Brideshead Revisited (Waugh)

Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited.

In the discussion guide at the end of the book, Evelyn Waugh said that religion is the theme of the book.  Maybe.  Waugh himself elsewhere said that it was memory (Waugh, opening of Part Three).  I happen to think it is marriage, though I suppose all themes imply one another in the book.  The protagonist, Charles Ryder, an agnostic, befriends a lapsed Catholic and degenerate, Sebastian Flyde.  Flyde is the scion of an old aristocratic family.  Ryder’s memories explore the “decline and fall,” not only of House Flyde, but of the old way of life as well.

Catholicism manifests itself in various ways by the family.  Sebastian is an aesthete and drunk (though he also fervently believes in the supernatural elements). His older brother, the eponymous Brideshead, is a proper and devout Catholic.  Julia, the middle sister, is similar to Sebastian, sans the alcoholism.  The youngest, Cordelia, is full of fire and joy.

What makes the lapsed characters so compelling is the objectivity with which they view their faith.  Charles asks Sebastian, given the latter’s decadence, that shouldn’t his bad lifestyle negate his faith. Sebastian gives the blunt, yet commonsensical answer: whether I am morally bad is irrelevant to whether what I believe is true.  This maintains even on less weightier matters, like beauty in art. Cordelia asks Ryder if such and such a painting is good (which she thinks it is).  

Ryder notes, “I don’t know quite what you mean [i.e., is it Good Art?].  I think it is a remarkable example of its period.  Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired.”

Julia: “But surely it can’t be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years, and not good now?”

That sentence reflects a profundity in ethics and metaphysics that you will almost never see at the graduate level, either in seminaries or secular institutions.  Then comes the coup-de-grace:

“Is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?”

That’s a very important question.  For example, George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the greatest country song of all time.  I don’t particularly like it, though. 

The objectivity emerges later when the lapsed Catholic Julia wants to get married to Rex Mottram, a buffoon.  Rex had already been married and never got around to getting a divorce.  Early 20th century Catholicism, being made of sterner stuff than the variant today, won’t grant a dispensation or annulment.  Here is Waugh’s genius on display.  He doesn’t let the reader off the hook: if you were in Julia’s shoes, especially if you believe in your faith, what would you do?

The scene where the priest is catechizing Rex is one of the funniest in 20th century literature.  No matter how outlandish the claim, if that’s what the church teaches, then Rex will believe it.  This ease actually throws the priest off balance:

Priest: I can’t get anywhere near him.  He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety.”

“The first day I wanted to find out what sort of religious life he had had till now, so I asked him what he meant by prayer. He said: ‘I don’t mean anything. You tell me.’ I tried to, in a few words, and he said: ‘Right. So much for prayer. What’s the next thing?’ I gave him the catechism to take away. Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’

“Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’

“Lady Marchmain, he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.”

“Julia,” said Lady Marchmain, when the priest had gone, “are you sure that Rex isn’t doing this thing purely with the idea of pleasing us?”

“I don’t think it enters his head,” said Julia.

This next quote, while lengthy, is worth its entirety:

“But yesterday I got a regular eye-opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed. Take yesterday. He seemed to be doing very well. He’d learned large bits of the catechism by heart, and the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Then I asked him as usual if there was anything troubling him, and he looked at me in a crafty way and said, ‘Look, Father, I don’t think you’re being straight with me. I want to join your Church and I’m going to join your Church, but you’re holding too much back.’ I asked what he meant, and he said: ‘I’ve had a long talk with a Catholic–a very pious, well-educated one, and I’ve learned a thing or two. For instance, that you have to sleep with your feet pointing East because that’s the direction of heaven, and if you die in the night you can walk there. Now I’ll sleep with my feet pointing any way that suits Julia, but d’you expect a grown man to believe about walking to heaven? And what about the Pope who made one of his horses a cardinal? And what about the box you keep in the church porch, and if you put in a pound note with someone’s name on it, they get sent to hell. I don’t say there mayn’t be a good reason for all this,’ he said, ‘but you ought to tell me about it and not let me find out for myself.'”

Hint: Cordelia had been trolling Rex.

This book is advertised as the greatest English novel of the 20th century.  That might be a bit of a stretch, but it certainly ranks among the greats.


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