J. and I hold competing views of Evelyn Waugh's lush novel, Brideshead Revisited. Mention a certain author's name and one masterpiece comes to mind. Fitzgerald? The Great Gatsby. Harper Lee? To Kill a Mockingbird. Melville? The protracted and monotonous Moby Dick. Evelyn Waugh's name instantly conjures the title Brideshead Revisited. The Waugh aficionado realizes that Brideshead is a curio among the author's extensive bibliography. Aside from the novela Helena, a travel diary, and a biography of Msgr. Ronald Knox, Waugh wrote satire. While Brideshead retains much of Waugh's biting wit and critical outlook on the newly moneyed classes, it is not a humorous novel at heart. Lord Marchmain's death possesses a gravity that little Lord Tangent's death at the hand of a starter pistol lacked in Decline and Fall.
As lovers of Waugh, I propose J. and I spend some time discussing the merits of Brideshead as literature, as a Catholic book, and where it stands in Waugh's legacy.
In this post, let us consider the literary setting of Brideshead. The novel begins in about 1923 and was written in 1943 following an injury its author incurred in military service. Waugh's ambition in writing Brideshead was to adumbrate "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters." This theme departs from the literature in vogue at the time the novel was set and written. The Romantic era of the late 19th century was in essence a reactionary movement against the rationalism wrought by the Industrial Revolution, Darwin, and the violent democratic movements. This escapist line of thought, if it can be called a line of thought, sought simpler times, more moral times, more meaningful times. Walter Scott's protagonist in Waverly is the archetype Romantic: a man who has read too many books without any direction as to what he has read, bored with the dull drums of country life, who goes on what he knows is a fool's errand in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie. In Ivanhoe Scott revived medieval chivalry a century after Burke declared it dead. American painters eschewed cities in favor of grand outdoor scenes, wherein the people where the ornaments, not the focus. It was an irreligious yearning for a more religious age. Then came the First World War. World War I's scorched earth legacy left nothing behind except the nihilistic ashes of Existentialism and the rare few who broke free of its lures, men like Hemingway.
Brideshead is a unique novel in that a major author wrote a mainstream work on a theme that would long be considered outmoded. It was an unusual work for the time. Like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, none of the characters of Brideshead are particularly likable—either a reflection of Waugh's apodictic personality or a trait of modern literary style. Brideshead has no "good guys" and "bad guys," only real people. "Lit students say everything is subversive," one Literature tutor at Jesus College, Oxford told me. He likely did not intend it, but Brideshead subverts modern literature by adopting its forms and style to tell a very Catholic and outmoded story. Waugh lamented that he lost favor in his previous circles and gained a great deal of unwanted fan mail because of Brideshead. The contrast between the style and content lead many Catholics to hate the book because of its characters and many disbelievers to love the book until the ending.
Your thoughts, J?
J.: Evelyn Waugh's peculiar form of choleric genius usually found expression in an evisceration of modern culture that went (somewhat incorrectly) under the name of satire. His fiction was funny and mean, but not always artistically disciplined. The publication of Brideshead Revisited proved that there was more to Waugh than a morally outraged funnyman. Dripping with nostalgia and a baroque prose style, this novel could have reinvented Waugh's career if he had not taken his critics to heart. As it ended up, this work stands mostly alone among a forest of angry criticisms and platitudinous narratives.
However, my introduction to Brideshead was as a potential convert, long before nuanced literary criticism was a twinkle in my eye. Anyone who has been reading my posts about conversion on this site will conclude that this was a tumultuous time for me, characterized by confusion and almost blind hope rather than certitude and a gradual relaxation of tension. In the midst of the uncertainty about such a life-altering decision as conversion, one well-meaning Catholic suggested I read some English-language Catholic novels by Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead was, as it turned out, the only Waugh novel suggested, and it was the only book of his I would read for quite some time.
Among the flux of real-world sex scandals, confusing papal pronouncements, and other sources of cognitive dissonance from clergy and laity alike, Brideshead was never going to get a fair reading from me. I saw in this decades-old novel a reflection of contemporary chaos and sanctioned winking at immorality. To wit:
- Lady Marchmain seemed to be an overbearing matriarch who laid insupportable burdens upon her children without any care for their actual well-being, much like the way Holy Mother Church seemed to be operating.
- Lord Marchmain was a mere pleasure-seeker who chased his own happiness at the expense of his children's, much like the clergy of today.
- Sebastian and Julia Flyte were both unhappily stifled by the rules and doctrines they were born into, much like the Catholic laity I saw all around me, and the siblings' methods of leaving the Faith behind were all too common in reality.
- Bridey was a stuck-up prude lacking true empathy for others, much like the innumerable pedantic Catholics I had met online and elsewhere. (Celia made a similar impression, but not much of one, although she seemed slightly more heartfelt.)
- Rex was an empty-headed convert who sought membership in the Church for purely selfish reasons, much like some other potential converts I had met.
- Charles... well, let's talk about Charles.
But why does Charles Ryder convert to the Catholic Faith? There is nothing on a first reading to convince the reader that this conversion is particularly plausible. Perhaps he does it out of boredom or idle curiosity about the ancient religion that mysteriously influenced his old, lost friends. The logic of his conversion seems only sensible to those who already possess faith and can recognize the invisible tugs upon the "string" that Chesterton writes about.
In the end, I put this novel aside as an example of mutation of attachment and affection. The Flytes, with the except of Celia, appeared to me as grotesques. Outside of Charles' deep need for companionship, I could not understand the attraction to such moral delinquents. Most importantly from the subjective side, I could not understand why the novel was recommended to me to read as a potential convert. There was nothing within it to form my moral or aesthetic sensibilities in such a way that Catholicism would become more attractive by experiencing the story.
None of which was to say that the characters were poorly-drawn, or that the prose was not luxurious, or that I was unable to empathize with some of the characters. I recognized much of the novel's artistry even then, but if anything it served to deepen my disgust for the real-world Catholic moral milieu that assaulted me at every turn. I could sympathize with Charles Ryder's need for Sebastian's friendship, but there was not therefore anything attractive in Sebastian's religion.
It would be years before I could approach Brideshead Revisited with a less prejudicial eye, and then only after coming to appreciate the rest of Waugh's fiction on other merits. Indeed, my longtime unfairness towards Waugh's most artistically lush novel has been a cause of great annoyance to others. While I usually gain more immediate pleasure from reading his early satires like Decline and Fall or Scoop, time and distance have gained for me a newfound appreciation of Brideshead, even to the point of being disappointed that his later literary career did not follow the aesthetic trajectory it would suggest.