Summary of Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, 1945
When Evelyn (pronounced EE-vel-in) Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, he was a conservative, a believer in England’s class society, and a Christian. He had not always been these things, but had had a religious conversion in 1930 that brought him into the Catholic Church . He was one of the finest prose masters of the 20th Century and wrote many other books. Brideshead is considered by many critics his finest, and it was popularized in England in 1981 through a television series.
A word about Catholic writers is necessary, because many in the Baptist tradition, including at one time myself, have long considered Catholicism a deviant form of Christianity. There really are two Catholicisms: the ritually ossified old form that was universally detested by theologians and thinkers within the Protestant tradition, which was “modernized” in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and which has divided into several schools, one of which is a left-leaning wing that has influenced many priests over the past fifty years. This is the only Catholicism most people are acquainted with. Another Catholic tradition is the one I respect and indeed look to for much of my spiritual sustenance.
The Catholicism I respect is the newer form that arose in the 20th century in response to the writings of G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox and J. R. R. Tolkein. Even C. S. Lewis had a close affinity with British Anglo-Catholicism. When you speak of twentieth-century Christian prose and poetry, you are to a large extent talking about the new Catholic intellectual tradition that grew out of the works of these writers. In addition to those I have already mentioned, this tradition made possible Flannery O’Connor, Hillaire Belloc, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, Henri Nouwen, Czeslow Milosz, Jacques Maritain and even Marshall McLuhan. Contemporary poets such as Dana Gioia and Mary Karr are part of the new tradition, as is the nonfiction writer Kathleen Norris. Ann Rice, the purveyor of vampires, has been in and out of the Catholic Church two or three times, though she seems unable to finally come to terms with its persistent traditionalism. Today the finest intellectual journal, First Things, is Catholic in origin. Some of the leading apologists of our faith are catholic: Peter Kreeft and J. Budziszewski among them.
All of which is to say that anti-Catholic sentiment can be overdone and may lead one into serious error. Mainstream Catholicism always needs to be handled carefully, but it is not difficult to find many wonderful allies and friends inside the Church of Rome.
Well, what about the book that the Catholic Evelyn Waugh wrote? Brideshead is a novel about the aristocratic Flyte family in England after World War One. It is the tale of Charles Ryder, a commoner befriended by one of the Flyte sons, Sebastian, and Ryder’s relationship with Lord Marchmain, the patriarch of the Flyte family, Marchmain’s estranged wife Lady Marchmain, their other children, and especially Julia Flyte.
The subtitle is important, as they so often are: “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.”
We do not have time for a detailed plot description. The book, compared with others we have read, is short at 350 pages, and can be read in a few evenings. Here is a brief synopsis, with a little help from Wikipedia. I will follow this up with a short section from the book so you get a flavor for Waugh’s prose:
In 1923, protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder, an undergraduate studying history at Hertford College, University of Oxford, is befriended by Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the aristocratic Lord Marchmain and an undergraduate at Christ Church. Sebastian introduces Charles to his eccentric and aesthetic friends, including the haughty and homosexual Anthony Blanche. Sebastian also takes Charles to his family’s palatial mansion, Brideshead Castle, in Wiltshire where Charles later meets the rest of Sebastian’s family, including his sister Julia.
During the long summer holiday Charles returns home to London, where he lives with his widowed father. The conversations there between Charles and his father Edward Ryder provide some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel. Charles is called back to Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury, and Sebastian and Charles spend the remainder of the holiday together.
Sebastian’s family are Roman Catholics, which influences the Marchmains’ 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 Roman Catholicism to marry his wife, but he later abandoned both his marriage and his new religion and moved to Venice in Italy. Left alone, Lady Marchmain focuses even more on her faith, which is also enthusiastically espoused by her eldest son, Lord Brideshead (“Bridey”), and by her youngest daughter, Cordelia. Sebastian, a troubled young man, descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where his drinking ruins his health. He eventually finds some solace as an under-porter and object of charity at a Tunisian monastery.
Sebastian’s drifting leads to Charles’s own estrangement from the Marchmains. Charles marries and fathers two children, but he becomes cold towards his wife and she is unfaithful to him, and he eventually forms a relationship with Sebastian’s younger sister Julia. Julia has married but separated from the rich but unsophisticated Canadian businessman Rex Mottram. This marriage caused great sorrow to her mother, because Rex, though initially planning to convert to Roman Catholicism, turns out to have divorced a previous wife in Canada, so he and Julia ended up marrying in the Church of England.
Charles and Julia plan to divorce their respective spouses so that they can marry each other. On the eve of the Second World War, the ageing Lord Marchmain, terminally ill, returns to Brideshead to die in his ancestral home. Appalled by the marriage of his eldest son, Brideshead, he names Julia heir to the estate, which prospectively offers Charles marital ownership of the house. However, Lord Marchmain’s return to the faith on his deathbed changes the situation: Julia decides that she cannot enter a sinful marriage with Charles, who has also been moved by Lord Marchmain’s reception of the sacraments.
The plot concludes in the early spring of 1943 (or possibly 1944 – the date is disputed). 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, which has been taken into military use. He finds the house damaged by the army, 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 efforts of the builders – and, by extension, God’s efforts – were not in vain, although their purposes may have appeared, for a time, to have been frustrated.
Waugh was attempting to express his Catholic faith in literary form, so one doesn’t want to look for explicit testimonies and earth-shattering visitations of the kind we Baptists are famous for. But in the course of the book, several apparent conversions occur: that of the raffish Lord Marchmain, who returns home to die and has a reconciliation with the church; the libertine and alcoholic Sebastian, who ends up content in a monastery in Tunisia; the adulteress Julia, who loves Charles Ryder but comes to see that marrying him is sinful; and Charles Ryder himself.
Ryder’s conversion is what the book is all about. His off and on relationship with the Flyte family leads him back to the estate during the Second World War, when the house is abandoned and under military control. He is now an officer. The house is damaged, but Ryder finds the family chapel unscathed. “There was one part of the house I had not visited, and went there now. The chapel showed no ill-effects of its long neglect; the art-nouveau paint was as fresh and bright as ever; the art-nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar. I said a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words, and left, turning towards the camp; and as I walked back, and the cookhouse bugle sounded ahead of me, I thought: Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame… I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones… I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room. ‘You’re looking unusually cheerful today,’ said the second in command.”