Friday, July 10, 2009

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is an Anti-Catholic “Classic”

I have been taking notes as I read through this book and will uncover some of the plot in this review, discussing my own reactions as the story unfolds. If you want to read this without knowing what happens, please come back and read this later. I would love to hear my readers’ comments.

The title of this book was so mysterious to me. I love going to a movie or picking up a book with an enticing title, the plot of which I know nothing. And so I started off reading this selection with an eagerness of discovering where it was going. A non-Catholic had also said to me, “You haven’t read Brideshead Revisited? You really should. It’s all about your religion.” I was curious about what it had to say about Catholicism.

The book starts with a forward during which an officer is traveling with his infantry to some unknown location. When he gets there he finds they are in the neighborhood of Brideshead and he reveals that he has been there before. Then he goes back twenty years to revisit his memories that the place invokes. Hence the title.

Captain Charles Ryder reminisces to his first year at Oxford, where he fell in with a “bad set” and thoroughly enjoyed it. One of his bosom buddies is Sebastian, of the infamous Brideshead family, and he spends a good part of the summer vacation at his home of Brideshead Castle. He accompanies him to Paris before starting the next year at school.

I must confess that, although I admired the detail, which was both impeccable and revealing, I could not take too much of it at one dose. Like in Great Gatsby, there are no truly admirable characters. The characteristics of the time and place are shown in the behavior and language of the various people introduced, which are many.

Sebastian and Charles “shake off” their old friends and stick to themselves during the second year, trying to clean up their act. They get into a bit of trouble with drinking and driving. They hang out with some girls and my thoughts are finally clarified as to their sexual inclinations. There is quite a bit of talk of how much they love each other and they address each other as “my dear”, so I had my doubts for a while there. (Later in the novel I would discover that some of their set actually were gay, although clearly not Charles.)

Charles discovers that Sebastian has a real drinking problem – separate from the binge-drinking-for-fun typical of many college students. He is drinking to escape his family and acting sad and withdrawn. His family has Sebastian go live with a trusted friend of the family, a priest, and Charles decides to drop out of their current school and attend art school.

At this point I started to suspect that Charles will have his own dreams deterred in some way, as we all know he ends up a Captain in the Army, truly a non-artistic career choice. I also wondered if Charles was truly an unimportant character, a story device such as the narrator in Great Gatsby, standing helpless as he watches his friend destroy himself.

Then, halfway through the novel, he goes into great detail on the love life of Julia, Sebastian’s sister, whom he had previously largely glossed over. We are told that he was, in fact, in love with her at that point. In the preface we were told of his six-year-old marriage that had been on the outs while he was away with the army. I had to wonder if he did marry Julia and, if so, would there be a remedy to their present problems.

Once he gets onto the storyline of his relationship with Julia and the deteriorating relationship with Sebastian to the rest of the world, Sebastian drifts farther and farther out of the story. Charles and Julia have an affair and initiate divorce proceedings. What is most disturbing to me is that Charles seems to have no relationship whatsoever with his children.

When Julia’s father Lord Marchmain is dying in the hospital, he refuses to see a priest. He says he hasn’t practiced Catholicism for many years and it would be a farce. His son Brideshead has one come anyway, and for that is taken out of the will. Charles, an agnostic, doesn’t see the point, and tries to persuade Julia not to force the issue. But right before Marchmain’s death she tells the priest to go in, and her father accepts the blessing.

They both see that this is the end of their relationship, because she sees she must embrace her faith, the same faith that Charles cannot understand. The prologue returns him as Captain, going through the Brideshead mansion to set up camp for his troops in the lower rooms of the building.

I saw the entire novel as an anti-Catholic treatise. None of the characters are likeable and the conversation is pretentious. The lifestyle is all surface, as is the practice of Catholicism, which is all on the surface. Reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the same time, I saw none of my true faith reflected in this novel.

At one point, speaking of architecture, Charles says that he can say a building is good although it is not to his taste. That is my opinion of this novel.

On a side note, on July 4 the Sci-Fi channel was playing a Twilight Zone marathon and there was an episode entitled “Deathshead Revisited”, obviously a play on this title.


David Murdoch said...

There are many works of literature and other forms of media out there, usually written by non-catholics, that try to depict the church or catholicism in the novel and they wind up giving an appearance which isn't true to the faith (often in a negative fashion). I don't know if it is stereotypes or whatever, but it seems to be a common trend.

God Bless

Loren Christie said...

