Sunday, October 6, 2013

Brideshead, Revisited

This week the Rad Trad intends to publish the next posts in two series, the Lesser Known Fathers and the examination of the French usages of the Roman rite. The Lesser Known Fathers will delve into St. Theodore the Studite's defense of holy icons, which builds on the solid foundation of St. John of Damascus' earlier writings on the same subject. In the series on French liturgy we shall have an overview of the Holy Week and Pascha Sunday Masses in the Parisian Missal. Stay tuned.
The Rad Trad is also re-reading Evelyn Waugh's nostalgic classic Brideshead Revisited. Doubtless, many readers are familiar with this prosaic masterpiece, which weaves a personal narrative and a long ago social setting into a story of God's grace. The brand of post-modern literature, to which most of us were exposed by our universities, lacks the aesthetic verbosity of Waugh, whose style re-fashions settings and moods on paper. The Word of God was spoken and the world came to be. The word of Waugh was written and an embracing reflection comes about. Waugh describes the Oxford of 1923 in the second paragraph of the first chapter:
"Oxford—now submerged and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in—Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her gray springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days—such as that day—when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamor."
Oxford devolved into a destination for upper-middleclass American tourists long before J.K. Rowling's harebrained, hackneyed Harry Potter stories. Whilst a student there the Rad Trad enjoyed deceiving fellow Americans on holiday. With one exception, they always enquired as to where the nearest Harry Potter attraction could be found: the library (Bodleian library), the dining hall (Christ Church College), the hallways (Theology faculty), and whatever else they could want. The Rad Trad obliged their requests, with either a heavily affected Yorkshire or Oxonian accent—depending on his mood. Often, after carrying down the High Street toward their destination, these poor site-seekers would chirp within the Rad Trad's earshot "Ooooh Jawhnny, don't you just love that English accent" or "Wasn't that a fancy voice" or even "I could just listen to British people talk all day." The bars are the only other form of entertainment in Oxford.
There is also an amusing description of the family house's chapel, 19th century art nouveau kitsch:
"The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts-and-crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armor, covered the walls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colors. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give it the peculiar property of seeming to have been molded in Plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of a pockmarked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green and gold daisies."
Brideshead has developed a modern following focused on the sexual tension between its two main male characters, Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte. These modern pseudo-aesthetes usually neglect or deride the main theme of the book, God's grace, or the various characters who act of God's instruments—Cordelia and Lady Marchmain. Others who understand and appreciate the theme often cite Sebastian and Cordelia as the good souls of the novel and ignore Lady Marchmain. A letter by Waugh to A.D. Peters, published in the back of the Back Bay Books edition, sheds some light on the matter:
"Yes, Lady Marchmain is an enigma. I hoped the last conversation with Cordelia gave a theological clue. The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that theologians won't recognize it.... I am steaming ahead with the novel. It is becoming painfully erotic."

A review might be forthcoming.


  1. If you went to Oxford, how come your car's so crap? - I presume the old joke 'if you're so clever, why aren't you rich?' is known in the US as here.

    J.K. Rowling? Yeah, I never saw it. There were books and a tv series called called the Worst Witch which was about a GIRL training to be a witch in witch school, but her name was Mildred (good Anglo-Saxon saint's name). Never saw that doing it all again with a boy and without a sense of humour was all that original. I also never saw any of the films. I have a reputation among my friends for watching anything, paint drying, etc., but those got turned off before they started. But they gave a new lease of life to some British character actors who didn't really need one - at least the rest of us didn't need them to have one. Apparently Maggie Smith was in a few. I last saw here in a clip advertising pompous inexpliccably Oscar-winning fatty Julian Fellowes's 'Gosford Park' shown on all the review shows, where she says to the American film producer that no one in her circle would ever see his movie. I always felt I ought to return the compliment and haven't seen anything with her in since.

