A few weeks ago, I read for the first time the 1945 classic British novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It’s now one of my favorite novels of all time. If you love a riveting story that is eloquently told (Time magazine named Waugh “one of the century’s greatest masters of English prose”), then you must read this book – or least watch the gorgeous 1981 Granada television mini-series that’s based on the book.
Set in pre-World War II England, the story is narrated by artist Charles Ryder, who befriends Sebastian Flyte, the second son of the Duke of Marchmain, when he and Sebastian are students at Oxford University. Charles also forms relationships with several other members of Sebastian’s family and falls in love with Julia, Sebastian’s sister. Waugh, enamored of the aristocratic lifestyle, wrote long, admiring descriptions of the Marchmains’ luxurious and leisurely life; however, he also recognized their tragic flaws. Despite the advantages of great wealth, physical beauty, high position, and (in Charles’ case) artistic talent, several of them manage to make a complete mess of their lives.
This is no mere soap opera, though, like the popular Downton Abbey TV series. Brideshead Revisited is not a story about love or family or socioeconomic class or the decline of the British aristocracy, as readers have suggested. Waugh himself revealed in his 1959 preface to the revised edition that the novel’s theme is “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.”
The members of the Marchmain family are Catholic, but they respond to Catholic doctrine – especially its teachings about sin and forgiveness – in different ways. Lady Marchmain, her eldest son Bridey, and her youngest daughter Cordelia have no problem keeping their faith a prominent and integrated part of their daily lives, always at the forefront of their consciousness.
On the other hand, Lady Marchmain’s husband, her eldest daughter Julia, and her youngest son Sebastian struggle against their Catholicism. Lord Marchmain professes to be an atheist. Julia ignores God completely as she blithely goes about making a series of disastrous personal choices. And the immature Sebastian attends Mass and says he accepts his religion’s teachings but still succumbs to alcoholism, perhaps because he finds he cannot actually live his Catholic beliefs.
Sebastian tells his friend Charles, “Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic.” He means, I think, that it’s difficult for him to live every day in a state of constant and acute awareness of sin and the need for God’s forgiveness. (Next time you attend Mass, notice the many times we ask Him to forgive us our sins.) And it’s difficult to be called to live out Catholic truth in this world. When we do, we’re often viewed by others as controlling, odd, miserable, distant, or unlikable. The devout Lady Marchmain is even, at one point, described by a non-Catholic as “sinister.” Sebastian says about Catholics: “…they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time. It’s quite natural, really, that they should.”
Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930. That same year, in a newspaper article entitled “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me,” he wrote that “Christianity is essential to civilization” and that “Christianity exists in its most complete and vital form in the Roman Catholic Church.” Writing to Edward Sackville-West, Waugh said, “Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made.”
The world, said Waugh, is, in fact, “unintelligible and unendurable without God.” In his novel, Catholic doctrine, rituals, and symbols are everywhere, relentlessly confronting the Marchmain family and Charles Ryder and demanding their attention. Charles, who tells us that he has “no religion” and long ago concluded that Christianity is a “myth,” asks young Cordelia, “Does your family always talk about religion all the time?” Cordelia replies, “Not all the time. It’s a subject that just comes up naturally, doesn’t it?”
Brideshead Revisited dramatizes the personal devastation that results from rejection of God and faith. It also portrays the salvation and peace that result from acceptance. It’s a deeply moving story about people who don’t get what they want, but — eventually — they do get what God knows they need.