Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh



Brideshead Revisited was written in the midst of a war: a time of great change. Just as the national borders shifted with the changing fortunes of war, so too was a powerful tide of change riding within those boundaries. War, asserts Anthony Howard, "eroded practically every traditional social barrier". Waugh was, if not a snob, certainly old-fashioned and this change made him despondent. His depression was all the more acute during the bleak war years. Brideshead is an apocalyptic sermon preached by a soldier in a "foreign bivouac".

The characters in Brideshead are from a variety of backgrounds and generations. Waugh preaches his sermon through them - through the contrast between them. The book presents an old Catholic aristocratic family and in, stark contrast, Rex and Hooper. At the end of the book, the Marchmains are in decline and Rex and his fellows - the "Brideshead set" - in the ascendant, governing a new age, the 'age of Hooper'. The Marchmains have to sell their London home, itself one of the few surviving examples of its kind. Julia's is the "last of a splendid series" (173) of debutante balls held there. This wave of destruction, the advance of the modern age, makes Charles's career as an architectural painter, preserving the memory of a dying age on canvas. Just as the pre-war recession makes Charles's career as an artist, the war makes Rex's career as a politician. "Who would have thought of Rex doing so well", asks Nanny Hawkins (329).

Charles represents Waugh, a man struggling to adapt and live within a society that he dislikes more and more. Of his generation, it is men like Rex, "a tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole" who govern the country. Hooper, representative of the younger generation, are not romantic, "He had not as a child ridden with Rupert's horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side…" (14). Charles sympathises with the madmen in the lunatic asylum, "happy collaborationists who had given up the unequal struggle…the heirs-at-law of a century of progress" (10).

As with Brave New World, another apocalyptic novel (written by Aldous Huxley at roughly the same time as Brideshead), the future that Brideshead prophesises does not fully materialise. Brideshead is still a popular book which indicates that the romantic notions so lacking in Hooper are not necessarily so lacking in his heirs. Waugh himself describes Brideshead, in the preface to the 1959 edition (7-8), as "a panegyric preached over an empty coffin". He acknowledges that the ancestral seats, which he describes as "our chief national artistic achievement", have not, as he foresaw when he wrote Brideshead, come to the same end as the monasteries of the sixteenth century. "And the English aristocracy", he says "has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible". It is a shame that he did not live to see the age of New Labour, the age of the spin-doctor, the age of the Millennium dome. I would like to have read his new panegyric.


Brideshead is a book of memories - "My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of wartime" (215). For Charles/Waugh, this "winged host", soaring free above him, is a means to escape the desolate world that he sees around him. This urge to escape from the harsh light of reality pervades the book and many of its characters.

The Arcadia that Charles discovers at Oxford is like another world. It is an "enchanted garden… not overlooked by any window" (32). It does not last long. Charles leaves Brideshead - "A door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford" - less than two years later, determined to "live in a world of three dimensions" (163f.).

Sebastian Flyte, like his father, also feels this urge to escape but their escape is of a slightly different nature. Ostensibly they both run away from Lady Marchmain but as Cara points out, it is from their conscience that they wish to escape. They are both in love with their childhood and cannot bear the reality that it has passed. They cannot bear the reality of growing up, the shattering of their innocent illusions, the loss of their innocence. Charles, too, says of his first summer term at Oxford, "It seems to me that I grew younger with each adult habit I acquired…I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood" (45).

Charles grows up. He leaves the world of Brideshead and becomes an artist. Though he leaves his childhood behind him, he also leaves something deeper, a love "that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it and search for it hopelessly…" (163). He spends ten dry years searching, in England and abroad but it is not until he meets Julia on his return to England that he finds it. Just as his brief spell of childhood had a limited time span, so does his romance with Julia. It is "thwarted" because what he is really searching for, unbeknownst to him at the time, is God, the hand that touched him in the drawing- room of Marchmain house. Sebastian and Julia are the forerunners, an escape from a Godless world to an "enchanted garden" but his experience of God through them is second-hand (cf. 277).

