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Lady Marchmain?

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message 1: by Clare (last edited Jun 08, 2010 06:45AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Clare Just wondering if anyone else feels the way I do. Whilst yes, of course the woman is manipulative (particularly in putting moral pressure on Julia not to marry Rex) and I don't entirely trust her, I have to say I don't quite understand all the hatred she seems to get, both from her own family and from readers.
To take one example, a lot of readers seem to side with Charles over her on the issue of Sebastian's alcoholism. Quite honestly, I don't see what is so appalling about a woman being concerned by her son's heavy drinking and in wanting to restrict his alcohol intake - it seems a perfectly natural, caring and common-sense approach to me. By contrast, I did actually think it very wrong of Charles to give Sebastian money to buy alcohol with - that is essentially enabling an alcoholic, it is NOT being a good friend or a sign of having his best interests at heart and, whilst she is perhaps a little over-the-top in her confrontation with him, my sympathies are entirely with Lady Marchmain at this point. I do not have any experience of dealing with alcoholics myself, thankfully, but I would hazard a guess that the best way to act is to try to control their drinking, not to endorse and encourage it, as Charles does in agreeing to give Sebastian money.
I understand one issue of the matter is that Lady M wants Sebastian to take over his uncle's position, rather than allowing him to live as he pleases, but, whilst it is of course unfair to expect him to live up to such a standard, again, what is so unforgiveable about parents wanting their grown-up children to take on adult responsibilities?
Let's be fair to Lady M - she's not perfect, yes, but I hardly think she's the monster some people make her out to be. I think it's right to give her a break and bear in mind that she has suffered the loss of her three younger brothers, been abandoned by her husband to raise four children single-handedly and then has to watch her son sink into alcoholism and turn against her and her daughter enter a sinful marriage with an unsuitable man. I think she is worthy more of sympathy than contempt.


message 2: by Daisy15 (new)

Daisy15 Melanie, you've absolutely nailed it, in my opinion. In current parlance, she is a control freak who smothers Sebastian, which is why he is worse when she is around or when he is being watched by her minions.

She wants people to believe she is a victim, and she probably earnestly believes she is one. Yetit is her own behavior, her need to manipulate and dominate people, which makes her family end up loathing her and abandoning her.


Randy I'd put it a little differently. She is a self-righteous bitch to whom no man can measure up. That's why Lord M left the country.


Evelyn I understand what you're saying, but I can't personally sympathise with Lady Marchmain. She's manipulative and refuses to accept that Sebastian needs space, not smothering. However, in some ways Charles is just as guilty as she is - if he had immediately recognised Sebastian's family for what they were and not been blinded by his admiration for their wealth, Sebastian would have had the support he needed - Charles is his "only friend", but puts his own interests first. Like Lady Marchmain, Charles doesn't see the harm he is doing, although they each come to see the faults of the other.


Randy Evelyn, it's impossible to understand Brideshead outside the bounds of Christian faith. The Marchmains are a microcosm of the human condition. I think you grind things too finely to blame Charles for Sebastian's fate. Sebastian is the product of his cold-hearted mother. The lord went to Venice, and Sebastian crawled into a bottle. They were both responses to Lady M's lack of loving.


Evelyn What I find strange is that Waugh was such a keen Catholic, but the religion comes off quite badly in the book. Lady Marchmain is the "saint-like" one, and she makes Sebastian and his father miserable. I agree with you that Sebastian was pretty much inevitably headed for self-destruction, but I think that part of the tragedy is the fact that Sebastian loses Charles to the charms of his family. He can't get away from their world and live his own life. Charles is only too happy to go along with that.


Randy It's not a romance novel. Quit reading it like one.


message 8: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim B Waugh said that Brideshead Revisited was about grace winning souls. The flaws of the characters lead to the tragedy but also to a conclusion in agreement with Waugh's theme. You're right, Randy, it's not a romance novel.


Randy Thanks Jim.


Cynthia Stead It's not a treatise, either. In a different time, Lady M would have made a fine abbess. Even those of us who are religious have a hard time understanding that religion can truly consume all human relationships, with its eye fixed upon the eternal rather than the mere transitory human life. Surely, they cannot really think that!

I'm not a Roman Catholic, just a mere Protestant, but I recognize Lady M as some of the older RC womn I knew years ago - more devoted to church than to family (let alone husband). I remember how hurt some of their children were that they could never be more important than Mary to their mothers. One schoolmate who had a mother who had 'heard the call' told me in later years that if it hadn't been for a special teacher we both had, he would never have known what a mother's love could be like.

Lady M isn't a bitch or a manipulator. She is a sincere Child of the One True God, and we cannot know if she is right or wrong - only eternity will tell. What she should NOT have tried to be was a wife or mother.


Randy I'll take exception with you C. They didn't leave the country because Lady M's faith was so great. They left because they couldn't stand the sight of her.


