Imagine two tourists standing in front of Chartres Cathedral in France. The first simply gapes in awe as everything clicks slowly into place: God, the Universe, his own life — microcosm and macrocosm. Transported by its resplendent beauty, his experience transcends human reason.
The second tourist mills about anxiously before pausing to take a selfie. “Nice old building,” he remarks, “but why do you think they had to go and put those funny crosses on top? Ruins the whole vibe.”
This is how I feel, having read Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, in comparing my reaction with those of others. Each reader is either the first tourist or the second. Either you get it, or you don’t.
Even in his own time, Waugh’s novel (written in 1944) polarized the critics. It represented a departure from his typical comedic style and evinced his own recent conversion to Catholicism in 1931. If internet reviews, podcasts, and the recent 2008 film are any indication, many people still don’t get it.
Brideshead Revisited is not a homoerotic romance, or a drama about the declining fortunes of the British aristocracy a la Downton Abbey, though it contains aspects of both. It is not primarily about friendship or nostalgia or family, though all three figure prominently into the story. At its core, Brideshead Revisited is a novel about one family’s inability to escape religion, which both entices us with its beauty and frightens us with its demands. To view this novel through any other lens is, to a large extent, to miss the point.
The protagonist of the story is Charles Ryder, an intelligent though not particularly motivated young man of the English middle class. While in his freshman year at Oxford, Charles falls under the charming influence of Sebastian Flyte, a whimsical aristocrat who is everywhere accompanied by his teddy bear, Aloysius. After a drunken night of revelry brings them together (Sebastian vomits through Charles’ first floor window), Charles comes to know Sebastian and his wealthy, carefree friends, including the flamboyant Anthony Blanche.
Charles and Sebastian spend an enchanted summer together: lounging in fields, drinking expensive wine. Charles describes Sebastian as “magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings out for live and withers at the first cold wind.” While their relationship is undoubtedly romantic, Waugh’s writing leaves it unclear as to whether it ever becomes sexual. Many readers are certain it does. I think the text supports both readings, but it ultimately doesn’t matter much either way to the plot of the story or its themes. While Anthony Blanche and Sebastian are clearly homosexual, Charles is not. He is attracted to Sebastian’s beauty and intrigued by the prospect of a perpetual adolescence, which Sebastian (forever clinging to his trusty teddy bear) represents.
Observing that Sebastian has “completely captivated” Charles, Anthony Blanche – the great “aesthete par excellence” – warns him of Sebastian’s family:
“I forget if you know his family. Now there, my dear, is a subject for the poet – for the poet of the future who must be also a psychoanalyst – and perhaps a diabolist, too. I don’t suppose he’ll ever let you meet them. He’s far too clever. They’re all charming of course, and quite, quite gruesome. Do you ever feel there is something a teeny bit gruesome about Sebastian? No? Perhaps I imagine it; it’s simply that he looks so much like the rest of them, sometimes.”
Anthony describes Brideshead — Sebastian’s elder, much more serious brother — as “something archaic, out of a cave that’s been sealed for centuries… a learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian, a snowbound lama,” with a face “as though an Aztec sculptor had attempted a portrait of Sebastian.” He labels Julia — Sebastian’s younger sister and spitting image — a “Renaissance tragedy” with “a face of flawless Florentine Quattrocento beauty.” However, he warns “she’s a fiend – a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer… all she wants is power. There ought to be an Inquisition especially set up to burn her.”
But Anthony Blanche reserves most of his venom for Sebastian’s mother: the charismatic and pious matriarch, Lady Marchmain. Blanche criticizes her for refusing to grant Lord Marchmain a divorce; after the war, he ran away with a dancer and set up residence in Venice. Now she “keeps a small gang of enslaved and emaciated prisoners for her exclusive enjoyment… like wraiths following her around. They never escape once she’s had her teeth into them.”
Charles eventually does meet the Flyte family for himself. He finds them not quite the monsters of Blanche’s hyperbole, though very charming and intriguing. Sebastian watches in despair as Charles’ interest shifts inevitably from him to his family. This process of transference begins with their first visit to Brideshead Castle, the Flyte’s ornate family home in the English countryside. Brideshead awakens in Charles the longing for a different kind of beauty. He sketches its great fountain and begins painting its panels, inadvertently launching his own career as an artist.
The family watch in anxiety as Sebastian transforms from a fun-loving youth into a hopeless drunkard. It’s as if the estate and the family that inhabit it are driving him to despair. Lady Marchmain enlists everyone in the cause of saving Sebastian from himself, including Charles. After it is discovered that he lent Sebastian money to get drunk, Charles is sent away in disgrace. Sebastian exiles himself to the Middle East, where he predictably flounders. Charles tries to find Sebastian and bring him to his mother’s sickbed, but to no avail. Lady Marchmain dies.
Years pass. Charles goes on to become a moderately successful artist, specializing in architectural paintings. He travels through Latin America, painting ancient ruins and colorful vistas before returning to his loveless marriage and children he doesn’t care to see. On the crossing back to England, he meets Julia, who is just returning from an ill-fated affair in America to her equally hopeless marriage to Rex, an aspiring politician. Seeing her with fresh eyes, Charles is immediately transfixed. The two begin an affair that lasts a couple years, resulting in Charles’ divorce from his wife. Julia is about to divorce Rex to marry Charles when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead, himself on the verge of death. His deathbed conversion is the final straw that convinces Julia to end her relationship with Charles, who goes on to enlist in the army.
The entire story is recounted by Charles years later, as he finds himself once again at Brideshead, which has been transformed into a military barracks during World War II. Charles, once an avowed agnostic, is drawn to the stone chapel, where a little light still burns. There he evinces his own conversion, which is not so much a sudden transformation as the gradual acceptance of a beauty and a truth so great it can no longer be denied.
