In search of grace?

“You haven’t read Brideshead Revisited?!?!”

This statement, in various degrees of shocked intonation, had been uttered many times. Indeed, was it so inconceivable that I, an English literature devotee and English literature major, specializing in 19th century English novels (with a spillover into the first decades of 1900s), had not yet picked up this Catholic classic that speaks so eloquently of redemption?

Having availed myself of a copy thanks to a sister who was undergoing a moving and marriage book purge, I found a scrap of free time, and sank down onto the couch cushions, ready to be delighted, entertained, and uplifted.

Delighted I was not, from the beginning. Evelyn Waugh is not the easiest writer to follow, even to someone who read the arcane musings of Henry James as a teenager. His novel teeters between 1920s Oxford slang, hardly intelligible to modern readers without recourse to footnotes, to musings of the nature “The langour of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this come and go with us through life…These things are a part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse – that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.”

Still, I pushed through, hoping for a glimmer of entertainment, at least.

But that was lacking as well. Waugh’s novel is billed as a tragicomedy, but I found very little to be funny in it. The passages where Charles is being punished by his father for overspending his college allowance (through boredom, paradoxically I thought as I yawned) are supposed to be the funniest in the book. But frankly, Charles’ father comes across as dry, petty, and mean, and Charles as unthoughtful and irksome. What is there of humor in domestic verbal altercations between a father and son, all underlined by a lack of love for each other? Other passages, such as the elaborate drunken ravings of the gay Anthony Blanche, could presumably be funny, and yet they have a constant undercurrent of meanness that discourages anything more a slight, fleeting smile at this odd character.

Yet again, the novel failed. Perhaps, finally, once I pushed through the rest of the novel, I would be uplifted, touched, moved to my core.

And yet… Not so. Oh, I witnessed in my reading the bumbling references to Catholicism as an arcane yet mysterious force subconsciously influencing people’s behaviors (Sebastian Flyte), the hysterical gushing on the pernicious weight of unshakeable Catholic guilt (Julia Mottram), and even the feeble deathbed conversion (Lord Marchmain). For all that, the Catholic faith in the novel still seemed to me an amalgamation of unintelligible yet beautiful rituals and art with equally unintelligible vague moralistic stirrings which do nothing except condemn the currently living to earthly misery in hopes of an eternal reward. Where is there a personal relationship with a vibrant and living God? Perhaps only in the character of the village priest, the one compassionate, rooted, normal character of the book.

And that, perhaps, is my main quibble with Brideshead Revisited: the complete and total lack of any remotely relatable characters, save the parish priest mentioned above. Whether it’s due to the way they speak (Julia), the way they behave (Sebastian), or the way they are (Charles Ryder), there is really not a single character in this novel that I cared about, other than finding them all annoying. The young Cordelia Flyte brought the only glimmers of humor to the book, but her spirit seems to have evaporated (by her own admission) as soon as she reached adulthood, which is about halfway through the novel. The central narrator – Charles Ryder – is dry and devoid of human feeling if you discount his two passions for Sebastian and his sister Julia. Sure, he converts at the end, but how can you possibly feel empathy or compassion for a man who refers to his wife as an afterthought and can barely remember his children’s names and outwardly expresses zero interest, even disdain, for their wellbeing?

How is a novel purportedly about grace, redemption, and Love, supposed to reach readers when all the characters are in some way despicable?

I’m not sure, but I’m not going to be revisiting Brideshead to find out.