Friday, November 16, 2012

Revisiting Brideshead

It’s amazing how so many people get it so wrong when it comes to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Although universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of literature in the 20th century, Brideshead Revisited is in fact one of the great Catholic novels of all times. Not surprisingly in our secular times, scholars and readers alike inevitably ignore, or choose to ignore, the explicitly Catholic elements that really forms the core of the entire novel.

In writing The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien once said that he started off wanting to write a story that is implicitly Catholic, but ended up writing an explicitly Catholic story. There is no doubt in my mind that in writing Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was consciously creating an explicitly Catholic story.

I believe one’s understanding of Brideshead Revisited would be incomplete without learning something about its creator. Evelyn Waugh was raised in a middle-class British family, and brought up in the Anglican faith. Although he professed his wish to become a clergyman at age ten, Waugh, like so many impressionable young men, soon entered a rebellious phase in his secondary school years, where he was taught to “think for himself.” When he entered Oxford, he claimed that he did no work and “never go to Chapel.”

Waugh left Oxford in 1924, and attended Heatherley’s Art School in London. He quit school again and became a teacher in a boys’ school. At one point, he became so depressed with his lack of accomplishments in life that he tried to drown himself. Waugh swam out to the ocean, and was stung by a school of jellyfish - a “sharp recall to good sense,” in his own words. He swam back to shore, and began to write seriously. By 1928, he had already had two published works. In the same year, Waugh married, but soon discovered that his wife was having an extramarital affair. The marriage ended in divorce.

Waugh began to long for a sense of order to his life, a kind of spiritual and moral anchor. He encountered a Father Martin Cyril D’Arcy, who encouraged him to look at Catholicism from an intellectual and logical standpoint. Evelyn Waugh was received into to Catholic Church 1930, and remained true to his Catholic faith until his death on Easter Sunday, 1966.

Many have said that in writing about Charles Ryder, the main character in Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was really writing about himself and especially his experiences at Oxford. Although there are similarities between the author and his fictional creation, I do not believe readers should try too hard in drawing parallels between the two. For me, Waugh was merely using himself as raw material in creating Ryder, just as Puccini drew from his own experiences as a young artist in creating La Boheme; just as any creative process which deduces and induces from life.

Brideshead Revisited is the story of Charles Ryder, an artistically inclined, agnostic young man with neither rank nor fortune, and his friendship with members of the aristocratic Catholic Flyte family. Charles’ friendship, first with Sebastain Flyte, younger son of Lord Marchmain, and then with other members of the Flyte family, shows the variety of reactions people to Catholicism, and how different people choose to live, or alienate himself or herself from the Catholic faith. Through his friendship with this flawed Catholic family, Waugh also tells the story of Charles’ eventual conversion to the Catholicism.

Right from the beginning of the novel, we see, in the words of George Weigel, “Evelyn Waugh’s deeply Catholic imagination.” In the first chapter of Book One, Waugh describes Oxford to be a place where “men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day…” In evoking the name of Blessed John Henry Newman, Waugh immediately sets the tone for the entire story, and gives us a hint of what is to come.

At the center of the story is the friendship between Charles and Sebastian, and later the love between Charles and Julia. Charles met Sebastian during their time at Oxford, and an intense friendship ensues. As they get to know each other, Sebastian brings Charles to Brideshead, his stately and magnificent home, on several occasions, where Charles is overwhelmed by the beauty and sensuousness of the house and its surroundings. Through Sebastian and the Flyte family, Charles himself starts to first question and eventually wonder about the Catholic faith. Sebastian and Julia are the members of the family who have, other than attending the occasional Mass, practically left the practice of the faith. Yet, we can see in their response to Charles, who was questioning them about their religion, how their faith is still gnawing at their conscience:

Charles: I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?
Sebastian: Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.

Later on, almost the same exchange between Charles and Julia, by then lovers, takes place:

Charles: You do know at heart that it’s all bosh, don’t you?
Julia: How I wish it was!

When the Flyte family gets together, the children often ask Lady Marchmain to read. A story she read one evening is one of G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries. In the story, Father Brown says that he caught the thief “with an unseen hook and in invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Waugh himself says, “The Roman Catholic Church has the unique power of keeping remote control over human souls which have once been part of her. G.K. Chesterton has compared this to the fisherman's line, which allows the fish the illusion of free play in the water and yet has him by the hook; in his own time the fisherman by a 'twitch upon the thread' draws the fish to land."

Time and time again, we see in the story signs of Julia and Sebastian’s eventual reconversion to their Catholic faith. Charles’s friendship with Sebastian cools and then deteriorates, partly because of Sebastian’s sinking into alcoholism. When Sebastian’s own life hit rock bottom, a religious order takes charge of him, and he becomes a part of the community. When Cordelia relates all this to Charles, he feels pity for him, and wonders aloud how Sebastian’s life would end. Cordeila’s response again shows, through Waugh, how God’s providential plan works differently on different individual:

I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of, the community, a familiar figure pottering around with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers…If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Home of their student days, and remember him in their masses.