Vanessa Stone Waugh wrote the novel to be a Catholic apology. I think that by the time you reach the end of the novel, you are expected to feel quite differently about Lady Marchmain, as Julia has many regrets about how they all treated her. Whether or not Waugh did this successfully is another matter. The theme of grace allows for Lady Marchmain's sins to be forgiven for being overbearing and making missteps to protect her children, just as grace allows Sebastian to live and be respected in a monastery in the end despite being a raging alcoholic. If Julia had listened to her mother's foreboding and Brideshead's disapproval, she would never have been miserable with Rex. In the end, she can't allow herself to be happy with Charles because of all of the damage she has done in her life. She chooses the church and grace over Charles. Charles admonishes the Church and we see his disapproval of their "superstition," however, I think that Waugh's intention was to have him come to the discovery of the meaning and grace of the faith. Again, I feel he fell short of the apology, but you can see the attempt as Lord Marchmain was reconciled as he crossed himself on his deathbed, Sebatian's end, and Julia's decision. Viewing Lady Marchmain as despicable is Charles' misunderstanding and Julia and Sebatian's attempt to break free from their religion, rebelling against what they know to be right and true. Lady Marchmain is the symbol of the church in the novel, and so she too is redeemed in the end.


Terry Interesting discussion. I don't see Waugh using the theme of grace as much as he uses the themes of suffering/sin/redemption. All of his characters do not find redemption until they suffer, including Lady M who dies a painful death. I am always fascinated by both Waugh and Graham Greene- both converts, both post-war Catholic literary giants. Yet where Waugh sees his faith in black and white terms (and a bit holier-than-thou), Greene embraces human flaws without judgement.


Martha Another cold control freak mother in literature is the mother in Look Homeward, Angel. Her god was money, but I find her even more despicable than Lady M. She is based on Wolfe's own mother, who was a right royal bitch on wheels.


message 15: by Marty (new)

Marty Gotta chuckle. Many of you sound very young. It sounds like you haven't been parents. It's always the mother's fault (or the father's).

Lady Marchmain has already suffered, Terry, even before her agonizing death. She has lost three beloved brothers in WWI, she is abandoned by her husband after the war, she has a daughter who enters a misalliance, and a son who is an alcoholic. If any of you have been around an advanced alcoholic, you know that *nothing* is going to stop it, short of the absolute will of the alcoholic him/herself. If you're a spouse or parent, you go crazy trying to "fix" the situation, or at least go crazy trying to limit it. You can't.

Lady Marchmain has control-freak tendencies that probably fell within the range of normal, but go way out of orbit with a situation she will never be able to remedy. This is the source of her suffering. She tries to control what is not in her control.

This is her fatal flaw. This is her cross. This is why someone in the book calls her saintly, but not a saint. She suffers *enormously.* If you've been a parent, you can see that. Certainly her daughters see that in the end.


message 16: by Monica (new) - added it

Monica With you on the parent thing, Marty.
Lady Marchmain is very much a control freak who is helpless as she watches her children fall without being able to influence anything at all. She has taken refuge in her religion which is probably the only comfort she can find after all that has happened in her life. And yes she has suffered tremendously and, being a control freak, can never let go. In the end, she dies in pain, a reflection of the pain she caused others but mostly, the pain she herself endured.


message 17: by Marty (new)

Marty I'm not sure her religion is a "comfort." A religion that teaches that you must give up your life – not for the good, worthy people, but the lowest of the low – doesn't offer much in the way of comfort.


message 18: by Monica (new) - added it

Monica Do some homework on the Catholic religion. Nowhere is it taught that you must "give up your life... for the lowest of the low".


message 19: by Marty (last edited Jan 17, 2015 05:59PM) (new)

Marty You might try reading the words of Jesus Christ, who did precisely that. It also teaches that one is accountable for every action, word, and thought – exactly what torments Lady Marchmain after she gives Charles a nasty dressing-down.

Far from offering her "comfort," one could argue that her religion is the source of her suffering. Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh: "Are you or are you not on Lady Marchmain's side? I couldn't quite tell." Waugh replied: "No, I am not on her side. But God is, who suffers fools gladly." It's his book, after all, and presumably he knew what he was about.

Whether or not you agree with the religion, in the end Lady Marchmain "wins": she prayed for the conversion of her family circle and Charles, and after her death all of them, Sebastian, Julia, Lord Marchmain, and even Charles, converts (or "recommits," if you prefer).


message 20: by Monica (new) - added it

Monica Of course Christ gave up his life for the lowest of the low (which includes all of us, by the way). And yes, we are accountable for our actions and yes, we are pardoned when we fail. Lady Marchmain suffers because of her faith and her failure to live up to it but I agree that she "wins"in the end.


Savannah Kathlene Despite anyone personal religious convictions, it seems that Lady Marchmain embodies the oppressive and repressive nature of religion. Her children live their lives with a sense of guilt, and though Charles seems to speak lightly about "Catholic Guilt" his narration shows that it has a destructive effect on the family.

Julia claims that she grew up being repeatedly told that she was "bad" and in turn she rebelled and made decisions that validated her mother's claim that she was "bad." Sebastian's emotional issues shows that he was adversely affected by this influence as well.

Perhaps it is naive to "blame the mother" but there has to be a source of all the emotional and psychological pain evident throughout the novel.


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