Madresfield Court by Philip Halling (real-life inspiration for Brideshead Castle)

Brideshead Revisited and the Religious Sense

An introduction to the Book of the Month for June, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Anna Vincenzi

I am not a literary scholar, nor am I an expert on this book, which I read for the first time just a few months ago. However, I can talk about why I wish that all the friends who, like me, have been working on The Religious Sense would read Brideshead Revisited. Over the past few months, immersing myself in this novel has significantly enhanced my understanding of the diverse human responses to the “religious sense” described by Giussani. It almost feels as though Giussani crafted The Religious Sense to elucidate Waugh’s novel, or vice versa.

In this essay, I aim to offer suggestions on how to approach the book. First, I invite you to be patient: the novel starts quite slow and the story line is, in many ways, pretty banal. The novel tells the story of the protagonist, Charles Ryder, and his relationship with the various members of an aristocratic English Catholic family, the Flytes, whose younger son, Sebastian, Charles meets in college at Oxford. The story is at times deeply sad and seemingly hopeless. Several of the characters are not particularly likable or friendly. One could stop at this and dismiss the story. But the book is, at heart, also a story of conversion (indeed, through the pages of the novel Waugh tells the story of his own conversion to Catholicism). And what hope would we have if genuine conversion only occurred in miraculous ways or to likable individuals? Part of the novel’s allure lies precisely in its realism and relatability. I’ve spent hours discussing with friends and students how the attitudes portrayed by Waugh mirror aspects of ourselves, or that we observe in our families and among our friends.

The other suggestion is to not get distracted speculating about the nature of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian (or other of the novel’s characters). There certainly are signs of homosexual inclinations and behaviors, especially in the group of young men surrounding Sebastian at Oxford. However, Waugh doesn’t centralize this aspect of the story and doesn’t portray the relationship between Charles and Sebastian as romance. What he puts at the center are the intensity, sincerity, and beauty of the friendship between the two young men—such intensity and sincerity that inexorably lead them to face the limitedness of that very friendship. Waugh shows through them that even the most beautifully intense of human relationships cannot fulfill a man’s infinite hunger for beauty and love.

I’d now like to highlight a few themes deserving of attention:

1. The first is the word “charm” (or “charming”), which recurs over and over again in the book. Several main characters are called “charming.” But they are charming in very different ways, and their charm leads the protagonists to make a variety of different choices. An excellent essay by a former CUA philosophy professor highlights that “the Greek word for charm and for grace is the same: charis. It begins with the letter chi, which is written X.” The same letter is also the initial of the Greek for word for anointing, “from which our word ‘chrism,’ the oil of anointing, and ‘Christ,’ the one anointed, are derived.” Brideshead Revisited could be read as a series of examples of how different kinds of charm become occasions (or do not) for the reception of Christ’s redeeming grace.

2. The second — connected — keyword is “forerunner”: Charles’s love for his dear friend Sebastian as forerunner of his love for… well, I don’t want to spoil this for you. I just encourage you to pay attention to the idea that human love is a forerunner of something else. This theme reminded me of chapter 11 of The Religious Sense, where Giussani describes the “presentiment, or search for another” that happens in our impact with reality, and that manifests itself in the need for truth, justice, happiness, and love.

3. Pay attention to the meaning of Brideshead — the old, grand country estate of the Flyte family. While it has moments of beauty and vitality, there are long stretches of the novel in which it feels much colder, unwelcoming, and decadent. I think we could see in Brideshead a metaphor of the protagonists’ relationship to tradition: the decadence of Brideshead might speak to the sterility of a tradition (a religious tradition, above all) lived largely as a set of forms and rules for conduct, and devoid of genuine charity — a cautionary tale against a traditionalist, hollow adherence to religious customs.

4. There are incredible parallelisms between many characters of the book and the human positions that Giussani describes in The Religious Sense. Sebastian seems to me an incredible example of the inexhaustibility of human desire and need for meaning that Giussani describes in chapter 5; Anthony Blanche and, for most of the book, Charles could work as examples of the “aesthetic evasion” of chapter 7; the “impermeability” that Giussani describes in chapter 6, in the section on the “practical denial of the question,” applies perfectly to Lady Marchmain; Rex Mottram is a hilarious example of the “substitution of questions with willpower.” And the list could go on.

5. My last recommendation is to pay attention to the character of Cordelia, who takes a while to fully emerge in her gigantic stature. A conversation with a friend helped me to more fully appreciate the value of her figure: we were comparing Brideshead Revisited to Greene’s The End of the Affair, and my friend raised the point that “Greene’s books might almost make you think that one needs to be totally attached to sin — to touch the very bottom — in order to encounter God.” This observation made me reflect on the fact that, in Waugh’s book (and, I’d add, in life), there’s another option: the Cordelia option — that of someone who is able to see truth and beauty even in Lady Marchmain’s traditionalism (in part because she takes it with irony); whose faith is so mature that she is able to fully face the dramatic choices of her older siblings, the depth of their desire, and their flawed attempts to pursue their fulfillment; to not hesitate to tell them what she thinks about their choices, but to do so with infinite charity, always ready to meet them where they are. I have always considered The End of the Affair my favorite book, especially because it describes how the depth of human desires can open a path for man to encounter God. But I also feel like Cordelia is in many ways a more relatable figure than Sarah Miles. Though their ending point is the same, I pray that I will grow into a Cordelia, rather than needing to go through an experience similar to Sarah’s.

Lastly, one additional event confirmed for me the sense that reading this novel alongside The Religious Sense makes a lot of sense. Just a couple of months ago, after having gone out of print for a time, Brideshead Revisited was republished in Italy. The new edition is introduced by one of the most prominent contemporary Italian writers, Alessandro Piperno. In his introduction, Piperno references an old review that came out in the New Yorker in the aftermath of the 1945 publication of Brideshead Revisited. The New Yorker reviewer judged the novel to be a huge disappointment, a work of bigotry that smells of “incense and the sacristy,” coming from a writer — Evelyn Waugh — who had become famous mainly for wit and comedy in his earlier books. Piperno disagrees with that older, harsh judgment. But the way in which he disagrees is interesting:

Assuming that Waugh truly intended to write a [conversion story] it is entirely evident that he missed the mark. But again, why lament? . . . Despite his intentions, Waugh failed to write the thesis novel he may have had in mind. In a splendid paradox, it is precisely the author’s failure that ensures the success of the work. We should be thankful that Waugh lacks the qualities of an ideologue and preacher. This Brideshead Revisited demonstrates better than anything else how artificial his devotion is.

Piperno goes on to explain that, thankfully, the value of the book does not lie in the conversion story, but in its account of the disappearance of a certain English aristocratic world and “aristocratic idealism.” Interestingly, this seems to be a similar comment to that made by Natalino Sapegno on Leopardi, when he dismissed the questions expressed by Leopardi as the “confused… capriciousness of an adolescent” (as Giussani writes in chapter 6).

This parallelism makes me think that the work on The Religious Sense might make us particularly equipped to understand the depth of Brideshead Revisited, and that this proposal for the book of the month is truly very timely.