In recent weeks I have read several reviews of the remake of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. From what I can tell, the movie itself is sumptuous and visually stunning, but totally misses the point Waugh was making, if not, in fact, drawing the exact opposite conclusion. I will probably see the movie anyway...perhaps.
I first read the book about 25 years ago, and I missed the point as well. I suppose I was not ready for it at the time. I viewed it as just another English country house drama--complete with an eccentric, disintegrating, dysfunctional old family, out of step with changing times between the wars. I just lapped-up that sort of thing back then. Brideshead Revisited, while enjoyable and well-done, was not even the best among this extensive genre, in my view.
I have recently revisited Brideshead. Upon second reading, I can say that I now have a little more insight into what escaped me earlier on. The book's acclaim is well-deserved. I would place it among the essential works of 20th century literature. As Waugh himself later observed, the point of the book was “to trace the divine purpose in a pagan world.” In Charles' last conversation with Cordelia, she reminded him of an evening at Brideshead. A drunken Sebastian interrupted Lady Marchmain's reading from Chesterton's Father Brown. Cordelia remembered a line from the book: "'I caught him’ [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” That is the point of Brideshead: grace, mercy and redemption--a few lost fishes hauled in from the sea.
Charles is slow to acknowledge the source of the inspiration he finds at Brideshead. I particularly like the following exchange he had with Sebastian (p. 65):
'Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic.'
'Does it make much difference to you?'
'Of course. All the time.'
'Well, I can't say I've noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don't seem much more virtuous than me.'
'I'm very, very much wickeder,' said Sebastian indignantly....
'I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?'
'Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.'
'But my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all.'
'I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.'
"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea.'
'But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea.'
'But I do. That's how I believe.'
In time, Charles became increasingly exasperated with the Flyte's use of faith as a touchstone for most everything in their lives. In a conversation with Sebastian's brother (p. 113):
'My mother believes Sebastian is a confirmed drunkard. Is he?'
'He's in danger of becoming one.'
'I believe God prefers drunkards to a lot of respectable people.'
'For God's sake,' I said, for I was near to tears that morning, 'why bring God into everything?'
'I'm sorry. I forgot. But you know that's an extremely funny question.'
'To me. Not to you.'
'No, not to me. It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man.'
'It's arguable,' said Brideshead. 'Do you think he will need this elephant's foot again?'
Charles acknowledged his own emptiness, but resisted recognizing the source of the hollowness.
"I remained unchanged, still a small part of myself pretending to be whole...." (p.179) and "How often, it seemed to me, I was brought up short, like a horse in full stride suddenly refusing an obstacle, backing against the spurs, too shy even to put his nose at it and look at the thing." (p. 246)
Eventually, Charles began to realize that holiness was something altogether different than morality, or at least as it was conventionally understood. Sebastian ended up in Morocco, rejected from the monastery (for a time), living and caring for Kurt--a German of somewhat disreputable background--and drinking by turns. Cordelia, in relating this, observed that the Superior of the monastery recognized the holiness in Sebastian. By this time, Charles offered no rebuttal.
I have always been more a fan of Waugh's contemporary, Anthony Powell, than I was of Waugh himself. Powell is more subtle and nuanced, and a better writer in many ways. But in so many important ways, Waugh's writing is the more significant. Powell described himself as non-croyant. He always seemed a bit baffled by Waugh's seeming religious obsession (a similar relationship, I have learned, to that of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor). Powell's characters are often just as hollow and empty as Waugh's--the modern malady of "pretending to be whole." And while they may occasionally acknowledge the condition, somewhat bemusedly, there is never any recognition of its source, or more importantly, its cure. With Waugh, this awareness leads to belated, faltering, but quite purposeful steps toward healing.