    "bars"?- we call them 'pubs', dontchaknow? But that's Oxford for you. Libraries and the contemplation of old stonework is about all there is. I understand students once made their own entertainment. Punts in the summer - that was something to do - sixth term only I was told or the pressure of exams would preclude.

    I found the chracter of Lady Marchmain - impossible not to be influenced by memories of Claire Bloom's performance in the Granada tv series - somewhat troubling; in some ways, the authentic voice of the slightly hectoring moralistic Church - of days decidedly gone by. It could look fierce at times. So old-fashioned. So unfashionable. Which is not of course to say that such a person cannot be God's instrument, because they can.

    The character I personally identify with most is Bridey. I definitely feel I could put lots of people off the Faith by preaching it, so prefer to keep quiet.

    I must reread too. It has been ages. I had two copies that I have mislaid. They are not as common in shops here as they used to be - and everything has been difficult to find since we lost Borders. Same with other serious books. Every politician in the country now likes to quote Disraeli's Sybil, (without attribution of course) but it has been impossible to get a copy on any high street for nearly twenty years. I still find it unnatural to buy novels online.

    1. I am not rich precisely because I am 'clever.' Higher education in America, particularly at the better schools, is an expensive endeavor and requires financing (through our government) at rates that would put most lone sharks to shame. Still, I recently purchased a new(er) car and am awaiting delivery this week.

      I went punting (in a jacket and proper trousers, terrible) on my very last day in Oxford. I crashed the vessel a few times and nearly flipped it even more. Still, I became acquainted with a delightful little tightener called a Pimm's.

      I think Lady Marchmain's shell is of her own fashioning. Her chilling demeanor and cold countenance are her mechanisms of self defence, a protection against letting someone disappoint her again as Lord Marchmain did. She immerses herself in her brothers' memories as a way of coping.

      I identify with Bridey to an extent, too. I would like to think I am less socially withdrawn, but I may be wrong.

      It is worth a re-read. Sounds as though England's literary standards continue to decline. Hardly surprising given the drivel your country has been sending mine (Harry Potter, Dark Materials series), not that mine is any sort of standard. I noticed the dip at Blackwell's in Oxford when I was last there two years ago. I really must return there and see some friends. Ah, nostalgia is running its course on me I fear.

  2. We all develop outer shells I think. Life (and death) will do that to you.

    I have always had certain scruples about what job I did, so I’m certainly not rich.

    Saying that you are clever certainly marks you as very much not British. You can’t say you’re clever in this country. That probably is not healthy. The once socialist politician jack Straw became rather defensive about going to the sort of school his party has been trying to deny the rest of us, and resorted to a plea as if for the children; 'I was a bright kid' - meaning what, you became stupid in adulthood? Perhaps all politicians do, or make believe they do.
    You may well be right about educational standards here. The other day I had to explain to a slightly younger guy I know from my old church who Keats was. His existence, for goodness sakes. I don't really like Keats, but I know I don't like him because my school made me read him.
    The FT here recently said that the problem with US higher education was the unlimited fees introducing a number of corruptions, and strongly advised the British government not to listen to the vice-chancellor of Oxford’s desire to raise them.

    Ah, Mr Philip Pullman, – or ‘Wagon-Lit’ due to family propensity towards making bad plays on words. It’s not very funny but we keep doing it.* The fictional wing of the Provisional Dwawkins Tendency. Again, never read a word but there are times when his works appear on screen. The BBC believes him especially appropriate at Christmass. I think I already covered Ms Rowling, but judging by the scripts of some imported sitcoms, there are Americans who would disagree with us both.
    And the last time I was in that town I was shocked to find the Blackwell’s music department where I had bought Monteverdi madrigals had become a drinking den for Wadham SCR.

    So now I sincerely and unreserverdly apologise for the actions of all my countrymen currently causing any annoyance to America whatsoever. While my apology naturally does include Mr Tony Blair, if you could manage to get him on the no-fly list when he is next in Connecticut to mould young minds, I believe we would all be grateful over here.