Years later, Charles, now married and a successful painter, meets up again with Julia. Julia has married Rex Mottram, a very charismatic and successful politician, but the marriage is an unhappy one. Waugh’s description of Mottram, in Julia’s words, fits the description of the modern man – successful, self-assured, capable, confident, but soulless:

He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.

Charles and Julia’s friendship ripens and they become lovers. Charles leaves his wife and family, and he and Julia live at Brideshead, planning on eventually marrying after their respective divorces come through. It is at this point that God’s unseen thread begins to bring her back with “a twitch upon a thread,” not coincidentally the title of Book Three of the novel.

Julia tells Charles that when she thought she was pregnant with Rex’s child, she decided that she would have it brought up Catholic:

I hadn’t thought about religion before; I haven’t since; but just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, “That’s one thing I can give her. It doesn’t seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it.”

She adds that she thought she was being punished for marrying Rex, and that she couldn’t get the idea of Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell, out of her mind, “It becomes part of oneself, if they give it one early enough.”

When Lord Marchmain becomes gravely ill, and decides to return to Brideshead to die, Julia and Charles have repeated arguments about whether a priest should be call in to administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Charles takes for granted that Lord Marchmain, who has not been a practising Catholic since he left his wife, would not want it. Julia, wrestling with her own conscience decides, in spite of Charles’s resistance, finally decides to call for a priest. The death of Lord Marchmain, who everyone thought was too far gone to notice anything, remains one of the most moving scenes of the entire novel. Charles, the agnostic, the sceptic, finds himself “longing for a sign” from God, if only for the sake of Julia:

The priest took the little silver box from his pocket and spoke again in Latin, touching the dying man with an oily wad; he finished what he had to do, put away the box and gave the final blessing. Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought that he had felt the touch of the chrism and was wiping it away. ‘O God,” I prayed, ‘don’t let him do that.’ But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. That I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

That sign marks the final phase of Julia’s journey home to the Church, and the beginning of Charles’s only spiritual journey. Both Julia and Charles realize that their love for each other, though genuine, is, again quoting George Weigel, “an adulterous love on both sides. But this love, too, has limits. It is also love-as-escape, the effort to create a new and solitary Arcadia with Julia at Brideshead, like the Arcadia that life at Oxford in the first flush of friendship with Sebastian had been.” The lovers realize that they must part.

Throughout the novel, Charles has been in search of love, in search of Arcadia. The idea of finding Arcadia, an “ideal region of rural contentment,” according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, is one of the recurrent motifs that run throughout the story. In his journey, Charles first loves Sebastian, who “is the forerunner” for Charles’s higher love for Julia.

At the end of Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder, a captain in the army training for World War II, happens to be stationed at Brideshead. Charles is a new convert to the Catholic faith. He now revisits Brideshead, and the chapel within, he realizes that the sanctuary lamp is once again lit, signalling that the chapel is in active use, and that the Blessed Sacrament is present within the tabernacle:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame – a beaten-cooper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-cooper doors of a tabernacle…It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

After a quick prayer in the chapel, Captain Ryder emerges from Brideshead, at peace with himself. Seeing him, his second-in-command comments, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.” Charles Ryder’s search for love ends with his conversion to the Catholic faith. He has found the highest form of love, because God is love - Deus caritas est.

Evelyn Waugh’s own journey as a Catholic was an uphill one, and he has no illusion that everyone within the Church, himself least of all, is a saint. When Sebastian tells Charles that “it’s very difficult being a Catholic”, one can almost see Waugh himself talking. But in his letter to writer Edith Sitwell as she was preparing to be received into the Church, he wrote:

I am sure you know the world well enough to expect Catholic boors and prigs and crooks and cads. I always think to myself: “I know I’m awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.” One of the joys of Catholic life is to recognize the sparks of good everywhere, as well as the fires of the saints.

Brideshead Revisited is a story about conversion, about love, and about redemption. The love described in the story is not the kind of love one sees in Hollywood or romance novels, but responsible love. In his excellent essay on Brideshead Revisited, George Weigel writes that in order for Julia to “grow into love, she has to accept that she’s been living as she shouldn’t, and that the only remedy for that is to stop, confess, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation.”

So why do I say that people get it wrong about this novel? I had read this story as a teenager, and thought it beautiful. But it wasn’t until I re-read it later did I realize that without understanding or realizing the Catholic elements that author carefully but deliberately embedded within, this novel would merely be one of many beautifully written stories. Even the synopsis at the back of my Penguin edition missed the point completely, probably deliberately:

Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebatsian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize his spiritual and social distance from them.

If you read this novel as a story of nostalgia for a more elegant past, or of romantic love, you are missing entirely the story Evelyn Waugh wants to tell you, and you would be disappointed with how the story evolves. Without understanding the concept of love from a Catholic point of view, the layers and depth of human relationships and love in this story would be missed.

In this Year of Faith for the Catholic church, Brideshead Revisited reminds us that one person’s faith journey is different from another’s, and that a “journey home” is possible for everyone, no matter how much or how far he or she had fallen away. God’s fisherman line extends far and wide, and that “twitch upon the thread” can come when we least expect it.

Patrick May
Vancouver, Canada

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