Beauty, wealth, sex and God – all the makings of a Catholic novel.
Evelyn Waugh’s modern classic, Brideshead Revisited, is replete with all the ingredients of a Hollywood drama: handsome palaces filled with beautiful people adorned with the richest fabrics and idiosyncrasies of character; forbidden loves and casual encounters; carefree summers of youthful friendship and the isolation of war. However, Waugh’s novel takes us deeper into the heart of humankind, addressing what is merely of this earth while pointing to what transcends us.
Despite its 2008 adaptation to the silver screen, Brideshead Revisited is far from a mere drama of star-crossed lovers. Rather it is a novel concerning the human condition, of man’s alienation from God and others, and the relentless actions of divine grace which work to rescue man from himself. Rich in spirituality, vivid in its characters, and smart in its humor, Brideshead is no novel with little attention from generations of readers. Because of this, I will pass over a general synopsis (which can be easily found online) and turn our attention to the profound Catholicity of Waugh’s classic.
The world in which Charles Ryder, Waugh’s protagonist, becomes immersed is Catholic from head to toe. This is most apparent in Waugh’s characters. Lady Marchmain, the acting head of the Brideshead estate, instills within her children the morals and rituals of Catholicism; however, she is your typical over-bearing and over-pious mother who holds her children to the highest standards. Such pressure may have led to the tragic falls of at least two of her children. These two children are Julia and Sebastian, the former of whom Charles falls in love, the latter, whom Charles befriends at Oxford. Sebastian describes Julia and himself as half-pagan. Regardless of their shortcomings, their inveterate faith never leaves them throughout the roughly two-decade span of the story. Coming in and out of Charles’ narrative are other characters of varying degrees of faith. The humble parish priest, Father MacKay, and Sebastian’s older brother, Brideshead, represent two different types respectively, the ordinary Catholic who receives little attention due to his goodness and the heady, stiff Catholic who seems a little out of touch with the world. Lord Marchmain is the Catholic husband with an Italian mistress. The mistress is the devout believer who indulges her heart, then goes to a priest for confession. This small dollop of characters portrays the wide palate of Catholicism which influenced Charles.
Turning our attention to Charles himself, let us trace his gradual conversion from agnosticism to Catholicism, a journey which incorporates friendship and love. Newly matriculated at Oxford, Charles has high hopes of finding love and life in his new environment:
“I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city” (Book 1, Chapter 1).
What Oxford itself could not provide, Charles found in Sebastian Flyte. After a rather inauspicious first encounter, with Sebastian puking in Charles’ room, the two young men begin a friendship fierce in loyalty and deep in intimacy. Whether homosexual at times or simply very close, we can interpret their relationship as fulfilling a very deep human need – that of human intimacy. The first book of the novel describes the quick friendship formed between Charles and Sebastian. Every moment is spent together while at Oxford. Embracing his childhood teddy bear in one arm and Charles in the other, Sebastian is perceived as a young man who never completely grew up. His singular friendship with Charles makes him appear as if he has found something to cling to in order to escape his family pressures. On the other side of the relationship, Charles develops an infatuation with Sebastian. Sebastian’s “fragile beauty”, life style, and family draw him in. Undoubtedly, the newly formed friendship with Sebastian also makes Charles feel loved and accepted. Having grown up with his dry and sarcastic father and without a mother or siblings, Charles discovers in Sebastian and the Flyte family a depth of intimacy previously unknown to him.
Incorporating the need of human intimacy and transcending it is man’s need for divine intimacy, something which Charles will not personally experience until the last chapter of the novel. He learns of Sebastian’s Catholic background after meeting the Flyte family. An agnostic himself, Charles says,
“Sebastian’s faith was an enigma to me at that time, but not one which I felt particularly concerned to solve. I had no religion. I was taken to church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily…. The masters who taught me Divinity told me that biblical texts were highly untrustworthy. They never suggested I should try to pray” (1, 4).
Intimacy with the supernatural was not on Charles’ agenda that first summer at Brideshead. In fact, it would take several years more for him to reconsider the divine.
At the close of book one, we see the quick disintegration of Sebastian as he turns to alcohol, not Charles, as a means of escape. In book two, we learn that Sebastian has settled in Morocco, still an alcoholic and still resistant to ameliorating relations back at home. At the request of Flyte family, Charles finds Sebastian and tries, unsuccessfully, to bring him back to Brideshead. In Morocco, Charles learns that Sebastian has taken on a German ex-patriot, caring for him as Kurt (the German) heals from a foot infection. We see that alcohol itself could never replace fully Sebastian’s need for some sort of intimacy. Furthermore, there is an irony in the alcoholic caring for the invalid, but it is a situation that may have helped Sebastian to mature, to transcend himself in helping another.
Charles, on the other hand, later turned his attention to Julia, Sebastian’s sister. Years after their first meeting, the two reconnect on a ship from New York to England. At this point, both are unhappily married to others who have only advanced their careers, not stolen their hearts. Desiring the intimacy that was never theirs, the two engage in an amorous (and adulterous) affair. Their relationship, however, lacks the foundation in faith for which Julia is so hungry. She fell away from her faith some years ago, but those lessons in nursery would never leave her. Charles proved himself to be antagonistic to the Catholic faith, calling it superstition and bosh. When Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die, Charles attempts to hinder Father MacKay from hearing his last confession. Lord Marchmain’s death and Julia’s adamant desire to have a priest present have a lasting impact on Charles. While the last rites are given to Lord Marchmain, Charles finds himself praying to the God whom he had paid no attention. “O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin” was his first prayer. He then describes the following: “I suddenly felt a longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me praying, I knew, for a sign…. I prayed more simply; ‘God forgive him his sins’ and ‘Please God, make him accept your forgiveness’” (3, 5). Soon, Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross.
I can understand why a Hollywood adaption of Brideshead Revisited would cut out the deep spiritual current of Waugh’s novel. Such spirituality does not sell at the box office (at least, not anymore). However, Waugh’s Brideshead is unrecognizable in any adaptation that does not include the spiritual. This is truly a Catholic novel. What makes the novel authentically Catholic, that is, a novel which paints a portrait of the beauty of faith, is its final account of all the characters that we assumed had met a tragic ending. Sebastian lovingly attempts to rescue his German friend when he is taken back to his home country to serve in the war. After finding that Kurt had committed suicide in a concentration camp, Sebastian returns to Morocco to become a monk. He is described as very happy in his new vocation. Even in his continued alcoholism, he is accepted and is praised for his holiness. Julia ends up as a nurse in the war front with her younger (and equally devout) sister, Cordelia. She gave up her relationship with Charles to serve others selflessly, perhaps feeling called to embrace this radical vocation in remission for her past sins. And Charles at the end of the novel, also serving in the war, is “homeless, childless, middle-aged, and loveless” (3, 5) Yet, he instinctively makes his ancient prayers in the chapel at Brideshead. After years of soul-searching – a journey that began at Brideshead – Charles has found an intimacy that no human being can fulfill or take away. To this, the second-in-command tells a faith-filled Charles, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.”
Review Submitted by: Edward A. David, Teacher at Trinity School in Meadow View
Rating: Highly Recommended