Elizabeth, I downloaded the book and started listening to it today, as I have not yet had an opportunity to visit the upstairs fiction in my library, (we're always in the children's section). I got through an hour of it while cooking dinner and I just can't stand it. I don't like the language. It bores me to tears. I was supposed to read this book in college and dodged the assignment. Now I remember why. I got to the exact same point as last time and had to put it down. At least The Great Gatsby has metaphor and symbolism to interest me, despite the characters being shallow. This book I can't read. I picked up Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor last night at the bookstore. I hope that one will interest you. It is about a character's struggle with faith. O'Connor is a genius writer anyway.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

David, Jesus said to expect to be criticized if we represent him; still it hurts every time I see it and see the creator lauded for his "genius". And Loren, the language of this book bored me too! I kept hoping it was going to get to some point of the story and there really was no suspense or climax anywhere in the plot. Thanks so much for your comments - I hope for more!

Anonymous said...

You might want to do a little research about Evelyn Waugh and read the book again. Waugh was a faithful Catholic from his conversion in 1930 until his death on Easter Sunday in 1966. He had attended Holy Mass earlier that day. His stated purpose in writing the book was to show God's grace acting in people's lives.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Anonymous, thank you for commenting. Everything I say on this blog is based on my personal opinion and experience. I stated how I felt as I was reading the book. Just because someone is Catholic doesn't mean what they present is true or good. I couldn't make myself suffer through this book again and the other members of my book club couldn't even get through the first chapter.

Anonymous said...

You say the book is anti-Catholic. Did you not see that Charles Ryder had converted to the Catholicism by the end of the story and that everyone in the family who had fallen away had returned to the church (the father, Sebastian, and Julia)? Did you see any doctrinal error anywhere in the book? If so, what was it?

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

I do love to receive comments but prefer if my readers leave a name. From my sitemeter it appears that my 2 anonymous commenters are from different parts of the country. I am sorry if you didn't like my take on the book, but I really did not find any of the characters likeable and found their lifestyle highly distasteful. To me this reflected poorly on the religion they professed to believe. I did not see that Charles converted. It appeared to me that the reason things were not going to work out with Julia was that she was embracing the religion that he could not bring himself to understand, although he was glad it brought her and her family comfort at the time of her father's death. I was glad that the father converted at the last moment because it shows the power of prayer and that it is never too late; but that is the one of the only good things I liked in the plot. Spiritually I found the book to be depressing and not uplifting.

Leticia said...

Elizabeth, I too found the characters tiresome and less than admirable, yet if you watch the PBS film, the ending where Charles converts in the Bridesheard family chapel is profoundly moving (and surprising!)
I never saw it coming and if purpose of the book is to show grace in action, I had better read the book. I don't doubt that the BBC edited it out.
I saw the PBS series on loan from the library in order to prepare to see the remake earlier this year. I was told not to bother, that this was anti-Catholic.
It's so dangerous to have your novels made into films, the meanings are often twisted far from the original.

arturovasquez said...

The message of the book is that God is not your sugar daddy. In order to faithful to the truth and yourself, you have to make some hard decisions. You may not be "happy" in the eyes of the world, but duty is the only way to be complete, and the only way not to run from yourself and God.

Mike L said...

I'm afraid I agree with Arturo just above, even though he's somebody with whom I often disagree.

eulogos said...

I admit I don't like the book either, or anything of Waugh's. But I know that this is partially due to a defect in me, a refusal of complexity, a desire for a hero in a story whom I can admire and root for. Even though I can't enjoy the book, I think I do have some understanding of why it is considered a Catholic, and NOT an anti-Catholic, classic. The book is about grace and its workings in the lives of sinners. Sinners, which means, not particularly attractive people, people who drink too much, people who are snide and nasty to each other, people who fight with their spouses and say horrible things, people who are snobs. Jesus said, "I came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Sin is ugly. It is a blight. The Catholic church is full of drunkards, snobs, liars, cheats, adulterers, fornicators, and greedy, selfish, snide, and nasty people. That's the truth. Not many of us are really 'particularly attractive people.' That's why we have the sacrament of penance, and why in the old days, there was a priest in the confessional before every mass and for a couple of hours on Saturday. Because we need it. Waugh was showing the real ugliness and darkness which is sin, and trying to show how grace works down there in the ugliness and darkness and brings to salvation the most lost of souls.
Susan Peterson

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Thanks for the well thought out comments. I still have to go with my gut reaction but I do respect the difference in opinion. This really was a very complex and well written book.

Leticia said...

I think the fact that so many years after the publication of his book, Waugh has us involved in a respectful, thought-provoking discussion is a sign of his gift of writing.
He is a bit cynical about Catholics, for example the mother and sister who remained devout Catholics have no trace of heroism, in fact the sister's idealism is shown as immature, and the mother's piety as fatalistic. However, the conversion at the end of the story shows that no matter how bad the role models, the Truth of Christ shines through the Church and it's sinful members and captures souls.

Marie-Jacqueline said...

You might be able to view the novel differently if you listened to Dr. David Allen White's talks on the topic. They are available for purchase online at the St. Marcel Initiative website. Dr. White is a traditional Catholic who for years was a literature professor at West Point Academy.