    Judging by what I saw on my screen over lunchtime I think perhaps the British might also need to apologise for Rosamund Pilcher, or at least her adaptors, but I hesitate to do so only because a late family member was a fan.

    I hope my rubbish joke wasn't too offensive. I rather enjoyed your description of the 'crapmbile' but not where it took you. Glad you have done better now .

    Sorry about your punting disasters, but you left it too late to start. It’s an excuse if you had the Pimm’s before you started...

    It occurs you will have been in Oxford while Fr Hunwicke was still at S Thomas’s. Perhaps you heard as well as read him.
    That was another thing: religion used to be the big entertainment in Oxford - if one could take anglicanism seriously, as I no longer can. Magdalen College chapel for instance has been known to sing Vivaldi for the Magnificat but set in English language anglican office. There is the Oratory where I seem to recall they did Sunday vespers properly. And what, now? One Latin mass? But that is not quite a week’s worth, and I believe the students are no longer content just to go to church for their entertainment. Crystal meth, perhaps?

    Of course the other things students do is work a lot of the time. A friend who was putting in six days a week was told she would get a first if she did more. She decided she couldn’t do that and took her two: one. She did go to church on the other, but that was a few years ago.

    Judging by this blog, I should say you were up to preaching the faith, perhaps in an academic setting.

    *But apparently we were not alone. When Phoebe Nicholls, who played Cordelia on the tv, was married The Tatler published a picture of her veil caught by a gust of wind under the caption ‘Bride’s head in flyte’. That dates me.

    1. I found Oxford academically un-challenging actually and took a 2.1 putting in about 5 half-hearted days a week. Perhaps given my American background I wanted more structure and more busy time, both of which are sorely lacking in the Oxbridge tutorial system.

      I preached the faith through subversion and subterfuge! For instance in Early Modern Lit, when we covered Utopia, half the time I called the author St Thomas More rather than "Sir Thomas More" or just "More." It caught on.

      The Oratorians still do sung 1962 Vespers every Sunday and first Vespers for Holy Days. They have a 1962 low Mass at 8AM on Sundays and a "solemn Latin" Novus Ordo at 11AM. They finaly started to do the 11AM ad orientem, although their other Masses according to the Pauline books are facing the people. Last year they began doing a 1962 Mass every morning at 8AM and hoped to make it a permanent part of their schedule, but ended up axing it when they were offered a church in York and had to sacrifice some clergy. One Oratorian told me "We're the trendiest place in town." The other parishes yearn for St Aloysius' congregation.

      And yes, is it not funny how politicians will not send their children to the state's schools? I never went to a public school (American term for government school), but I do not feign being a "man of the people" in rejecting such education.

  3. Ah, the English School. For some reason I thought it had been theology. Or am I wrong and it was some strange philosophy option?

    Oxford is a slightly weird place. Everything depends on the college. I understood from friends that the collegiate system in many ways discouraged wider social interaction across the university. There is clearly no central meeting point - except perhaps the Library - and something of a caste system exists across the range of colleges from the grandest to the smaller ones. I can see being in Magdalen, New or the House would be very agreeable, but others –which shall remain nameless – not so much. I wonder if this contributed to your less than perfect experience. You're going to tell me now that you WERE in the House and it failed to inspire, aren't you?

    Still I always liked Oxford – if you cf with Cambridge, which has some quaint corners and some great set pieces, when visiting friends, I was shocked by the amount of unpleasant red brick. Much of Queens’ looks like a dreary boarding school. I liked the old priory buildings that survived in Ox.

    S Thomas More is vitally important. His sainthood shows inter alia that there is a Church, that Church has for want of a better word, edges, and some are on the other side of them.

    I always wondered what he meant by ‘Utopia’. A while since I read. A happy land without the Christian religion? Since you have studied it, I shall ask you. Another of the saint’s little mistakes, such as his early flattery of the very young Henry Tudor, [nobody's perfect, incl. the SS.] his later persecutor, or a carefully judged conundrum? I was working with the idea thta it was just something in the humanist fashion of the age the genius dashed off in an idle moment and did not give great consideration to. [I thought I had some cleverer comments, carefully set out, but seem to have deleted them. But I think I have got the point of the issue across.]

