Perhaps rather than a Catholic novel Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited should be called a sacramental novel in a particular sense.
To speak of a "flawed masterpiece" is perhaps a tautology because, as T.S. Eliot might have said, there are no unflawed masterpieces. If the doctrine of original sin precludes any morally perfect human being save Jesus and His Mother, it also precludes the possibility of any wholly wise or wholly beautiful human creation.
The romanticism of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is so obvious as almost to prompt denial, so often has it been commented on. Waugh himself acknowledged that some of the scenes were lushly over-written, which he attributed to the grinding austerities of the war years and his nostalgic recall of better days. Dogging the work also is the charge of snobbery, made over and over again, especially by those who seek a way to avoid the book's religious core. It might be argued that Waugh wanted to be a snob but that his very artistry got in the way.
One of his detractors' most useful exhibits is Lord Marchmain's death-bed soliloquy, a pretentious rehearsal of family history in pseudo-heroic style, which might have been tolerable as a set piece recited for a grandson's coming of age but, as the heart-felt outpourings of a dying man long estranged from his family, is all too obviously a rhetorical deus ex machina used by the author to show that the Marchmains really are aristocrats.
Did Waugh then worship the aristocracy, as his bitterest critics claim? Almost by definition the answer must be no, because otherwise he would have produced a novel finally devoid of compelling interest, whereas even those bitter critics keep returning to it with fascination.
In the novel Waugh's sole unqualified benevolent approval is bestowed on a person of the humbler classes, Nanny Hawkins, albeit she is of course deemed admirable because she filled her allotted social role appropriately. Most of the book's characters do not even encounter the working classes, but Charles Ryder's experiences in the army confirm that the hoi polloi do indeed tend towards obtuseness. (In a spirit of hi-jinx, Charles and his friends also help break the General Strike of 1926.)
Waugh is even more merciless towards bourgeoise parvenus, notably Rex Mottram, although it might be argued that Rex's energy and ingenuity show precisely why the upper classes were losing influence between the world wars.
But many of the aristocrats who populate the outer circles of the book (Boy Mulcaster) are the kind of empty-headed playboys a socialist satirist might have drawn. The visit to an art gallery by royalty (Waugh scarcely bothers to conceal Edward VIII) shows that they are little better. The greatest satirist of the twentieth century was an equal-opportunity employer of targets.
But the appeal of Sebastian Flyte is inseparable from his social status, and — alas! — this gnawing flaw lies at the book's very heart, which is the revelation of the unsuspected truth that Sebastian is a kind of saint. The Holy See is still conventional enough that no acknowledged binge drinker is ever likely to be raised to the altars, and Sebastian's eccentric but allegedly profound sanctity is asserted rather than shown.
Those who regard him as a hopeless wreck without a moral center have good reason for thinking so. (As to the earlier Sebastian, the less said the better; he is insufferable except in Charles' dazzled eyes.)
Further argument against Waugh's alleged snobbishness is his treatment of the aristocratic paragon Lady Marchmain who, ironically, can now be rehabilitated through political correctness. She is, after all, a woman and is blamed for the failings of her husband and younger son, and perhaps for turning her elder son into a social misfit, all the result of her smothering, moralistic compulsion for control.
This is most painfully illustrated by her efforts to keep Sebastian from drinking, efforts which, the readers are told, are precisely what make him want to drink even more. But by today's approved attitudes towards alcoholism, her attitude is the correct one, and almost everyone else, especially Charles Ryder, is an " enabler. " Waugh's treatment of Sebastian's drinking also reveals how the book is not as dogmatic a "Catholic" novel as sometimes thought — there is nothing in Catholic moral teaching which holds that friends and relatives ought to indulge and abet a man's vices, or which condemns efforts to bring about his conversion. Charles' own attitude, which Waugh obviously considers properly humane, is essentially pagan, part of the amoral undergraduate code of male solidarity.
Perhaps rather than a Catholic novel tout court, the book should be called a sacramental novel in a particular sense. The title, as it is developed in the prologue and epilogue, should be taken literally. It was not the Marchmains as such with whom Charles was in love, much less the whole aristocracy, but their country seat, Brideshead, and their town residence, Marchmain House. The family history which Lord Marchmain recites on his deathbed, and the "fierce little drama" of which Charles was a part, are finally revealed to have their meaning in the newly reopened chapel at Brideshead, in the tabernacle with its sanctuary lamp "of deplorable design." Jesus' Eucharistic presence triumphs over artistry, mere good taste, and social class, the chapel now available for the use of waves of soldiers — Catholic versions of Hooper — who in the lost ordered world which Charles mourns could never have entered its precincts.
Hitchcock, James. "Waugh Revisited." Catholic Dossier 5, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 48-49.
Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier.
James Hitchcock, historian, author, and lecturer, writes frequently on current events in the Church and in the world. Dr. Hitchcock, a St. Louis native, is professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University (1966-2013). His latest book is History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (2012, Ignatius). Other books include The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life volume one and two, published by Princeton University Press, and Recovery of the Sacred (1974, 1995), his classic work on liturgy available here. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 1999 James Hitchcock
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