Revisiting Brideshead on Its 75th Birthday

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The best 20th-century novel on time and grace

Editor’s note: Madeleine Kearns writes a weekly column noting peculiar aspects of cultural, artistic, and natural marvels.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE B etween December 1943 and June 1944, English author Evelyn Waugh took unpaid leave from the army to finish his novel Brideshead Revisited, now considered by many to be his greatest. The book (which Waugh first suggested calling “A Household of Faith”) has many themes — Catholicism, aristocracy, youth, redemption — but the author’s specific focus was, in his own words, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” Today Waugh’s religiosity, much like his traditionalist tastes, may seem niche or archaic, but his treatment of the human experience of time is — well, timeless. In an updated preface, Waugh offered Brideshead “to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.” While nostalgia functions both as a theme and a narrative device in the novel, what is often overlooked is how masterfully the two themes, nostalgia and grace, are interwoven.

Like The Great Gatsby, Brideshead is narrated by a protagonist who is also a character in the story — Charles Ryder, now a commander officer in the British army. Ryder reflects back on his life before the war. He is temporarily stationed in the English countryside, where he stumbles across an abandoned manor. He was once intimately connected with its former inhabitants, an eccentric aristocratic Catholic family. The rest of the story is told through flashbacks, beginning with his student days at Oxford.

At Oxford, Ryder meets and befriends the impossibly charming Sebastian Flyte, who, though later redeemed (unlike the similarly flawed protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), squanders his youth and beauty through foolish and hedonistic pursuits. Julia, Sebastian’s sister and, later, Ryder’s love interest, parallels her brother’s self-destruction in her ill-advised marriage to the agnostic Canadian businessman and politician Rex Mottram. At one point Julia and Sebastian’s pious younger sister, Cordelia, references G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story in which the thief is attached to “an unseen hook and an 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.” Such is the operation of divine grace upon the soul, and “Twitch upon the Thread” is, not by coincidence, the name given to the novel’s third part.

Nostalgia, in terms of character psychology, allows for a certain plasticity of time. From the outset, for instance, there is something peculiarly childish about Sebastian. At Oxford, he carries around his teddy bear, eccentrically named “Aloysius,” calls his mother “mummy,” and is emotionally dependent on his nanny. When the young Ryder (prior to his conversion to Catholicism) asks how Sebastian can possibly believe the wackier tenets of the Catholic faith, he answers that he thinks it “a lovely idea.” That, to Ryder, seems proof enough that the whole thing is ridiculous, a belief he repeats to Julia more forcefully when she feels incapable of “living in sin” with him. He tells her “it’s a thing psychologists could explain; a preconditioning from childhood; feelings of guilt from the nonsense you were taught in the nursery.”

It must have amused Waugh that some of his contemporaries — they have been joined by more critics since — have read Brideshead through the perspective of his younger, unconverted narrator. In George Orwell’s unfinished essay on the novel, he reminded himself to “note faults due to being written in first person” and that “one cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.” But Waugh would likely agree with this. (After all, as found in Matthew 18:3, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”)

Orwell was right that the first-person narration can at times feel mawkish. Waugh himself worried about this. “The book is infused with a kind of gluttony,” the author wrote in a later edition, “for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.” Take, for instance, Ryder’s longing for the interior decoration at Brideshead (the name of Sebastian’s lavish family home): “I often think of that bathroom — the water colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair — and contrast it with the uniform, clinical, little chambers, glittering with chromium-plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.” Nevertheless, the point of this is how such objects, as they were, or are, influence how a character conceives of himself. A good example of this is Anthony Blanche, who, Ryder tells us, in later life “lost his stammer in the deep waters of his old romance. It came floating back to him, momentarily, with the coffee and liqueurs.”

Waugh manages to further disarm such criticism by working in self-parody. Take the commonly critiqued scene at the fountain, where Julia explodes into an implausible monologue on the subject of mortal sin. Ryder (i.e., Waugh) later discusses this with her in purely ironic terms:

Once more we stood by the fountain.

‘It’s like the setting of a comedy,’ I said. ‘Scene: a Baroque fountain in a nobleman’s grounds. Act one, sunset; act two, dusk; act three, moonlight. The characters keep assembling at the fountain for no very clear reason.’

‘Comedy?’

‘Drama. Tragedy. Farce. What you will. This is the reconciliation scene.’

‘Was there a quarrel?’

‘Estrangement and misunderstanding in act two.’

‘Oh, don’t talk in that damned bounderish way. Why must you see everything second-hand? Why must this be a play? Why must my conscience be a pre-Raphaelite picture?’

‘It’s a way I have.’

‘I hate it.’

Waugh’s capacity for self-parody does not begin and end with Brideshead. Later, in his Sword of Honor Trilogy, he makes another implicit criticism through Corporal Ludovic, who spends the war writing a “a very gorgeous, almost gaudy, tale of romance and high drama” capable of turning “from the drab alleys of the thirties into the odorous gardens of a recent past transformed and illuminated by disordered memory and imagination.”

Yet the work achieves staggering (in Waugh’s admission, “passionate”) sincerity at the same time. When asked by his wife if he wants to change, Ryder replies bluntly that “it’s the only evidence of life.” Julia, in describing her unsuccessful search for peace, laments, “sometimes . . . I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” Ryder remembers thinking how he “feared to break the spell of memories” while in conversation with Julia. Later he decrees, “we possess nothing certainly except the past.”

In 2003 essay for The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens agreed with Orwell that there was something adolescent about Waugh’s worldview, although “Waugh was not a mere propagandist, and we would not still be reading him if he had been.” He’s right about that. Readers are free to reject Waugh’s religious interpretation, just as the novel’s characters are (though ultimately they don’t). The accusation of childishness is nevertheless correct. A child is simultaneously fully present in his time and yet capable of fully leaving it through imagination. Being truly present — free from regret, change, loss, and shame — are all things lost with experience and retrieved through grace.

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