Many secular readers are left confused by Waugh’s tale. After starting off with such promise, why does Waugh feel the need to bring it all around to God? This frustration on the part of some readers perfectly mirrors Charles’ own frustration as the Flyte family manage to turn every conversation around to religion. Lady Marchmain makes no secret of her desire to convert him to Catholicism, an effort Charles resists. In the first part of the book, he describes his initial view of religion thus:
I had no religion… The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teachings was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of “complexes” and “inhibitions” – catchwords of the decade – and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries.
What an adept summary of our own age. Yet each character, and indeed the setting itself, symbolizes either some aspect of the Church or people’s reaction to it.
Most obviously, Brideshead (the estate) is a metaphor for the Catholic Church, which is known as the Bride of Christ. All four children are brought up in the Catholic faith, literally in Brideshead. The separation of Lord and Lady Marchmain is accompanied by his giving up the Catholic faith, signaled by his leaving Brideshead. And yet, at his deathbed he returns, as so many do.
Lady Marchmain is like an autocratic pope, or at times a representation of the Church itself. Anthony Blanche tells Charles that both Sebastian and his father hate Lady Marchmain in a manner very similar to way many hate the Catholic Church and its clerics. They hate the demands she places on them, revealing their inadequacies in meeting them. Like a well-meaning but overbearing cleric, Lady Marchmain enlists spies like the tutor Samgrass and conducts “little talks” to try and nudge people in the right direction. She never curses her children or warns them directly of the fires of hell that await their unrepentance; that is not the Catholic way. She merely reminds them of what they themselves know to be true but would rather forget. At one point, Sebastian even quotes St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord make me holy, but not yet.” Just like Augustine’s mother, Lady Marchmain will not give up on her son. Yet she can be ruthless to those allies who disappoint her, such as Charles when he gives Sebastian drinking money; Lady Marchmain essentially excommunicates him from the estate for this transgression.
Each of the four children represent one reaction of people brought up in the faith to religion.
Brideshead (the heir), described as dull and monkish, represents the response of vocation to the religious life. However, his desire to become a priest is thwarted by the fact that as the eldest, he is expected to marry and produce heirs. Brideshead’s dilemma illustrates how family obligations can both encourage and interfere with religion.
Cordelia, the youngest and plainest of the bunch, has never wavered in her faith. She represents the call to humble service, having served as a wartime nurse and now a homely spinster. But even she confesses upon her mother’s death that she never really loved her. In Cordelia’s words, her mother was “saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.”
Sebastian initially describes himself and Julia as semi-heathens. They have both rejected the Church in their lifestyle choices: Sebastian by refusing to grow up, Julia first by marrying Rex and then having affairs. Yet both find themselves drawn back to the faith, as though by an “invisible thread” that has only to be tugged to send them moving. Sebastian ends up as a sort of caretaker in a Tunisian monastery, while Julia rejects happiness with Charles in favor of loyalty to God and His commands.
Some readers find these conversions, along with Charles’ and Lord Marchmain’s, contrived or unrealistic. How could Waugh have ever accepted the Catholic faith after describing how it “destroyed” everyone in the Flyte family and ruined their happiness? Of course, Waugh knows it is not the Church but sin that destroys, and there is a greater calling than earthly happiness.
Rex (Julia’s husband) and Charles (Julia’s lover) represent two different reactions to those drawn into the world of the Church by their association with the Flyte family. Rex is a thoroughly modern man, embodying the ignorance of the age. He tries to make quick and easy compromises with the Church for the sake of convenience, as symbolized in his attempt to convert to Catholicism leading up to his marriage to Julia. He can not truly appreciate her beauty, nor can he understand her morals. He simply lacks imagination, and depth.
Charles is the modern man who, though he initially holds the Church and its teachings in contempt, has not yet lost his ability to appreciate beauty. This appreciation for beauty ultimately leads him somewhere he would have never expected: faith in God.
Throughout the novel, Charles never engages rationally with the claims of the Catholic Church, except to dismiss them as ludicrous. He even tries to keep the local priest from visiting Lord Marchmain at his deathbed. And yet simply being on the estate works a conversion within him, one that passes first through layers of beauty (Sebastian, the house, Julia) before arriving ultimately at God. Brideshead Revisited is indeed largely biographical of Evelyn Waugh, who describes the book as dealing with “the operation of grace” in people’s lives.
It is no coincidence that Charles becomes a painter of architecture, which he sees as being more real than the people who temporarily inhabit it. He claims to love “buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation, while time curbed the artist’s pride and the Philistine’s vulgarity, and repaired the clumsiness of the dull workman.” In the final pages, Charles enters the chapel, observing:
The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness… Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played: a small red flame… the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; the flame burns again for other soldiers, far 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.
This seems as good a description of the Catholic Church as one can find: an ancient and mysterious building – falling to pieces in places, yet still possessing great charm, nostalgia, and power. Despite its rising and falling fortunes, the Church has managed to keep alight the small red flame of truth that can survive even our post-modern age.
Bishop Robert Barron writes that Brideshead Revisited provides Christians with a model for evangelization through beauty. He observes that buildings like Chartres or paintings like those in the Sistine Chapel “work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally to share.” He quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar’s claim that “the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.”
This is exactly the transformation we see in Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Puritans who would strip religious spaces of their brilliance – or forgo decoration as an unnecessary expense – should remember the value of Beauty as a window to Goodness and gateway to Truth. Agnostics or atheists who reject the claims of the Church would do well to stand for a few silent moments in its great cathedrals, to engage the sculpture of Michelangelo or the poetry of Dante. Perhaps, like Charles Ryder, they will find themselves moved by something they do not entirely understand. Like great art, Christianity is not something that can be simply reasoned; it has to be experienced, so that one might fall in love with it.