Friday, May 6, 2011

Revisiting “Brideshead”

During my 40 years in the wilderness, wandering between East Anglia and Rome, I read in a desultory way. I went through a Dickens kick, a Civil War period, a David Foster Wallace frenzy, and a time of pure adoration for Norman Maclean, who wrote only two books, both perfect, A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire. But there was no aim, no theme to my reading. It was like belonging to a book club in which each month’s selection was chosen at random. By contrast, in the three years since I was received into the Catholic Church, I have read almost nothing but Catholic/Christian subjects. I'm pretty sure I will spend the rest of my life doing more of the same.

If you had told me five or ten years ago that Catholicism was intellectually appealing, I'm not sure I would have followed. I thought of it as devotional, as something you do. I saw all those Catholics ducking into Mass every Sunday and I thought rosary—confession—novenas (whatever those were). I was married to a Catholic (still am), but I had no idea what it was like to be one.

I never imagined it would be like the most exciting week in my life, the week I still dream about frequently: my first week as a freshman in college. All those books, and all the time in the world to read them! Forget Scripture, the Church Fathers, or the latest essay in First Things. What I love is, all that Catholic fiction! Some I have read: Kristin Lavransdatter, the Father Brown mysteries of Chesterton, The Power and the Glory, stories of Flannery O'Connor, Mariette in Ecstasy. But so many I still have left to read: the rest of Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Chronicles of Narnia, and until now, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

Webster Discovers America! 

A book like Brideshead makes me tickled to be a Catholic. Somehow I had associated it with everything s-e-r-i-o-u-s about Masterpiece Theater. Jeremy Irons never appealed to me, although he was pretty funny as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. (“You're a very strange man, Mr. von Bulow!” “You have no idea.”) It was finally George Weigel's writeup in Letters to a Young Catholic that sent me out to the bookstore looking for Brideshead. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, it is a Catholic novel I wanted to begin re-reading the moment I had finished the last page.

What kind of Catholic novel is Brideshead Revisited? A sneaky one. You”re nearly a quarter of the way through it before Waugh offers any details about the religion of the family at the heart of the novel, the Marchmains, whose country seat is known as Brideshead. On page 86 in my edition, the narrator says of his Oxford chum Sebastian Marchmain, “Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear.”

If Waugh was in any sense evangelizing, why did he ever pick such an unorthodox family as Catholic exemplars? Sebastian—a confirmed drunk who carries a stuffed animal around Oxford with him—is not only the most eccentric but, for narrator Charles Ryder, the most compelling of the Marchmains. It is Ryder’s love for Sebastian (love, apparently, in all its forms) that leads him to Brideshead and his encounter with Catholicism. Though he doesn’t realize that this is what he is encountering until almost the very end of the novel—after he has fallen in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia and the two have divorced their respective spouses in order to marry. By this time, Sebastian has died of disease somewhere in Africa, tended by monks who refused him admission as anything other than a menial laborer. His younger sister, Cordelia, who may still end in a convent, reports that Sebastian ended his life somewhere between an alcoholic stupor and spiritual ecstasy.

In the final chapter of the narrative (a prologue and epilogue frame the main story), Lord Marchmain, father of the family, comes home to die. Here—for the three other English-speaking Catholics who have not read Brideshead—I will leave off telling the tale and beg you to read it for yourself. The love between Charles and Julia must bow to a greater Love, and there is perhaps a suggestion in the epilogue that, despite a deep skepticism flashed throughout the novel, Charles himself may be on his own winding road to Rome. There are better, deeper surprises.

I suspect that the majority of those who have loved this novel have not even been Catholics. George Orwell was one of them, calling Waugh “as good a writer as it is possible to be while holding untenable positions.” Oh, George! But for the Catholic minority of readers, few books could be as entertaining, thought-provoking, or pride-inducing. At least that’s how I felt: seriously amused, perplexed, and proud.

[This post is a revised version of a review I wrote for “Why I Am Catholic,” a blog I founded in August 2009.]


  1. Long time reader, first time commenter. After 40 years of wandering in the secular desert, I became a fervent revert 4 years ago. I loved reading your posts because thy tracked in fervor and surprise my own experience and delight in finding my home back in the Catholic Church. Conversion stories which I love seem to be the only truly transformative stories told today.

    Brideshead is one of my very favorites, the book, the audiobook and the PBS TV series of 20 years ago. But it was only this year that I realized that Brideshead itself is a symbol of the Church!

    As for Catholic novels, I have the great pleasure of introducing you to Michael D. O'Brien, a contemporary Catholic writer out of Vancouver. Start with Father Elijah - it will grab you and won't let you until you are done. Other favorites are Theophilus and Island in the World. He is truly an inspired writer, one of a very few who can write about goodness.
    With Amazon, you'll get the best descriptions.

    Happy reading

  2. Oh for heavens sake, now I'm going to have to go get this & read it!
    BTW, Undset also wrote an amazing bio of Catherine of Siena and, for what it's worth, I think Strangers & Sojourners is OBrien's best, not his fastest read, but his best.

  3. I have the book Brideshead Revisited and I watched on Masterpiece Theater, recorded it and and later bought the DVDs. Brideshead is one of my favorite stories. I loved the end when Lord Marchmain was dying. I was not Catholic when I first saw it but was so moved and pulling for him to respond to the Lord before he died when he had Last Rites; still get chills thinking of him making the Sign of the Cross. All of those things were stored in my mind and when we came into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, those around us had the same chills. They told me so.

  4. Many thanks, Jill, Therese Rita, and Terry. It's good to have such readers!


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