The deeply Catholic spirit of Brideshead Revisited was encapsulated by its author, Evelyn Waugh, in the preface he wrote to the second edition of his greatest novel. The novel’s theme was, he wrote, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” He added that such a theme “was perhaps presumptuously large, but I make no apology for it.”
Taking Waugh at his word, in the knowledge that ignoring the authorial authority is always perilous to an understanding of the work, we must acknowledge from the outset that Brideshead Revisited is supernatural to the core of its very being. Its chief protagonist is not any of the human, physical characters but is the invisible hand of Providence, which provides the grace that is necessary for the conversion of souls. It is this invisible hand of grace which guides the plot, writing straight with the crooked lines and lives of the flawed human characters.
The very title of the novel offers a clue to its supernatural identity. Brideshead, the name of a stately manor house, the home of an aristocratic and dysfunctional Catholic family, is clearly symbolic, the bride’s head being the bridegroom, a signifier for Christ himself. “Brideshead revisited” is, therefore, Christ revisited. This supernatural dimension is emphasized by the novel’s liturgical structure, the first part ending metaphorically on Good Friday and the novel itself ending metaphorically on Easter Sunday.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The “closely connected characters” weaving and wending their way through the pages of the novel are the various members of the aristocratic Flyte family. Lord Marchmain, the head of the family, has deserted his wife and children and has taken up residence in Venice with a concubine. Lady Marchmain, the deserted wife, is stoically and piously Catholic but somewhat aloof.
Lord Brideshead, the eldest son, is a solid and faithful Catholic, steeped in scholastic philosophy and Jesuit spirituality, but socially awkward and inept. Sebastian, the younger son, is the very opposite of his brother. He is a faltering Catholic whose faith is not rooted in reason but in an emotion-driven romantic aestheticism. He is, however, very charming, at least superficially.
Julia, the elder daughter, is physically beautiful and very self-centered. Like Sebastian, she is irked by the demands that the practice of the Faith places upon her, resenting its inhibiting of her “freedom.” The youngest child, Cordelia, lacks her sister’s physical beauty but has the piety and the faith which Julia lacks. This is how Sebastian describes his family:
[W]e’re a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; Mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and Papa is excommunicated—and I wouldn’t know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want….
Apart from allowing the narrator, Charles Ryder, to know the Flyte family better, Sebastian’s words also introduce the riddle of happiness that the novel seeks to solve. What is happiness? How is it to be attained? Once attained, how is it to be retained and maintained?
Charles Ryder, the narrator, is the other key character, whose voice must be understood if we are to understand the novel itself. The narrative voice, introduced in the Prologue, is one which speaks with apparent disillusionment. “Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old…. Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death….” It is this middle-aged and jaded voice which speaks throughout the novel, recounting the past with the wisdom of experience. This is most evident when we are told of how Charles turns his back on Brideshead for what he thinks will be the last time:
“I have left behind illusion,” I said to myself. “Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions—with the aid of my five senses.”
I have since learned that there is no such world; but then, as the car turned out of sight of the house, I thought it took no finding, but lay all about me at the end of the avenue.
In this brief passage, we see the subtly subversive voice of the middle-aged narrator sitting in judgment on the naiveté of his younger self. In turning his back on Brideshead, the young Charles believed that he was turning his back on what he presumed was an illusionary supernatural cosmos. Henceforth he would only believe in the three physical dimensions as perceived by his five physical senses. Everything other than this was an illusion.
The older Charles has learned, however, that “there is no such world” as that in which the naïve atheist believes. It is the world of the materialist which is the world of illusion. The older Charles has seen through the disillusionment of his youth and has become disillusioned with it!
We come to understand that Charles Ryder’s disillusionment with his younger self’s atheism is the fruit of the wisdom of experience and especially of the wisdom of the experience of suffering. Two powerful metaphors are employed to evoke the role of suffering in bringing selfish souls to their senses. The first is “the twitch upon the thread,” the title of the final part of the book, which is taken from a Father Brown story by G.K. Chesterton. The thread is the divine grace which weaves its way throughout the story, as Waugh had proclaimed in the Prologue. The twitch upon the thread is the moment of suffering when the wandering soul is jerked violently from its chosen destructive path by the hook of God’s own suffering love.
The other metaphor is that of an avalanche, which is employed as a recurring motif in the final chapters of the book. Charles likens the happiness that he and Julia are seeking in the midst of a cold and loveless world to a trapper in the warmth of an arctic hut. Outside, the snow is piling up against the door as the blizzard rages. Inside, they are warm,
until quite soon, when the wind dropped and the sun came out on the ice slopes and the thaw set in, a block would move, slide and tumble, high above, gather way, gather weight, till the whole hillside seemed to be falling, and the little lighted place would crash open and splinter and disappear, rolling with the avalanche into the ravine.
The paradox that these powerful metaphors evoke is that suffering is essential to the growth of the soul into the depths of the truly self-sacrificial love to which it is called. Health is not the avoidance of suffering but the acceptance of suffering. It is only in such acceptance that health, healing, and suffering can be united in a triune synthesis known as holiness. It is this wisdom that Waugh weaves with the invisible thread of grace which he evokes. It is this wisdom that answers the riddle of happiness that Brideshead Revisited sets out to answer.
True happiness is not possible without the health and healing that only comes through suffering. This is the wisdom that Charles Ryder has learned by the end of the novel. In losing everything, he has attained a deeper happiness than he had ever known. He is disillusioned with his own disillusionment and disenchanted with his own disenchantment. It is, therefore, a re-enchanted Charles Ryder who is described in the novel’s concluding sentence as “looking unusually cheerful today.”
Editor’s Note: This is the forty-first in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”