By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published August 18, 2011
In a famous apology for his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh responded to his critics among the intelligentsia by explaining that, contrary to conventional wisdom, his decision to become a Catholic had nothing to do with Jesuit evangelism, attraction to ritual and ceremony, or an inability to reason for himself. In short, Waugh explained in his essay “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me” that “it seems to me that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and chaos.”
Fourteen years later, upon the publication of perhaps his greatest novel, “Brideshead Revisited,” Waugh once again found himself fending off the criticism of reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic who chastised him for attempting to address religious themes in a modern novel.
As readers of this beloved novel know, however, the Flyte family’s religion is far more than whimsy, far greater than the trappings of wealth that surround their decaying aristocracy. It is essential to their familial identity, and central to their understanding of a changing world and their place in it. As Sebastian’s sister Julia explains to Ryder, a person without religious faith “simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed … but he was something modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.”
In many ways, that is the central theme of this very Catholic novel, and yet I find many readers today who miss that message. “Brideshead Revisited” has become a classic of modern English literature, a canonical text that is usually encountered in the schoolroom where I suspect most of its religious themes are swept into the background. Indeed, I find that even Catholic readers are so enthralled, or horrified, by the novel’s treatment of sexuality, alcoholism, and material excess that they miss the satire and the truth implied by this subject matter. Sebastian’s drinking, Julia’s failed marriage, Lord Marchmain’s resistance to the church are not ends, but rather means by which each comes into a fuller understanding of what it means to be whole.
When Charles Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte while both are students at Oxford, and Ryder is swept into the drama of a fading family dynasty, Waugh lets the novel unfold as a story of juxtapositions, conflicts that address the fundamental differences between the sacred and the secular. English aristocracy and nobility are presented satirically as means of “grace” but are then contrasted with the idea of conversion, or the action of legitimate grace. In this novel about a jaded, agnostic, secular age, Waugh reveals also the persistence of faith that transcends both the simple piety so many of us learn as children and the doubt and despair that so many of us sadly learn as adults.
Consider both the characters of Julia and Lord Marchmain. Julia says “I can’t get all that sort of thing out of my mind, quite—Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell, Nanny Hawkins, and the Catechism. It becomes part of oneself, if they give it one early enough.” Yet Julia matures enough to understand faith not as childish ritual, but as commitment. Lord Marchmain is like so many modern men who become so convinced of their own abilities that they renounce religious faith until, “nearer death than life” they too become part of the “universal drama in which there is only one actor.”
And then there are Sebastian and Ryder. Sebastian seems completely lost, totally consumed by drink, and probably doomed to a tragic earthly existence, but not, as his sister Cordelia believes, to eternal loss. She believes there is hope for him to the end. Ryder has to learn to see beyond the superficial; he has to see the future within the present moment. “I wish someone would explain to me,” he says, “quite what the significance of these sacraments is.” In what is really quite a funny moment, Ryder chastises the Catholics for their multiple perspectives: not knowing anything about their faith and perhaps not even believing it; knowing very little about the faith but believing it completely; knowing something yet not believing anything; and both knowing and believing strongly, yet unable to explain. “Oh Charles,” says Julia, “don’t rant. I shall begin to think you’re getting doubts yourself.”
Ryder, then, is like the smug sophisticate who demands certainty yet who fails to understand the deeper truths that are often first encountered through doubt or uncertainty. He cannot make the leap. And yet, as the novel makes clear, he cannot entirely resist the pull of the mystery.
In one of the novel’s most famous passages, Waugh alludes to a G.K. Chesterton Father Brown story. “I caught him,” says Father Brown, “with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” This image is crucial to the novel’s themes of spiritual wholeness and the action of grace in lives that seem perhaps unworthy of grace.
“Brideshead Revisited” is a big novel—modern, yet also conceived in the tradition of the great English novels of the 19th century. It is impossible to fully summarize here, and to do so would deprive those who don’t know the book of what is truly a wonderful reading experience. The novel has been adapted to the film medium twice—once as an 11-hour sprawling BBC miniseries from 1981 and more recently in 2008 as a condensed two-hour feature film. It is a testament to the book’s clarity that as much of the religious imagery and mystery is compressed into the shorter adaptation as in the more literal television series. Further, both cinematic versions invite the reader back to Waugh’s novel, his most fully realized book in his firm stand against chaos.