Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh


I read Brideshead Revisited in the course of one day, beginning before sunrise and ending after sundown, with a law exam in the middle. All the way through it, I thought to myself-- “This is a book about fascinating people who continually seem to be about to do something, but never really do.” The writing style, I knew, was wonderfully delicate and evocative, and the characters were captivating; I just didn't think there was much of a plot. I could take it or leave it.
I've still only read Brideshead Revisited once. My gradual progression from indifference to wholehearted love of the book came afterwards, while I was thinking it over. I now think of it as one of the best Christian novels I've ever read.
It tells the story of Charles Ryder, an introverted, drifting young man who while drifting through his days at Oxford makes the acquaintance of the charming and aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. At first Charles and Sebastian find their days at Oxford idyllic, but Charles who comes from a small and loveless family finds it hard to figure out why Sebastian is so reluctant to speak about, or introduce Charles to, his own family. The Flytes are dysfunctional—Lord Marchmain, the patriarch, never came back from the War and is living in Italy to avoid his wife—but Charles can't figure out why. There's nothing particularly wrong with the Flytes—but Sebastian seems to want to keep Charles away from them. As Charles's status shifts from Sebastian's particular friend to that of a friend of the whole family, Sebastian drifts further and further into self-destruction, eventually running away to face life on his own. Soon Charles realises that this odd family is haunted by something that will never let them go. Is Lady Marchmain a woman of staunch faith, or a mistress guilt-manipulator? Is Lord Marchmain—with Sebastian and Julia--running from her or from God?
As the Flyte family disintegrates still further, Charles loses touch with them altogether. But he hasn't seen the last of them yet. Ten years later, he'll be there to witness their end, as he was there to witness their slow dissolution—but this time, he, too, will be caught in their fate.
Waugh's writing is superb. Take this passage, which deals with Charles's disillusion with the Army:
...I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband may feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once well-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosiy about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it all together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs becomes more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognised the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and the mechanism of her charm, her jealousy and self-seeking, and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.

His characterisation is also perfectly wonderful. Each of the characters is deftly drawn, with many fine shades of detail. My favourite (and everyone's favourite) is Cordelia Flyte, of course—the youngest child of the family, Cordelia is one of the 'devout Flytes', a being of pure burning love. “Cordelia had no past tense for love” says Charles at one point; an unforgettable tribute. She is, thankfully, not one of those boring Victorian too-good-for-this-sinful-earth heroines—the funniest part of the whole book is her fault, as she decides to see exactly how silly her proposed brother-in-law thinks their faith is.
As for the plot, Waugh himself tells us in a foreword that Brideshead Revisited is about the effect of divine grace. The book's subtitle, The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, provides a broader hint—the book is about sacred and profane love, or in more up-to-date words, the interplay of divine and human love. Cordelia is human love embodying divine love; but human love that stands in the way of divine love, like Charles's does at the end of the book, must be sacrificed even if it contributed to the realisation of divine love. The book is one long meditation on loves—it particularly charts the different loves of Charles Ryder, starting in his philos love for Sebastian and ending in his agape love for God, via other loves along the way.
Brideshead Revisited is not, however, so much about the good consequences of surrender to God as it is about the long bad consequences of rebellion, and the power of guilt. ND Wilson said in a brief review of the book which originally inspired me to read it, “There is a sort of truth here, but in a flat, typically Catholic form.” Although Charles's redemption is more bitter than sweet, the book works because it shows how far more bitter a life of rebellion is, and that guilt can be a good thing. Julia's impassioned speech on guilt—the apex of the book—is incredibly moving, as are the signs that her heart is beginning to break under the weight of the guilt that comes from disregarding the sacrifice of Christ. Divine love breaks her down at last. But capitulation is not glad.

No discussion of Brideshead Revisited is complete without a mention of the 11-hour BBC miniseries starring Jeremy Irons. It's still one of the most faithful and well-made book-to-screen adaptations I've ever seen, and faithfully preserves the book's message. I have a very unusual criticism of this production: at 11 hours long, it was actually quicker to read the book. I must also warn that Certain Body Parts are briefly displayed. Don't bother--read the book instead. The miniseries is good, but it's not the classic the book is.

1 comment:

Morgenländer said...

Thank you for this wonderful review!

kind regards

Morgenländer

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