia’s magnificent soliloquy on mortal sin (surely unique in modern literature), but she nonetheless continues her bad life until Providence plays a trump card.

When Lord Marchmain returns home, dying, he remains steadfast in his refusal to repent despite the attempts of Bridey and Cordelia to bring him a priest. They are fought at every step by Charles, but Julia becomes anxious as she sees her father about to meet God with sin on his soul. The Marquis finally relents and receives Extreme Unction on his deathbed, in response to the graces gained by countless prayers-by now including both Julia’s and Charles’. Charles’ first prayer (“O God, if there is a God, forgive his sins, if there is such a thing as sin”?) leaves much to be desired, but it is a beginning. Julia’s however, is obviously much more sincere and profound, because it is coupled with true repentance and a firm purpose of amendment. She wastes no time in sending Charles away forever: she knows that she must never again “set up a rival good to God’s,” and she gives up her false happiness to return to the Household of Faith.

Although many Catholic readers may be disturbed by the narration of so many sins (“Each of the seven dead sins is there,” says Dr. White) they should remember that God permits evil that greater good may come of it. Some sinners never convert until they are crushed (the true meaning of contrite) by the guilt and results of their sins. As Dr. White explains, Waugh is constrained by the fact of describing a pilgrimage from sin to grace to show how his characters act without grace. Many of them behave reprehensibly and show little concern for the gravity of their actions for a long time, but their eventual conversions show God’s mercy and the action of His grace more clearly in proportion to the depravity of their earlier behavior. Their experience of their own weakness and malice leads them to cast themselves down-not sentimentally but reasonably and ardently-before God’s mercy.

Dr. White maintains that the novel is an apologetic for the Faith inasmuch as it shows clearly the inevitable end to which modernity leads and insofar as it presents the real God and His real Church as the only remedy. Modern men who see themselves in this novel will, as a result, often be well disposed to listen to the details of the Faith. Apologetics by syllogism is most often ineffective today since modern man has largely forgotten how to think clearly. Brideshead Revisited, on the other hand, offers modern man both an accurate picture of his own life and an incentive to look back over his past while thoughtfully considering Waugh’s alternative.

The core of Waugh’s surprising answer to the world’s problems is no more mysterious or unknown than it has been since Our Lord’s time. In the Gospel, the publicans, Samaritans and prostitutes all lived lives of grave sin, while the Scribes and Pharisees were “zealous” for the Law. Our Lord surprised both groups by His mercy to the sinners and His anger against the “righteous.” If Waugh has caused controversy by this novel, it is largely because he believes in the Gospel and has presented a bit of it in modern terms. “Publicans and harlots are getting into the Kingdom of God before you!” says Our Lord to the Pharisees. The reason is that grave sinners have more cause to be humble and to trust in God’s mercy than those who seem to avoid sin by their own efforts. Dare one say that God can permit to sinners to act so badly (by their own fault, to be sure) in order to pave the way for their eventual repentance?

The novel’s ending is dismal from a worldly point of view: Charles’ life is ruined, the Flytes are in shambles and World War II threatens to destroy everything good and beautiful remaining in the world. But grace has returned to the pagan half of the family and has vivified Charles Ryder. However badly the Earthly City may fare, nothing save their own infidelity can rob them of their inheritance in the Heavenly City. It is a message of profound Christian hope.

Dr. White testifies that, whenever he uses the novel to help a suitably-disposed young man towards the Faith, it works. He sees Brideshead as a reasonable motive for hope for Catholics suffering in the modern world as an effective tool for spreading the Faith. Catholics should be grateful, he says, that such a novel has been a best-seller even in the dark 20th Century.