“So you see we’re a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; Mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and Papa is excommunicated—and I wouldn’t know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want.... I wish I liked Catholics more.”
“They seem just like other people.”
“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not—particularly in this country, where they’re so few. It’s not just that they’re a clique—as a matter of fact, they’re at least four cliques all blackguarding each other half the time—but 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. But you see it’s difficult for semi-heathens like Julia and me.”
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Goodreads synopsis: The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.
Notes: Much as I love all my favorite Anglican and Mormon novelists—and, oddly, it does seem as though my favorites are usually one or the other—it’s something to come across quality Catholic fiction that manages to get into my heart. I’m frankly afraid of O’Connor and Greene; my responses to Tolkien are a mixture of admiration and failed interest; and Chesterton’s novels, while likable, never seem to catch at my sympathy the way his non-fiction does. Waugh, however, in this book at least, got my attention and admiration and sympathy all together.
There are two primary divisors that, for me, work toward a final quotient of like or dislike for novels, regardless of genre or category or level. First, I must love the principal characters. Second, the book—however dark—must focus with manifest intensity on the light. This is why I love The Wheel of Time and haven’t brought myself to read A Song of Ice and Fire, why I avoid Steinbeck and adore Tolstoy. Brideshead Revisited, though hardly a cheerful story, fell on the right side of the line. I might as well pause here to admit that I loved it.
Waugh’s Charles Ryder, the protagonist, spent the first half of the book reminding me of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby: a creature of uncertain opinions and passive temperament, shaped primarily by contact with and love for a defined and charismatic personality. Charles is an agnostic, not convinced enough of the unlikeliness of a higher power to be an atheist, but certain that Christianity is a dangerous myth. He falls in love with Sebastian Flyte at college—whether that love is sexual or not is left unexplained—and sees the Flytes’ sometimes manipulative Catholicism as a direct threat to Sebastian’s life and health and freedom.
Sebastian furthered the Gatsby comparison by seeming, from the outset, the sort likely to die an early and ignominious death. Unlike Jay Gatsby, however, whom I merely loved, I both loved and admired Sebastian. It was easy to envision the beautiful young man, an artist’s delight, with his big teddy bear and his liquors, his desperation to be free of his family and his inability to be free of his God. Though he became less admirable, he never lost my sympathy.
His family was a thoroughly mixed bag as far as emotional appeal went, but all of them exemplified what the novel was more or less about: the reality of what it means to be Catholic—to have in one’s heart the Eucharistic fire despite sin, weakness, addiction, doubts, the presence or absence of happiness, and inconsonant nature. It would mean spoilers to describe how this worked out in the book, and would be pointless anyway. The thing is best portrayed, and it is the mastery of that portrayal which makes the book a successful work of art. Which makes it convincing, when countless works of ‘Christian fiction’, Catholic or Protestant, attempting to depict the life of the modern believer, seem to treat humanity as a creature other than it is, or at best to deploy their ideals in an alternate reality.
It’s not merely tragedy that makes the mastery, though the book is mostly tragic. Charles achieves some greatness as an artist but fails roundly in the private sphere, making indolent choices that gradually push him toward emotional and spiritual isolation. Despite his deep loves, he was not always likable, and his plight sometimes inspired serves-you-right emotions rather than sympathy. By the end of the story, though, he had won both my love and respect; two of the very few things that make tragedy survivable.
The book is literary fiction of the old school; the prose is comprehensible and meaningful and lovely, the suffering human and painful, and the characters shown in unshrinking clarity. Its scenes range from dull to engaging, from the idyllic to the horrible. It began with some light and grew darker and harder to bear, and yet—
To review this novel primarily in comparison to The Great Gatsby would be preposterous on several fronts, but the similarities I’d felt early on, which faded into nothingness as I read, popped back up rather hauntingly at the end. Fitzgerald closed his novel with Gatsby’s belief “in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” There’s no more sign of an orgastic future in Brideshead than in Gatsby. Yet Waugh ends with the opposite light: a red flame, immanent and permanent, the unlooked-for hope of “builders and tragedians”, the holy place the sinner returns to when he feels 'the twitch upon the thread'.
The red flame sits at the heart of Catholicism. It’s hard to say how a non-Catholic—let alone a non-Christian—might respond to this book, though both Waugh and his novel have had literary acclaim.
I should say, it’s hard for me to say. Hot debate topics like the confessional, papal authority, and honor (it is never worship) for Mary do not even garner mention in the tale as I recall, though atheistic talking points like "this is all a load of bosh" do. In my own Protestant days, I simply might not have understood the story or the final imagery. The picture the evangelical church had drawn for me of Catholicism lacked detail, and anyway it did not really resemble what I found when I began looking. Now that the red flame sits at my heart—now that I recognize it, at least—Brideshead’s ending put me in tears with an emotion that’s impossible to communicate or explain.
The Anglican Rowling shot close to that core place, in the climactic moments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with the chapters 'The Forest Again' and 'King’s Cross'. The Mormon Card shot close in Speaker for the Dead with “It was the miracle of the wafer, turned into the flesh of God in his hands. How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all, when we thought that we were only made of dust.”
Evelyn Waugh shot a bull’s-eye. While proving himself an exceptional artist. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.