Sebastian, Lord Marchmain and Julia are all trying to escape but in a different way. They live in the "enchanted garden" but they all wish to escape from their conscience - from sin, that "one little flat, deadly word" (273). They try to escape in different ways - Sebastian through drink, Lord Marchmain through Cara and Julia through Charles - but none succeed. In the end, they are all brought back with a "twitch upon the thread".


In his preface, Waugh writes, "Its (Brideshead's) theme is the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected character" (7). Change, Escape, the satire and the nostalgia of the book - these are all just accessory to the main theme. It is difficult to summarise. Waugh admits the theme to be "presumptuously large" and, by its very nature, it is a theme that can be found present - or lacking - in every character and every part of the plot.

Julia, Sebastian and Lady Marchmain suffer for God. Their suffering is a crucial part of their faith. When Cordelia calls Sebastian "holy" this is what she means. This is what Julia is referring to when Charles says, "You are standing guard over your sadness". "It's all I have earned…my wages", she replies (247). This is what Lady Marchmain is talking about when she says, "…now I realize that it is possible to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and his saints, but I believe it is one of the greatest achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included" (122).

The most important example of the action of Grace is in the conversion of Charles. The Marchmains have been brought as Catholics and, whatever way they choose to lead their life, none of them will agree, however much they might like to, that Catholicism is all "bosh". Charles and Rex act as contrast - the agnostic contingent. Just as the Catholic contingent is diverse in their attitude to God, so, also, Rex and Charles differ. Rex's attitude is utilitarian, "A man needs a religion. If your Church is good enough for Julia, it's good enough for me…Just give me the form and I'll sign on the dotted line" (185). The operation of divine grace is difficult to see, perhaps, or maybe it might seem 'thwarted' but as Lady Marchmain points out, "In her long history, the Catholic Church must have had some pretty queer converts" (186).

In contrast is Charles' conversion. Like Rex, he is not Catholic-minded but at least he is "minded". He is seduced by the charm of the Brideshead and the Marchmains but he sees it purely in romantic terms - the difference between the Sebastian's world of colonnades and coronets and the backs of Bayswater (71). He does not understand the part played by God. He understands Julia when she speaks in half- sentences and in scarcely perceptible movements of her eyes or lips but her outburst on mortal sin leaves him "adrift in a strange sea" (274). He argues vehemently that Lord Marchmain should not receive the final sacrament. He does not realise the significance of Cordelia's innocent questions about Modern Art:

"'Charles', said Cordelia, 'Modern Art is all bosh, isn't it?'

'Great bosh'

'Oh, I'm so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn't criticize what we didn't understand'" (147, italics are not the author's)

When Cordelia talks to him later about faith, her mother, quomodo sedet sola civitas, etc., he rejects God, deriding her "convent chatter": "I was a man of the Renaissance that - of Browning's renaissance. I, who had walked the streets of Rome in Genoa velvet and had seen stars through Gallileo's tube, spurned the friars, with their dusty tomes and sunken, jealous eyes and their crabbed hair-splitting speech" (213).

He does not understand the influence of God - on the Marchmains and on him, as he paints Marchmain house, as he argues with Brideshead - until he sees Lord Marchmain make the sign of the cross on his deathbed. He prays for this sign and his prayer is answered. Until then, he is comfortable in his insulated cabin, devoid of God's grace. Suddenly, the avalanche that has been building up beneath him is unleashed. His log-cabin is torn apart and he is exposed. He enters a different atmosphere - cold without Julia, but bright and glistening in the presence of God.

A book with such a strong religious theme is bound to elicit varied reactions. Some say that Brideshead is Waugh's finest novel, others that it is his worst. The difference usually comes down to whether or not the reader can stomach the "mumbo-jumbo". As a craftsman, the book is undoubtedly a great work - the satire is, Anthony Blanche might say, "delicious". Waugh's obsession with language (see introduction) pays off. But some readers find that for all Waugh's attention to language, the characters lack a semblance of reality. They are no more than puppets, which Waugh uses to act out a masked confession of his own faith, which is somehow "paganistic" wrought with Waugh's own social prejudice. Other readers, however, do not share these opinions. A catholic critic should realise that it is a matter that readers must decide for themselves.