Revisiting Brideshead on Its 75th Birthday

From The National Review:

Beetween December 1943 and June 1944, English author Evelyn Waugh took unpaid leave from the army to finish his novel Brideshead Revisited, now considered by many to be his greatest. The book (which Waugh first suggested calling “A Household of Faith”) has many themes — Catholicism, aristocracy, youth, redemption — but the author’s specific focus was, in his own words, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” Today Waugh’s religiosity, much like his traditionalist tastes, may seem niche or archaic, but his treatment of the human experience of time is — well, timeless. In an updated preface, Waugh offered Brideshead “to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.” While nostalgia functions both as a theme and a narrative device in the novel, what is often overlooked is how masterfully the two themes, nostalgia and grace, are interwoven.

Like The Great GatsbyBrideshead is narrated by a protagonist who is also a character in the story — Charles Ryder, now a commander officer in the British army. Ryder reflects back on his life before the war. He is temporarily stationed in the English countryside, where he stumbles across an abandoned manor. He was once intimately connected with its former inhabitants, an eccentric aristocratic Catholic family. The rest of the story is told through flashbacks, beginning with his student days at Oxford.

At Oxford, Ryder meets and befriends the impossibly charming Sebastian Flyte, who, though later redeemed (unlike the similarly flawed protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), squanders his youth and beauty through foolish and hedonistic pursuits. Julia, Sebastian’s sister and, later, Ryder’s love interest, parallels her brother’s self-destruction in her ill-advised marriage to the agnostic Canadian businessman and politician Rex Mottram. At one point Julia and Sebastian’s pious younger sister, Cordelia, references G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story in which the thief is attached to “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.” Such is the operation of divine grace upon the soul, and “Twitch upon the Thread” is, not by coincidence, the name given to the novel’s third part.

Nostalgia, in terms of character psychology, allows for a certain plasticity of time. From the outset, for instance, there is something peculiarly childish about Sebastian. At Oxford, he carries around his teddy bear, eccentrically named “Aloysius,” calls his mother “mummy,” and is emotionally dependent on his nanny. When the young Ryder (prior to his conversion to Catholicism) asks how Sebastian can possibly believe the wackier tenets of the Catholic faith, he answers that he thinks it “a lovely idea.” That, to Ryder, seems proof enough that the whole thing is ridiculous, a belief he repeats to Julia more forcefully when she feels incapable of “living in sin” with him. He tells her “it’s a thing psychologists could explain; a preconditioning from childhood; feelings of guilt from the nonsense you were taught in the nursery.”

. . . .

Orwell was right that the first-person narration can at times feel mawkish. Waugh himself worried about this. “The book is infused with a kind of gluttony,” the author wrote in a later edition, “for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.” Take, for instance, Ryder’s longing for the interior decoration at Brideshead (the name of Sebastian’s lavish family home): “I often think of that bathroom — the water colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair — and contrast it with the uniform, clinical, little chambers, glittering with chromium-plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.” Nevertheless, the point of this is how such objects, as they were, or are, influence how a character conceives of himself. A good example of this is Anthony Blanche, who, Ryder tells us, in later life “lost his stammer in the deep waters of his old romance. It came floating back to him, momentarily, with the coffee and liqueurs.”

Link to the rest at The National Review