During recent weeks I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with several avid readers who share my interest in Brideshead Revisited, a novel that somehow continues to provide material for reflection. It is unlike Waugh's other works, which are generally dry satires with Hemingway-esque brevity in descriptions and dialogue. Indeed, one conversant who loves Brideshead attempted and failed to delve deeper into Waugh's more typical offerings.
It was during a luncheon and wine splurge that another Waughian reader said, "I don't know what to make of some of the characters. Charles and Sebastian are quite straight forward, but what about the mother?" To which I say Teresa Marchmain and Anthony Blanche are the two most misunderstood characters of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and fittingly the latter detests the former, never having met her.
Lady Marchmain is probably the most detestable character in the novel, more so than her eldest son, Bridey, because his aloofness and good nature are almost foibles; he has no ill intentions while his mother seems like she could sneak a dagger through a vertebra and twist it just right. Why does Lady Marchmain hold such a tight grip over her family and why does it make Bridey and Cordelia good Catholics while Julia and Sebastian apostosize, return after her death, and become saintly on their own? Why does she smother Sebastian to the point of alcoholism when all he has some is rabblerouse a little as a student?
Lady Marchmain had three brothers whose short lives, ended by the First World War, informed her view of what a man should aspire to be. "Uncle Ned is the test," said Sebastian. Her second blow during the War to End All Wars was that her husband left for combat and remained on the Continent with an Italian dancer, taking up a life of sin in a Venetian palace. It would not be a stretch to say Lady Marchmain is trying desperately to form her sons into the mold of her chivalrous brothers and to hew them to her, unlike her brothers and husband. Bridey turns out safely, if dull; the same is true of Cordelia; Sebastian and Julia, however, reject the program and flee from their mother's grasp to be their own persons.
She spends time in the chapel. She hires Fr. Phipps to say Mass on Sunday for her family and the villagers. She donates to causes, hosts agricultural events, and provides patronage for intellectual hangers-on. She is a good Catholic, but she is not a saint. "A saint must suffer," said my interlocutor. He is right, and Teresa Marchmain does suffer, but unlike her son, Sebastian, her suffering does not make her holy and does not make her closer to God. Sebastian's drunkenness and disempowerment cause him to take pity on a wounded soldier named Kurt, who he nurses and supports; after Kurt dies in a Nazi camp Sebastian returns to Africa and lives in a monastery, praying at odd hours, sneaking a drink, and doing what he can with his wounded soul. His mother, in stark contrast, becomes distant, emotionally stilted, and unable to love outwardly. Instead, she assumes a mantle of stoicism, genuinely loving her children but not knowing how to love them. As a result her social circle perceive her as a victim of her husband, who must have "stolen her patrimony, flung her out of doors, roasted, stuffed, and eaten her children, and gone frolicking about wreathed in all the flowers of Sodom and Gomorrah."