Books-on-tape are a wonderful invention. They’re perfect for convalescents and folks with deteriorating eyesight; they redeem many a long stretch on the Interstates. They also give us the pleasure of hearing great voices reading great literature – listening to Sir Derek Jacobi reading Homer is just as compelling as watching Jacobi in “I, Claudius.” (It’s also a reminder that epic poems have to be heard, not just read.) So it seemed a good idea this past Christmas to give a hospitalized friend the unabridged Brideshead Revisited, read by the same Jeremy Irons who played Charles Ryder in the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel.
Then I read the cassette-case:
“…the Marchmains [the story’s principal family] are indeed a symbol of England and her decline; the novel a mirror of the upper-class of the 1920s and the abdication of responsibility in the 1930s. Brideshead Revisited has become shorthand for a fantasy era of titled elegance, dead-end hedonism, and fatuous wit.”
Which is rather like saying that Moby Dick is a fascinating treatise on whaling. Or that The Age of Innocence is a satire on upper-crust New York society in the Gilded Age. Or that Huckleberry Finn is a useful guide to antebellum rafting on the Mississippi.
Brideshead Revisited is one of the great Catholic novels of the twentieth century, not because it was written by a Catholic or because Lord Marchmain makes the sign of the cross on his deathbed, but because Waugh’s is a deeply sacramental novel. It is suffused with a palpable sense of grace at work in the most unexpected, even unwanted, encounters – grace that eventually writes straight, if astringently, with the crooked lines of some very human lives. Evelyn Waugh’s mature novels are “Catholic” for the same reason that mysteries written by the devoutly Anglican “Queen of Crime,” P.D. James, are “Catholic.” Both involve the literary exploration of basic Catholic themes: sin and grace; the mystery of evil; the extraordinary that lies just beyond the ordinary; the demands of vocation; tough (which is to say, crucified) love.
Above all, Brideshead Revisited is a novel about vocation. In the Catholic imagination, every human being has a unique role to play in the cosmic drama of creation, fall, redemption, and sanctification. Discerning that role and conforming our lives to it is what the Catholic Church means by growing up. It’s not an easy process; it can sometimes take the better part of a lifetime. That is what Charles Ryder learns through his encounters with Lord and Lady Marchmain, Lord Sebastian Flyte and his sister Lady Julia, and the other luxuriantly drawn characters in Brideshead Revisited: he learns who he really is. As Waugh’s masterful literary biographer, Douglas Lane Patey, puts it, Ryder discovers that “each soul…fully realizes its own individuality only through realizing its God-given purpose.” We become truly ourselves only insofar as we become what God intends us to be.
What was true of the fictional Charles Ryder was also true of his creator. In 1946, the crusty Waugh wrote that his future novels would be known for “two things [guaranteed] to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God.” Those who insist that Evelyn Waugh was, at bottom, an incorrigible snob will think these two aims in tension. In fact, Waugh understood that a care for craftsmanship in the emerging dark age of “disintegrated society” was the way he ought to live his vocation as a writer. His vocation, mind you, not his career.
Brideshead Revisited is full of tensions, although not the tensions noted on the box of the cassettes I bought for my friend. There is a loneliness, a relentless bleakness, in the novel’s ending that seems out-of-sync with the book’s great theme: the quest for maturity as (in Douglas Patey’s words) “an ascent through kinds of beauty and love.” Perhaps that makes Brideshead Revisited an even more urgently “Catholic” novel today, though. We can’t have it all, in this world. Brideshead Revisited reminds us that we shouldn’t want it, either. Vocation involves renunciation. Learning that is a part of growing up Catholic.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.