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.
This, of course, isn’t the point. The theme of the novel – a theme which Waugh himself called “presumptuous” – was the operation of divine grace on people’s lives. Is it persuasive? I suppose the theology is sound, and also that Waugh is right in demonstrating that the faith is demanding, requiring the believer to reject worldly pleasures. In this view, the faith doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. Only Cordelia, a delightful child now given to good works, seems to have attained serenity – though she does also tell Charles that she believes Sebastian, who has landed in a monastery in North Africa where he works as a sort of porter, may also have found grace (despite the occasional drinking bout).
For readers who fell in love with the young Sebastian in that first summer in Oxford, this may seem a sad ending, but that isn’t how we are intended to read it.Waugh’s intention is indeed clear. Nevertheless, Brideshead, like most great works of art, is open to more than one interpretation.
A sceptical or humanist reading is possible. The faith, at least as it has been understood by Lady Marchmain, is terrible and destructive. If she hadn’t striven to fit Sebastian into the mould of a good Catholic boy, but had tried to understand his nature, accepting for instance both his levity and his campness, he might not have drifted into self-destructive alcoholism, any more than did Charles who drank glass for glass, bottle for bottle, with him when they were at Oxford.
If Julia had not come to regard her adultery as a sin, and broken off her long affair with Charles, she might have divorced Rex Mottram, and she and Charles might have enjoyed an agreeably conventional happy marriage. In this reading, the soul is irrelevant, the faith is life-denying, happiness is all. It’s doubtless a false reading; nevertheless a tenable one.
The best writers write more than they know. Their work invites different, often disturbing, interpretations, more than one of which may be valid. So, for instance, unavoidably ignorant of what Shakespeare himself thought, we may argue over the question of how Hamlet should be judged.
Is he a tragic, even romantic, hero? Many great actors have given us that Hamlet. Or is he a villain, a murderer (three times over), one who refrains from killing Claudius only because he is at prayer and so may be absolved of his own crimes and escape hell?
Allan Massie is the Catholic Herald’s chief book reviewer
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