Mark Adderley's Reviews > Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
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Jan 15, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction
Read in January, 2010

This is not the sort of thing I would normally read. I don't particularly care for realistic fiction, and I don't much care for the world Waugh depicts--a bunch of rich people spending dissolute lives, creating problems for themselves out of nothing. In some ways, Brideshead Revisited reminds me of what a male, Catholic Jane Austen would be like. And that might be one of the novel's strengths--just like Austen writes compelling books about almost nothing, so I kept turning the pages of this one. I'm drawn into it, almost in spite of myself.

The central figure at first seems to be Sebastian Flyte, a wealthy young Catholic who is wasting his life on dissolute living and alcohol. His attachment, even in young adulthood, to his teddy bear, Aloysius, hints that he misses the age of innocence symbolized by childhood--an innocence that even childhood really doesn't confer. Sebastian is searching for redemption.

In fact, however, the book is not really about a single person, unless it is about the narrator, Charles Ryder. More particularly, the book is about Charles' relations with the aristocratic and Catholic family of the Marchmains. It is about Catholicism itself, and its effects upon people. If I hadn't met a number of Catholics who behaved, to some extent, exactly like Sebastian, it might be somewhat harder to believe. I think Sebastian's problem is that he believes his Catholic faith to be true, but is running away from it, believing it to be oppressive. Like St. Augustine said, "God, give me chastity, but not yet."

On the other hand, there's Julia, Sebastian's sister. She's rejected Catholicism because it's an inconvenience to her. She's shunned by marriageable bachelors on account of her faith (I believe it's only recently been made legal for a Catholic to marry into the English royal family--a legal change due more to indifference to religion than by enthusiasm or tolerance for it). Brideshead, Sebastian's older brother, has become something of a strict, rather dour believer (I don't want to say Puritannical, because that's contradictory, of course). It seems to me that only Cordelia, Sebastian's youngest sister, has a healthy, somewhat flippant attitude towards her faith--in one scene that actually made me laugh out loud, Cordelia tells Julia's suitor, Rex Mottram, that Catholics have to sleep with their feet pointing east so they can walk to heaven if they die in the night, and that there are sacred monkeys in the Vatican. She's mocking Rex, of course--he only wants to convert so he can marry Julia and have access to her social contacts and money.

Waugh himself said that the book was about the operation of grace--about God calling to all people, usually at moments when they feel the most psychologically or spiritually vulnerable. We are most human when we are at our weakest--when we are in pain, in love, lonely, dying--and that is when God calls to us most insistently. Many people refuse the call. In fact, Charles refuses this call throughout most of the book, and it's virtually on the last page that we read a hint that he may at last be heeding it. It's a positive ending, even uplifting, but I think most secular readers will be left with a feeling that Charles' finding God is a poor consolation for having wrecked all other relationships in his life.

This is an important aspect of the novel. The closing paragraphs, deeply moving and stirringly poetic, describe how the builders of the chapel at Bridehead have had their original purposes thwarted, but that, eventually, those original purposes find ways of being accomplished--the light still burns before the tabernacle. It seems to me that this symbolizes God's providence, the felix culpa or happy fall, whereby all actions are brought in the end to a happy conclusion by God. Or, as Hamlet says, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." We can mess with God's plan, we can even mess ourselves up permanently, but He can turn all those mess-ups to His purpose, creating good from evil.

The conclusion is, I think, moving to me precisely because I am, like Waugh, an English convert to Catholicism. It's hard to look at all the churches in England, stolen by Henry VIII for personal gain and raffled to his friends for profit, without feeling much the same way that Charles feels at the end of the novel. And it's hard to look at England as it is today, faithless and adrift, without seeing the Reformation as little more than a precursor to state-sponsored atheism. There seems to be some hope, recently, in the conversion of parishes to Anglican Rite Catholicism. "The flame burns again, for other soldiers ... and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones."
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Reading Progress

06/27 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Thalia (new)

Thalia I looked at this book the other day but put it back on the shelf for now. The Catholic content is what peaked my interest mostly. I'll be looking forward to your final word on this.


Mark Adderley I'd pick it up again, if I were you, Thalia. A very moving book.


message 3: by Thalia (new)

Thalia Mmmm, I'll consider getting it in my queue then afterall, :)


message 4: by Atyg (new)

Atyg Too many reviewers are reading it with contemporary mindset, which is very much secular, compared to the 1940s generation who were very religious/church-attending (having gone through a horrific war with deaths commonplace, as well as harsh economic times); this was Waugh's audience and his time, who though not all catholic, were certainly much more spiritual compared to today's consumer-centred audience.


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