  4. And another thing. On reflection I was perhaps a little too swift to apologise for the literary wrongs of my country when I ought to have held out for a higher price - at least your apology for Mr Stephen Spielberg.

    1. Stephen Spielberg, the film director, is not so bad. Stephen King, the "novelist," is quite bad. For his works I apologize.

      Utopia was something of a thought experiment by More, in which he intentionally takes no direct stand—although injecting some of his trademark humor and wit—and presents to his fellow humanists a vision of a world altogether perfect by material standards, but without Christianity. He may think the Utopians are an unfulfilled people, although very reasonable and well off by any earthly standards.

      I may have been in one of those little colleges so watch it! I had tutorials at Christ Church and Jesus College though, so I was exposed to various academic settings. The system can be very anti-social if one does not take time to join umbrella student organizations that reach out beyond one's own college. I was involved with the Oxford Conservatives (OUCA) and the chaplain (a little bit). What I disliked most in my time there was the lack of sunlight, until May finally came and shewed the celestial light. That particular quibble of mine would likely have been no different than the drab, but charming, university founded by cowardly monks in Cambridgeshire.

      I studied History, but Early Modern Lit was cross-listed with both the History and Literature faculties, so I took the opportunity for the course, which was wonderful.

  5. Oh yes. Forgot him. Quite right. Stephen King is bad, bad, bad. Cannot understand why people keep buyng him. I suppose I ought to admit Spielberg has something even when the results contain large quantities of corn. Someone should probably add to the existing body of work studying the interest of Jewish creative types in Christian themes. ET as a reflection of the Sacred Heart. Very curious. Pervasive Christian culture, one supposes. Dear old Mr Coben has a strong prediliction for the literary resurrection of his characters, although I suspect he would want to deny the Christian influence.

    Modern History. Good. That degree is much more useful. I have a theory that the usual American history syllabus is a considerably deeper study simply because the timeline is shorter, and therefore the students learn about their country's workings in greater depth than most Britons do.

    Yeah, the weather might indeed be dreadful before summer arrives. Spare a thought for those of us who studied further North. The autumn was okay but I don't remember the summer arriving before term finished. I have mostly been in Oxford for conferences during the long vacation so it was warmer.
    The friend I was thinking of was in S Catherine's. Perfectly respectable abode for the modern student. If you did any worse, bad luck. I stayed there for a conference once. I was at another in Jesus College. It had a very curious chapel, I seem to recall: post-Renaissance Gothic body and then a rather classical nineteenth century addition for the altar.
    Interesting you say the system could be anti-social. I agree with you. A sort of similar arrangement was in place where I studied. It was thought almost disloyal if one socialized outside.
    I saw a tv documentary suggesting that David Cameron honed his political skills by schmoozing the range of social groups served up inside his college. But then he was in the Bollinger Club. Oh, no; wait. That was Waugh's fictionalized version. But the colleges did seem to appeal most to slightly socially introverted products of British boarding schools. OUCA is good; I have been a member of that party at various times. When I was standing for some local elections on their ticket they expected it; it semed only fair.
    - For your non-British readers it may be worth stating that the British Conservative party contains a wide coalition of opinions that includes a certain Ken Clark who stated that in the US he would vote Democrat. And that was under Clinton. Well, it takes all sorts. I wouldn't however trust their current leadership further than I could throw them, and that Cameron fellow is fairly porky under his suits.
    Now I forgot the union, but I read that the quality of debate had gone down somewhat since the seventies. Don't know if you found it any good. I liked the look of the brown brick buildings in their unkempt garden setting. A quiet little oasis behind the shops.

    Glad to know your thoughts on the saint's book. Your analysis is surer-footed than the range of options I recall seeing on wikipedia.