Monday, May 28, 2018

Lady Marchmain Considered

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."


  1. I disagree profoundly about this book & present myself as Lady M's knight errant.

    Sebastian doesn't turn to drink because of Mummy, he turns to drink because he is a self-indulgent and selfish cad and uses her imagined reproaches as an excuse to keep it up. Lady M is seen through Ryder's eyes in the book, and Charles' choice to be with Sebastian contra mundum (plying him with booze) is hardly the action of a faithful friend, more like the act of a fellow adolescent. I disagree with the "holy drunkard" theory in general; this nonsense is a projection of Cordelia's, who would have have turned out better if she had kept her loud youthful scorn and exuberance rather than become the kind of adult to come out with such sentimental twaddle. Julia, I don't know if I can save her or not. A bargain with God at the end? Is that repentance? I don't think Lady M is to blame for any of it, and any virtue there is in Julia (e.g. the breakdown at Bridey's forthright "living in sin" comment) can be traced to her mother's faith, and her mother's immense hidden suffering is displayed here for the one and only time. Lady M has fortitude in the face of desertion and determination to get on with life the way a Lady of her position should. How should she have acted? Got all demonstrative with Sebastian? That would have stopped him of course... As for Bridey, he is there for a typical Waugh sneer as he is far too middle class and suburban in his tastes.

    I have a mind to write a novella called "The Fate of the Marchmains" in which Sebastian lies & steals all the cash in the monastery safe to run off and have a sordid liason with another drifting layabout; Cordelia becomes a feminist nun after Vatican II; and Julia cynically goes back to Rex for the money and the high life. Bridey on the other hand will produce half-a-dozen children with Sebastian & Julia's beauty and love of life combined with his & his wife's good sense and will die in peace & contentment.

    1. Love you analysis....and hope to read your novella soon.

  2. Rad Tradm always enjoy reading your thoughts on this novel.

    Have you read this take on BH by Joseph Sciambra -

    I strongly disagree with his assumptions about the practice of sodomy being understood throughout the novel. I wonder what your thoughts are on this matter?

    1. Dear Bucky Inky,

      Having read most of the article (it gets into some odd things) I found some very good observations in equating Lady Marchmain with some social aspects of Saint Monica while recognizing that she tried and failed to be both a mother and a father to Sebastian.

      That said, after reading the novel several times I wonder if I would find any homosexual subtext in Charles and Sebastian's relationship if not for BBC camping up the first and second episodes of their adaptation, which directly serialized the dialogue of the book, which makes it difficult to assail; in the book, however, Charles and Sebastian are not mentioned to ambulate through Venice arm in arm. There is a certain childishness and infantile demeanor in many portrayals of homosexuals from this period, not inaccurately, and Sebastian shares some of those traits; even one of the friends Waugh used as a model for Sebastian was a gay, but I don't see that as an essential element of the story or even of the character of Sebastian (while it is essential for Anthony Blanche).

      The writer of that article even calls Sebastian's support of Kurt his "reactionary retreat into the feminine". It is no such thing. If anything it is Sebastian's growing up and realizing parts of his sanctity which he couldn't at Brideshead. In Kurt the expat Sebastian found someone pathetic enough to require his help. He ceases to hide and wallow in his childish agony over his cloying mother and instead outwardly expresses kindness to another person, a waif. I believe Sebastian said something along the lines of "I've been looked after all my life. It's nice to have someone to look after yourself."

      I'm unsure we'd be talking about this if not for Waugh's indiscretions while he was reading History at Oxford. For most, but not all of them, the gay thing was a phase and a misguided channeling of sexuality in an environment bereft of women. The same thing happened at Cambridge, Eton, Yale and the American Ivies until the 1960s. I doubt Waugh would craft a gay theme into the story given his shame about that element of his past, his burning old letters from friends, and his conversion. It seems the context of Waugh's writing has informed this particular mythos around Brideshead Revisited more than the context of the characters.

  3. Thank you for entertaining his blog post - you bring up several things I hadn't been aware of, let alone considered.

  4. Alright, the relation between Sebastian and Kurt is explicitly said in the book NOT to be vicious. However there is an episode in Venice - not emphasised in the BBC version I think - when Cora speaks to Charles alone about his friendship with Charles in what seems likely to be a typically veiled reference, for the period, to the kind of friendship they had. She says that it is a romantic attachment common to young Englishmen, and that they eventually grow out of, but she likes the fact that all that youthful intensity isn't given to a girl... or something to that effect. Because (like Waugh of himself) the book is so discreet, this needn't be brought out in any dramatic reading of the book. But it is there, unless I am over-reading Cora's words.

    1. Timothy, by "thinly veiled reference" I take you to mean a relationship that includes the practice of sodomy.

      I agree with you about Waugh's overall discreetness on the matter (which I take as his disdain--perhaps to a fault--of being preachy), but there is a glaring inconsistency in the story if Waugh meant it to be understood that Sebastien and Charles' relationship include the practice of sodomy.

      Why no concern about it, or even a reference to it, among the devout members of the family if it was so? Why is Bridey concerned to question whether there was "anything vicious" going on between S and Kurt, but never concerned about the same with S and C? Also, are we to understand that Lady Marchmain takes great pains to combat the vice of alcoholism in her son, but is indifferent to his practice of sodomy?

    2. There is another reference, one which a friend kindly reminded me of, that seems to suggest something less than innocent:

      "In the event, that Easter vacation formed a short stretch of level road in the precipitous descent of which Jasper warned me. Descent or ascent? It seems to me that I grew younger daily with each adult habit that I acquired. I had lived a lonely childhood and a boyhood straitened by war and overshadowed by bereavement; to the hard bachelordom of English adolescence, the premature dignity and authority of the school system, I had added a sad and grim strain of my own. Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence."

  5. I am with Timothy in his view of both Lady Marchmain and Sebastian. Taking Cora's words again she explains to Charles, in Venice, that Alex (Lord Marchmain) had loved his wife in the wrong way and that, immature, love turned to hate. She bore many dolours and tried her best after the breakdown of her marriage. Her methods might have been wrong - c.f. Brideshead's comment to Charles 'It is my mother's way- but it appears to me she was trying her best to keep her family 'hale and hearty' and with Sebastian trying to save him from chronic alcoholism.

  6. Where is Lady Marchmain described as having desperately tried to 'form her sons into the mold of her chivalrous brothers'? Both Sebastian and Brideshead could not have been more alien to these men 'of the woods and caves', these hunters, these repositories 'of the harsh traditions of a people at war with their environment' as Ryder typifies them. Bridey, a flat character if ever there was one, remains a caricature of bigotry throughout the novel; the other product of Lady Marchmain's upbringing is the self-destructive dandy the reader comes to love so much.

    Lady Marchmain, from a family with a wide property and an ancient name, had two older sisters and three much younger brothers, still schoolboys when she had already married. Can little brothers, however dead, become educational role models? Hardly.

    I say her unbearable grief for that maddening loss and the abrupt end of her noble lineage had traumatized her into depression. A subsequent failure as a wife and a chaotic mother, the poor soul is all at sea but plays a rock of pious strength. Had she tried to form her sons into a mold at all, how could they have come out as different as chalk and cheese? There was no mold. There was only tragedy. Of fate and sin.