Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; reviewed by Mike Foster.
Waugh’s best, this brilliant 1944 novel of lost loves, hangs on a Chestertonian thread, a Father Brown line from “Queer Feet” that turns up thrice.
Shortly after I’d pulled my yellowing Dell Laurel edition out for re-reading, a 1999 letter from Joseph Schwartz (may he always grace these pages) fell out of an old journal on Bastille Day. He’d written:
“I looked up a Chesterton reference in Waugh’s Brideshead and got hooked. So I am re-reading it. What a joy. What a wonderful masterpiece and a true (and rare) modern tragedy.”
Now this intersection of Serendipity Street and Actual Grace Place was a benediction from a long-dead professor and mentor. Still my teacher, Joseph inasmuch as I’d already chosen it for re-reading, this letter’s self-discovery had alerted me for that keystone quote.
It comes near the end of book one from Cordelia Flyte, the youngest of the four scions of Lord and Lady Marchmain, speaking to Charles Ryder, the Brideshead revisitor. Recalling a nasty night at Brideshead years ago:
“I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk—I mean the bad evening. Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ (the thief) ‘with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’ ”
In the twelve-page prologue, British Army Captain Ryder, 39, learns that his company’s next billet will be that grand estate, home to dazzling, terrifying memories of love and ruin that began 20 years earlier, visiting there with Sebastian, the beautiful and damned Flyte who is this book’s brilliant heart and sad soul.
Freshmen in Oxford when they meet, Charles and Sebastian fall in love, or something mighty like it. Eventually Ryder comes to love the whole Marchmain family, excepting the eldest, Brideshead, a foolish prig seduced by a shrewd but very Catholic widow.
Charles loves the devoutly elegant Lady Marchmain enthroned in Brideshead manor, her runaway fallen-away Lord adulterous in Italy, young Cordelia the eventual nun, Norn-like Nanny, and above all, the third child, the lovely and finally beloved Julia.
He loves Brideshead itself; his career as an architectural painter begins there. Oxford, Venice, and the road between them: Dunkirk, the Gare de Lyon, the slow train to Milan and then Lord Marchmain and his Italian Cara: he loves these too. Brideshead deserves revisitation if only for its exquisite travel passages, the best being 31 pages of the tempest-tossed ocean-liner voyage from New York to London with Julia ten years after their first meeting, where a chance reunion has them fall into and consummate their tempestuous illicit love.
This complicatedly Catholic book’s crucial difficulty is incarnated in Ryder, its central character. Quite likely bisexual, he is an adulterer who destroys two marriages and never bothers to visit his legitimate children. He’s faithless in two senses of the word. He loses Julia when Lord Marchmain’s seeming deathbed repentance, the twitch of that long thread, the sign of the cross, awakens her Catholic conscience; she aborts their planned marriage. Two hearts, at least, are broken. As Ryder says to an Army subordinate on the penultimate page amid the purgatorial ruins of occupied Brideshead, “I’m homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless.”
G.K. Chesterton exponent Dale Ahlquist writes, “Waugh said the whole book was written for the scene of Lord Brideshead crossing himself on his death bed, which Waugh said actually happened to someone he knew. In his book on Dickens, Chesterton says every novel is written because of one sentence the author has in mind.”
Whether angelic impulse or deus ex machina, and as one once taught by Dominican nuns, I’d vote for the creaky machine, this deathbed salvation offers a eucatastrophic spiritual happy ending: a lost soul saved.
Sebastian, the most fascinating character, disappears barely halfway through, another lost soul who may yet be saved. Seemingly gay in both senses, finally gay in one only, too long overloved and undercared for, he finally finds and loses someone to love and care for.
Yet perhaps his will be a happy ending, too.