It is hard to know what to say about a work already so admired, so praised, so well-known, and one which is such an utterly conventional choice of favourite reading for an English Catholic conservative Oxonian. But I’ll try. It is undoubtedly, as Waugh intended, a superb literary exploration of the operation of divine grace: Father Brown’s “twitch upon the thread” brings home first Sebastian, then Lord Marchmain, Cara (seemingly), Julia and Charles, and even some of the soldiers whom Charles’ brother officer is surprised to see in the re-opened chapel. It is rich with metaphor and emotional depth.
But it is also about friendship – in its varied and sometimes surprising forms – and memory, and the struggle to be reconciled with the past and our failures and shortcomings. It is about the glimpses we get of the real solid things of life; beauty and joy and peace (“I, at any rate, believed myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead”). Conversely, it warns us against placing too much faith in the worldly things that appear to satisfy our desire for those ideals. After all, the “low door in the wall” closes after that idyllic first summer at Oxford and Brideshead. The great promise of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship is never fulfilled – and perhaps never could be fulfilled; its intensity is arguably inseparable from its impermanence. Brideshead itself is in a ruinous condition by 1944, with the glorious fountain decayed and littered with cigarette ends, its parkland scarred by preparations for war. Charles’ paintings have been thoughtlessly damaged. The family are scattered, the line at an end. Only theological hope remains, in the wreckage of modernity and in the wreckage of personal lives; only the sanctuary lamp and the Last Things. This theme seems to have been on Waugh's mind when Charles leaves Brideshead for what he thinks will be the last time after the disastrous New Year of 1925:
“’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”.
There is no such world.
Many characters in the novel seem to me to be struggling to take their right place in the world, or to cherish things in proportion to their true value. Waugh alludes a number of times to a quasi-Platonic ascent of the affections that must take place before our loves are rightly directed – take Cara’s reflections on how the kind of intense relationship between Charles and Sebastian is a preparation for romantic love between man and woman, or Charles’ statement that Sebastian was the “forerunner” to Julia, and for that matter Julia’s ultimately justified concern that she will be a “forerunner” to something else (albeit in her case the something else is God, sort of). Charles himself laments the inadequacy of his artistic work to really reach up in to the heart of things.
More obliquely, perhaps, Waugh indicts Lord Marchmain’s failure to discipline his affections, which leads to his failure as a father and husband, and Bridey’s refusal to overcome his own inclinations and take up the duties of his position. Mottram, the philistine who has simply failed to develop as a complete human being, and even Charles, who stumbles through his young manhood in a sort of cramped, cruel, half-realised existence, are also implicitly criticised in this way.
It is noticeable that, as in so many novels of a certain vintage, one of the themes bubbling away in the background is the destructive effect of the First World War on England. There is a rather glib snobbish version of this present in Waugh’s derision of Hooper and a world made safe for “travelling salesmen”, but more seriously one thinks of Teresa Flyte’s dead brothers, their promise snuffed out like so many of the best men of every class, or the rather desperate decadence of 1920s London, or simply the wrecked family life of the Flytes.
One last striking thing about the novel, which helps to elevate it as a piece of art, is that it is not a straightforward exercise in pro-Catholic propagandising. Lots of the Catholic characters are far from sympathetic; the charge that the faith makes people miserable is made more than once, and goes more or less unanswered – not answered directly, at any rate. In fact, I cannot think of any scene in which a devout character is given any kind of pat or knockdown response to an objection to the faith. Charles’ criticisms are often met with half-answers, or seemingly inadequate or ignorant ones. One sympathises a little with his complaint to Julia towards the end of the novel that not one of her, Cara, Bridey or Cordelia could properly account for their beliefs about the Last Rites.
What gives Brideshead its power as a Catholic vision is that we are shown, not told, the power and depth of the faith. It is a way of life, habits of mind, rhythms and rituals of charity and devotion, not intellectual argument per se, that is the heart of Catholicism as portrayed here. We do not get long passages explaining the Trinity and the doctrine of the Church in response to critics. Instead we see various characters being reconciled to the Church, divine grace drawing straight lines with crooked sticks. We see Sebastian’s long, tragic, hopeful arc, and Cordelia’s joyous, innocent life of service and love. We see Nanny Hawkins’ simple and unfailing care for the Flyte children. We see Julia giving up the thing that would make her most happy – marriage with Charles, and children – so that she can return to the Church. We see the fundamental mysteriousness of the interplay of divine Providence and human action; for example, it occurs to me that Charles might have led a happier, more fulfilled, more morally satisfactory life if he had followed cousin Jasper’s advice and stuck with his first Oxford circle – the well-meaning, earnest, friendly “embryo dons”. But if so, might he then have missed those first intimations of a higher world which eventually bring him, barefoot across the shattered glass of his broken marriage and his failure as a father, to the Church and its sacraments?