Friday, August 7, 2015

A Waughful Novel: The Idea of Brideshead Revisited

The Rad Trad:

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.
Mr. Ryder was an enigma to me. He came from a boorish middle-class family and was attracted to the Flytes mostly for superficial reasons intermixed with loneliness. I could understand his attraction to the wealthy estates, the endless bottles of wine, and the learned company of this family. I could even understand his attraction to the family's disintegration, both moral and social. (It is a common fact that people are morbidly moved to gaze at decaying things, whether they be Roman ruins or friendly alcoholics.) In spite of this, Charles remains in the Flytes' social orbit for so long primarily because of the companionship—however imperfect—they have to offer. He possessed precious little companionship before meeting them, and dearly holds on to the little more they give.

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.


  1. There are some things one should never recommend to a convert with an uncertain mind: histories of the most horrible popes, Brideshead Revisited, Victor Hugo's 'Notre Dame de Paris', or anything else that takes the Catholic ideal and shows how imperfectly it is usually manifested. For a Catholic who has been "in it" a while and has a firm foundation (be he cradle or convert), such reading should not only be recommended but required. It is far too easy to lose ourselves in a skewed view of how "great" the earthly Church is, was, or should/can be. Stuff like this provides a reality check and demonstrates the imperfections that have existed from the beginning and that will exist until it all ends, thus preventing us from retreating into a "perfect church" fantasy.

    That said, I rather enjoyed Brideshead Revisited (I was introduced through the BBC miniseries and read the book afterwards). There was a certain "realness" to the characters that I found lacking in the two Robert Hugh Benson novels I attempted to read (the dreadfully dull 'By What Authority' and the childish prose of 'Come Rack! Come Rope!'). Julia, to me, was the one who I found myself understanding the most: the cradle Catholic who goes through the motions and lives a worldly life only to be later confronted by the truth he/she has always known but neglected. No matter how far this person falls there is something within him/her that draws them back and compels them to give it another go. That is part of what makes the novel fascinating. In our own lives/churches we have all known (or been) Brideys, Julias, Sebastians, Cordelias, or Lady Marchmains.

    For what it's worth, I always despised "Bridey". The man seemed such an arrogant simpleton and I always oscillated between whether he was genuine but stupid or a pharisee and a hypocrite. Cordelia was the much more human one and a better representation of a devout Catholic.

  2. Well, I strongly disagree - as I have commented on Patricius' blog. Both forms of the book are wonderful IMHO. The character Lord Brideshead is not malevolent at all but a product of his upbringing - a bit dense perhaps but quite happy at the thought of bedding Beryl Muspratt. The pulls on Julia's conscience are superbly portrayed in Mortimer's TV production and in both books. Rather sad really that she did not follow the advice of Anthony Blanche (mentioned to Charles) and send a cheque to Rome for an annulment.

  3. EV's criticism of Bridey is unfair both to his character in the novel and to the real-life persons who sympathize and understand him as a whole. He is nothing if not sincere, and very far from stupid. His disposition toward life is a compatible blend both of legitimate, studied Jesuit casuistry and mostly restrained, cultured and unaffected aristocracy (I say mostly restrained because there is the very interesting and unexpected comment on Bridey's character by Lord Marchmain near the end of the novel in which the latter acknowledges Bridey as always having been greedy in matters of food and drink).

    The flaws in Bridey's character are obviously ones in which he bears little to no blame. One gets the impression that he would be an exquisitely balanced and refined person if only he were not tipped off balance in a small, but also very seminal, way sometime early in his development. Of what this tipping off consisted of the reader has very many believable options to choose from.

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  5. Also, Cordelia is the more likeable of the two, definitely, but only inasmuch as the feminine is preferred in general over the masculine, that is, because it agrees more with our own comfort and ease and our natural disinclination toward challenges and risks.

  6. Lord Marchmain's Long Hate

  7. Lord Marchmain's Long Hate