Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned almost off-handedly that I should pick up a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  He recommended it because of some conversations that we had been having about the Catholic Church.  At the time, he mentioned that it was a fascinating picture of twentieth-century aristocratic British Catholicism.  I stored the recommendation away.  I had, ironically enough, purchased The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (a collection of his short stories) some months prior to his recommendation, and so was somewhat familiar with Waugh’s unbelievable abilities as a writer (i.e., the deceptively simple “Bella Fleace Gave a Party” and the powerful short story “Out of Depth”, for instance, continue to stay with me).  So when my friend recommended the book, I thought at the time that I would simply have to get Brideshead Revisited at some point in the future.

My wife and I finished the novel about a month ago, and I felt that I must recommend it to anybody who wants to read a heart-rending and fascinating Christian apologetic from one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating, eccentric and brilliant writers.

Written in 1944, Brideshead Revisited is the story of Charles Ryder (who at the beginning of the story is a young Oxford student and at the end a highly accomplished architectural artist) and his relationships with the members of the Brideshead family:  an aristocratic, dysfunctional, Catholic family whose home, Marchmain Manor, serves time and again as the recurring stage on which many of the story’s great scenes are acted out.  The story progresses through different periods of Ryder’s life:  (1) his initial Oxford friendship with Sebastian, the pampered and debauched Brideshead son who evolves throughout the course of the novel into a full-fledged alcoholic, (2) Ryder’s artist’s sojourn to the wilds of South America in search of artistic inspiration and an escape from the doldrums of his hapless marriage to Celia, (3) his return to England and affair with Julia Brideshead, the jaded wife of a largely disinterested and self-abosorbed political opportunist, (4) the dissolution of his affair with Julia at the deathbed of her father, Lord Brideshead (who returns home with his mistress from his years-long exile from Mrs. Brideshead in Venice so that he can die at Marchmain), and (4) his time in the army during WWII in which he returns to Marchmain, which has become a mere shadow of its former glory and is being used by the army.

Charles Ryder is, at most, an indifferent agnostic.  The Church, to him, is merely an antiquated institution that preys on the gullibility and guilt of an unsuspecting public.  The claims of the Church are “bosh” to Ryder.  The Brideshead family, on the other hand, with the exception of Lord Brideshead, are, in varying degrees, Catholics.  Sebastian, for all of his debauchery and excess, refuses to join Ryder in his wholesale dismissal of Christianity.  He holds a prodigal’s affection for the Church, if only from a distance, and, as the prodigal son did, Sebastian too eventually returns to God.  The eldest Brideshead son, called “Brideshead” in the novel, holds to the faith, though with a kind of belligerent lack of couth and understanding that makes him utterly unattractive to the reader.  Julia is a svelt modern, a quasi-agnostic who, in the end, is driven back to the faith by the blind hostility that Ryder shows to Christianity, especially as it reveals itself in ugly contrast to the priest presiding at the deathbed of her father, Lord Brideshead.  Finally, Cordelia is the most devout of the Brideshead children, a somewhat naïve but strong believer with a stringent sense of piety and a heart that yearns to care for the hurting.

When I read Brideshead Revisited, I had to undergo a journey of my own.  I was not sure of my friends’ intentions in recommending the work, but I thought, perhaps wrongly, that he recommended it as an indictment of cultural Catholicism.  On a certain level, it is.  But I came to believe, as I read the novel, that it was much more.  I came to believe, and now am firmly convinced, that what Waugh was actually attempting in Brideshead was a strident apologetic for the faith.  Furthermore, it is a powerful indictment of the emptiness and futility of secular man as seen in the person of Charles Ryder as well as in the ultimately self-absorbed and self-defeating lifestyles of most of the Brideshead family.

Evelyn Waugh himself later said that Brideshead Revisited was primarily about God’s relentless pursuit of man (see George Weigel’s excellent 1993 First Things article “St. Evelyn Waugh”).  And it is.  For as the novel progresses, we see time and again the eventual return of its characters to the grace of God.  Sebastian’s debauchery ends in a struggling but definite faith and return to the Church. Julia comes to realize that she has fallen into idolatry, the elevation of her own self, and must reject Charles Ryder and turn to God instead.  The apex of the book is the dramatic and heart-wrenching deathbed scene in which Lord Brideshead, the old pagan and antagonist to the Church, finally makes the sign-of-the cross and so calls out for repentance.  And, in the end, as he returns later to the decaying Marchmain and stands in the chapel on the grounds, Charles Ryder himself comes to see it as well.  In the chapel, at the book’s close, he notices something, “a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, farm from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  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.”  Ryder, of course, is that soldier, the one who is “farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.”  He is the one who comes now to see and understand Who and where our true home is.  Like Augustine in his Confessions, Ryder sees that our hearts are never truly home until they are at home in God.  The story ends with Ryder walking out of the chapel and a fellow soldier commenting on how cheerful he looks.

Evelyn Waugh has been rightly praised for Brideshead Revisited since its appearance.  It deserves a continued reading and hearing.  Read this book.

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