Saturday, July 18, 2009

145. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

History: first published in 1945. Waugh wrote that the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself". This is achieved by an examination of the Catholic aristocratic Marchmain family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.
Plot: The story happens during wartime. Charles Ryder is stationed at Brideshead. He recalls his past experiences there as a guest of the Marchmains, a great Roman Catholic family. His acquaintance with them begins at Oxford, where he meets Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the Marquis of Marchmain. Sebastian, the brilliant, charming "half-heathen" second son of an old Catholic family that is verging on dissolution which, the author seems to suggest, parallels England's change from the old order to the new. After an unpleasant chance first encounter, protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder, a student at Oxford University, and Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of an aristocratic family and himself an undergraduate, become friends; getting drunk at luncheon, the lively, small banter, the happy irresponsibility Sebastian takes Charles to his family's palatial home, Brideshead, where Charles eventually meets the rest of Sebastian's family, including his sister Julia, where there is an instant attraction.
Lord Marchmain has deserted his family to live in Venice with his mistress. He has two daughters, Julia and Cordelia. Sebastian holds himself aloof from his mother Lady Marchmain who is a devoted Catholic, along with his sisters. Sebastian spends much of his time drinking, sinking into alcoholism. During the holiday Charles returns home, where he lives with his widower father. Scenes between Charles and his father Ned (Edward) provide some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel. He is called back to Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury. Sebastian and Charles spend the remainder of the summer together. They form something between a friendship and a romance. Waugh writes that Charles had been "in search of love in those days" when he first met Sebastian, finding "that low door in the wall... which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden", a metaphor that informs the work on a number of levels.
Sebastian's family is Catholic, which influences the Marchmain’s lives as well as the content of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles, who had always assumed Christianity to be "without substance or merit." Lord Marchmain had converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in order to marry his wife but soon escaped both his marriage and religion to Italy. Left alone, Lady Marchmain focused even more on her faith, which is also very much espoused by her eldest son, Bridey, and her youngest daughter, Cordelia. Sebastian, a troubled young man, seems to find greater solace in alcohol than in religion, and descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where the disease ruins his health. After his mother dies, he eventually finds some solace as an under-porter/charity case at a Tunisian monastery.
Sebastian's drifting leads to Charles' own estrangement from the Marchmains, yet he is fated to re-encounter the family as the years pass. He marries and fathers two children, but his wife is unfaithful and he eventually forms a relationship with Sebastian's younger sister Julia, who by that time has married but separated from the wealthy but coarse Canadian entrepreneur, Rex Mottram.
Charles and Julia plan to divorce their respective spouses so that they can marry. On the eve of World War II, the aging Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die in his ancestral home. As he names Julia heiress to the estate, this would give Charles marital ownership of the house. Lord Marchmain's deathbed return to the faith changes the situation: Julia decides that she cannot enter a sinful marriage with Charles, who too has been moved by Lord Marchmain's reception of the sacraments.
The plot concludes in the early spring of 1943. Charles is "homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless". He has become an army officer after establishing a career as an architectural artist, and finds himself unexpectedly billeted at Brideshead. Charles finds the house damaged by the military occupation but the private chapel, closed after Lady Marchmain's death in 1926, has been reopened for the soldiers' worship. It occurs to him that the chapel (and, by extension, the Church's) builders' efforts were not in vain, even when their purposes may appear, for a time, to be frustrated.
Review: Brideshead Revisited was a social commentary. It is a portrait of excess and wealth, but also of the decline of the aristocracy in Britain. Charles witnesses these changes in society and is affected by them through Julia and the rest of the Flyte clan, whom are very complex. It might take another close reading of the book to really get at the heart of each of them. Evelyn Waugh wrote such deep and intricate characters; this book is worth reading for them, if nothing else.
The heart of this book is really the discussion of faith and religion. Waugh focuses on the meaning of religion to a person, even if they have turned their back on it. There is a measure of Catholic guilt present in the novel as well, exemplified by Sebastian. All in all, it's a very interesting discussion.
Opening Line: “When I reached C Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of the morning.”
Closing Line: “You’re looking unusually cheerful to-day,” said the second-in-command.”
Quotes: “To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.”
“We possess nothing certainly except the past.”
Rating: Excellent.

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