There is a new film of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited to be released very soon. From the tone of a recent article in The Australian it seemed that we might be in for a revisionist version, unless journalist Jane Cornwell and her interviewee Emma Thompson have missed or misunderstood one or two important things in the book.
For a start, though called so twice in the article, Charles Ryder, the narrator, is never an atheist; he is an agnostic, and a puzzled observer of the aristocratic English Flyte family’s curious religious sensibilities, rather than an active enemy.
Even at the most poignant moment of recognising that he has lost Julia Flyte he still does not reject faith; on the contrary it is the moment he begins to understand just what it is that has caused her to end their relationship.
My thoughts on this were crystallised by another article in The Record (October 15 2008, ‘Cardinal Rode calls Religious to account’).
In it the Cardinal says about those changes caused in the Church by false updating that “supposed the radical centring of man on himself and the rejection of the supernatural, and operated in a climate of radical subjectivism (manifested by) talk about holiness that is totally divorced from the fulfilment of Christ’s law and the concept of grace. In minimising sin… In taking the world as the criterion according to which the Church ought to be reformed… In rejection of authority, and especially divinely constituted authority, hence the rejection of the magisterium…”
I had to quote so extensively, because the Cardinal has encapsulated much that Waugh is saying in Brideshead Revisited. All the characters come up against one or other or all of the difficulties with their Catholic faith that the Cardinal mentions.
Through the workings of grace, Sebastian, Lord Marchmain, Julia, and Charles all finally recognise the truth of a prior claim of something greater than oneself and one’s wishes, despite their kicking against it until the last possible moment.
But it is not all grace.
There must be a genuine attempt at cooperating with that grace, beginning with bowing to the tenets of Christ’s Church.
Waugh adroitly shows the reality of the very real, human and often painful ramifications of that recognition in the agonising parting of Julia and Charles. It takes but a moment; but what an excruciating moment.
Charles Ryder narrates in retrospect, having become a committed Catholic. One of the most moving themes in the book is that of the unexpectedness of God’s grace, and the infinite patience of God, waiting until the moment of death for the voluntary submission to grace of that stiff-necked old reprobate Lord Marchmain.
Ironically and not without mordant humour, not only has Lord Marchmain submitted, but by his very submission Marchmain has convinced Julia and touched Charles with the beginnings of faith.
The ambivalent representation of Lady Marchmain, as a gentle woman of simple faith whose deep convictions lead her to alienate her wayward husband and children by trying to gently but implacably bully them into her way of being a Catholic has always fascinated me.
As a parent one cannot help sympathising with her, as we all want our children’s souls to be saved and would give our lives to do so. It is difficult to know when teaching ends and imposing begins.
It always seemed to me that what Waugh was trying to convey was that while the spadework of catechesis is vital, there must always be room for the intensely personal nature of Christ’s call to each person, and the correspondingly personal nature of each person’s response to that call.
In short, that faith is a gift, it cannot be forced upon people, and that there are as many ways of loving God as there are human hearts. You can try to force outward conformity to the teachings, but until the commitment is internalised and personalised, faith does not grow – it may even become a source of resentment and hatred; hence the torn and troubled characters of Sebastian and Julia, and Lord Marchmain.
It is Lord Marchmain’s own personal, voluntary response to grace on his deathbed with a simple Sign of the Cross that saves him.
Similarly, it is Julia’s realisation that she herself must decide for or against a life of sin with Charles that triggers her own personal response to Christ in her decision not to continue in it.
And finally, Charles Ryder’s selfless prayers at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed, first qualified by doubt in God’s existence, and then completely unqualified, are answered in the most striking and uncompromising way by Lord Marchmain’s action.
He too must respond honestly to this shattering manifestation of the fact that God listens to our prayers.
And poor Sebastian, in his little cell attached to a monastery, interspersing saintly devotion with the odd alcoholic jaunt, humbly dealing the best way he can with the tension between his own weakness and the demands of a faith he has discovered he cannot run away from. He also has to make his own response to Christ’s call.
Charles is not ‘unceremoniously spat out’, as Jane Cornwell claims, either. I think one of the triumphant aspects of the story is the absolute reluctance with which Julia gives up Charles, and the obvious heartbreak she knows she is going to endure. She recognises that to ignore the sinful nature of that relationship would ultimately destroy them both.
Charles recognises at least in retrospect that though he lost much, he gained something of infinitely greater value from his involvement with the Marchmains.
There is pain, but there is still also love, and gratitude, in his memories. Perhaps his attachment to the family is perpetuated in his embracing their Catholic faith, and who is to say it is not a stronger bond than any other?