Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945, was Evelyn Waugh’s first explicitly Catholic novel. It lost him, he wrote later, “such esteem” as he had enjoyed among his contemporaries. This wasn’t, however, on account of its Catholic theme. Graham Greene was then writing novels in which the Catholic argument was inescapable, and these were highly praised. It was the lush romanticism of Brideshead which delighted readers and offended severe critics. Waugh himself came to think he had overdone it, and would revise the novel 15 years later, removing some of its most flowery passages, and blaming his excesses on a time of spam and Nissen huts.
It was possible to fall in love with the novel while ignoring its Catholic theme, or paying little attention to it. That was my experience, reading it in 1957, shortly before going up to Cambridge. I was entranced by Waugh’s evocation of 1920s Oxford, even if he assured the reader that this was now “lost as Lyonnesse”, entranced too by the beauty, charm, silliness and melancholy of Sebastian Flyte. Later I would be saddened by his descent into alcoholism as he ran away from adult life and the demands of his mother, Lady Marchmain – saintly but not a saint.
Of course I was reading it all wrong, as indeed the narrator, Charles Ryder, misunderstood Sebastian and his mother. In time he would come to see Sebastian as “the forerunner”, when a decade or so later he falls in love with Julia, Sebastian’s twin, has an affair with her, lives with her as man and wife, both being married – Charles to a bright socialite, Julia to the crass and pushing politician Rex Mottram. Julia, it should be said, is the great failure of the novel.
Every novelist has had the experience of working to breathe life into a character who obstinately never takes off. Waugh fails with Julia; she remains merely an idea.
The great scene of the novel is the return to Brideshead of the self-exiled Lord Marchmain after the death of the wife from whom he had fled to live in Venice with his Italian mistress. Now he has come home to die. The question is whether a priest should be called. The two unquestioningly Catholic children, the oldest, Lord Brideshead, known as Bridey, and the youngest, Cordelia, who has been working with a Catholic medical mission in the Spanish Civil War, have no doubts. Charles, knowing that Lord Marchmain has been a sceptic who spoke to Sebastian of “your Church”, finds the idea repugnant, and assumes that Julia does so too. But this section is entitled “The Twitch on the Thread” (an echo of Chesterton’s Father Brown) and, to Charles’s horrified indignation, Julia feels the twitch and responds to it. The priest is summoned. Lord Marchmain receives the last rites and makes a sign which can be interpreted as assent.
Julia has felt the twitch herself, and in a long passage – never actually intended to be spoken, which is fair enough – repents the sin of adultery, breaks with Charles and returns to the Church. Charles himself, as we learn from the foreword (which runs into an epilogue), has himself been received into the Church, though there is no suggestion that this has brought joy into his life, perhaps not even comfort.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection