A gift from a friend, my paperback edition of #45 Brideshead Revisited has been battered by other hands. In its heavily used state, and with a picture of gowned students on the front, it seems a very suitable vehicle for this nostalgic book.
Brideshead Revisited starts in the middle of the Second World War, with the narrator, Charles Ryder, visiting somewhere which was precious to him in the free and easy years between the wars. It’s a reflective, period piece, and seemed like a good follow on from the trenches of Birdsong.
A coming of age novel, Brideshead Revisited opens when Charles, age about 40, is unexpectedly confronted with his past, and reflects on the steps which brought him to that moment. He tells the story of the fascinating Marchmains, who’ve shaped his life, directly and indirectly, since he was befriended by the second son, Sebastian, in his first term at Oxford.
Brideshead is a deeply reflective novel, looking back and never forward, and I think this is a product of the time when it was written. Waugh apparently wrote the book while convalescing from a wound in 1945 – by which point he, like Charles, like the rest of Europe, was no doubt heartily sick of the war and all it had wrought.
The Marchmains are mostly charming and all fatally flawed. None of them can quite function properly in the society that they’ve been set in. Partly, this is due to their own oddities, but partly its their religion. One of the sisters marries down, and the explanation is:
there was this faint shadow on her which unfitted her for the highest honours; there was also her religion
The faint shadow is family scandal, but it’s reiterated that:
wherever she turned it seemed her religion stood as a barrier between her and her natural goal
It seems to me – and this may be over-simplifying things but I didn’t like the book enough to care to do a deeper analysis – that it’s their Catholicism which damns them, literally and figuratively. They’re all sinners, bound for hell one way or another, and their Catholicism, a minority religion among the English upper classes, sets them apart from those around them, sets their morals at odds with the common line.
Catholics in trouble
It’s a very delicate, genteel Catholicism, inviting the cardinal for tea in the drawing room after mass. I’m used to finding a rawer, more challenging Catholicism in books – the passion and pain of The Thorn Birds, for example, or the unforgiving, granite faith which provides a backdrop to quite a lot of modern Irish literature, from chick lit to literary fiction.
For me, it’s unusual to see the Catholics on the side of immorality. The church has been influencing or dictating the nature of good and evil in Europe for close on 2000 years, and most authors seem to respect that – they fight the head on, arguing or showing that this is misguided, that is cruel and these people are corrupt. Waugh seems to be casting the entire faith as a social problem.
Further, it’s not entirely clear what the alternative is supposed to be. Charles doesn’t have a particular faith or strong lack of faith to guide him and his actions are as flawed as the rest. By asking this big question and coming up with no answer, the novel seems hopeless and hollow, all the thunder of a fear-sale-spiel with none of the dramatic solution.
I didn’t like any of the characters much. I didn’t care for the Marchmains, all repellent in their own way. Cordelia, who seemed the best of the bunch, was very much a minor character, and slipped from an irritatingly fey childhood to bland adulthood. I didn’t like any of the Oxford crowd, snotty little posh boys. I didn’t like Charles’ father, and although the awfulness of the father did make me feel more kindly towards Charles, that dissipated when I saw how he treated his wife and children.
Perhaps I’m too alienated from the mores of the time to sympathize, but the whole book felt bitter to me. Not just bittersweet, in the way that remembering something loved and lost is, but bitter and perhaps angry, as when an adult looks back and realises that, as a child, they were sold glitter disguised as gold. When I didn’t want to slap Charles, I did feel sorry for him – he had no hope, poor duck, of ever coming right after that first corrupting contact with the charming, fascinating, destructive Marchmains.