Brideshead Revisited Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Overview of Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh was widely known to be a conservative man, a man who felt more comfortable with the warm burnish of tradition than with the bright shine of the modern. Most of his novels written before 1942 are considered masterworks of satire. So the critics' nearly unanimous howl in 1945 upon the publication of Brideshead Revisited—a collective complaint that Waugh had lost his spark and had gone soft—should not come as a surprise. The novel was condemned as a romance, even a fantasy, and the knock against Waugh became that he had done his best work before World War II.

But after getting over the expectation that every scene should poke fun at something or someone (while still experiencing the occasional pleasure of Waugh's wit in Brideshead Revisited), readers familiar with Waugh's earlier satires need only look to Waugh's life for an explanation of the change in his writing. Even a brief examination of Waugh's background makes clear that many of the elements in Brideshead Revisited are taken from his own experiences. Waugh's partiality to traditional institutions and patterns shines through the novel's protagonist, Charles Ryder. Charles is a lover of old buildings, ancient cemeteries, and old wine; he dislikes new styles, be they displayed in a piece of jewelry or through the interior designs of a ship, and he feels that young people are not as attached to their history as they should be. From that common ground, Charles's story can be read as a version of Waugh's story. Each is a story of a young man searching for stability in a world that seems turned upside down by war and the dissolution of established social institutions.

Literature and myth are filled with tales of young men finding their way in the world via circuitous routes, each man descending into a dark wilderness before emerging into the light of his destiny. While this book is certainly not an autobiography, it can be read as Waugh's reflection on how his search for love and constancy brought him through a rambunctious youth, an unhappy marriage, and ultimately to the Catholic Church.

Like Charles, Waugh attended a private English boys' school, then moved on to Oxford to study unsuccessfully for his undergraduate degree. Waugh fell in with a group that was much more interested in drinking and carousing than in studying—not unlike Charles' group of friends at Oxford, which included the charming Sebastian Flyte and the always clever Anthony Blanche. And, both the author and his fictional protagonist dabbled in the decorative arts while at the university, eventually quitting to attend art school.

But unlike Waugh, who expressed interest in religion at an early age and found it to be one of the primary themes of his life, Charles is baffled by the Flytes' Catholicism. Early in the novel, he asks Sebastian, who is no pillar of Catholic doctrinal behavior, about his religion. Sebastian tells him that he thinks about it all the time, even though it doesn't show on the outside. Charles is amazed and simply can't believe that his friend actually believes in what he perceives as myths and trickery. In fact, Charles comes from a family that has paid almost no attention to religion, except to warn him of associating with religious groups, especially Catholics.

Waugh uses a present-day, middle-aged Charles, serving as a captain in the British Army during World War II, to frame the story with a prologue and epilogue. Interestingly enough, when Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited, he was on extended leave from the British military, in which he saw quite a bit of action, especially for a man in his late thirties and early forties. Waugh was of the right age and situation to be thinking back on his life, much as Charles does as he narrates the novel. And, even though Waugh succeeded in completing a number of hazardous missions for the war effort, his early wartime encounters were remarkably similar to Charles's—waiting around the local countryside, cleaning up military encampments, always thinking the next move would bring him closer to the real action.

Sparked by his troop's new encampment near Brideshead Castle, Charles remembers his friendship with the Flyte family, a wealthy Catholic household whose wayward son, Sebastian, becomes the first real love of his life. Life before Sebastian was passionless and grim for Charles, and Sebastian's appearance offers him a more spontaneous and colorful life. Critics differ on whether their relationship is sexual or not, but the flowery language Waugh uses when the two are together during their first year of friendship (one of the novel's features that drives...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)

Brideshead Revisited and the Modern Historicization of Memory

In a 1969 article, "The Uses of History in Fiction," based on a panel discussion at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association, C. Van Woodward notes that, "Over the last two centuries, novels have become increasingly saturated with history, and novelists have been becoming ever more deeply historically conscious. In a sense, all novels are historical novels. They all seek to understand, to describe, to recapture the past, however remote, however recent." Woodward and the other participants in this discussion go on to talk about the relations between storytelling and historiography, examining how both reflect a growing historical consciousness in western society, and how they serve to satisfy a desire for historical understanding. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited offers an example of this mutual interrelation between fiction and history, demonstrating how both support each other in accomplishing a very specific and, as critics have seen it, politically charged task; namely, the preservation and fictional reconstitution of an aristocratic Catholic heritage in England.

Though purely religious and spiritual considerations tend to elide this implicit purpose behind the novel, the task of this essay will be to explicate the ways in which Brideshead is preoccupied with the issue of preserving Catholic identity and Catholic memory. More specifically, it will discuss how the novel is about the decline of a family tradition of memory and the emergence of an historical subjectivity that prompts individual characters to recapture their past by "revisiting" or remembering those "sites of memory" containing a family history and identity. Sebastian's wish to "bury something precious in every place where I've been happy" is a perfect example of how sites of memory function within the text.

The term "sites of memory" is borrowed from an article by Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire." In this article, Nora develops a philosophical interpretation of what contemporary western society experiences as an increasingly historicized world. Nora states that, within modern historical societies, individuals keenly sense their growing distance from traditional societies of the past, with their gradually evolving, self-contained modes of identity realization, resulting in the need to consecrate sites of memory that provide some sense of connection to a collective heritage of the past:

Our interest in lieux de memoire where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred at a particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn—but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists. There are lieux de moire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de memoire, real environments of memory.… The "acceleration of history," then, confronts us with the brutal realization of the difference between real memory—social and unviolated, exemplified in but also retained as the secret of so called primitive or archaic societies—and history, which is how our hopelessly forgetful modern societies, propelled by change, organize the past.

Nora goes on to outline this key distinction between a "real" or social memory, and the modern transformation of memory into an historicized memory:

Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the present: history is a representation of the past … it is an intellectual and secular production [that] calls for analysis and criticism. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds—which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs has said, that there are as many memories as there are groups.… Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects; history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things. Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative.

The ideas that Nora articulates here offer a philosophical groundwork for the study of the intimate link between historical and literary modes of memory representation. Brideshead Revisited uniquely contains this intimate link within its thematic structure and character development; it represents historically conscious characters (especially Charles the narrator) who are acutely aware of their break with the past and seek to anchor themselves through their active relation to sites of memory.

In many ways, therefore, the novel is about tracing one's history by studying the traces and sites of memory that provide one with a sense of historical identity. This historical identity is uniquely modern and as portrayed in the novel results from an awareness of the distance between a coherent, meaningful past identity, enclosed and enshrined in memory, and a present experience of dislocation, of having been severed from an ancient bond of identity. On one side of this gulf, as we see in the novel, is an intimate link to a tradition of memory, namely the Catholic culture that once gave ground and direction to members of the Marchmain family. On the other side are characters drawn away from this enclosed culture, either willingly or unwillingly, by other relationships, by political forces, and by the broad possibilities for alternate modes of existence in a modern mass culture. Both Sebastian and Lord Marchmain seem desperate to escape the heavy responsibility attendant on maintaining membership in their family's isolated Catholic culture, and so seek other identities in other relationships: Sebastian, shutting out the world to become the "subject of charity" with Kurt; and Lord Marchmain, the Byronic exile with Cara in Italy. Julia's relationship with Rex offers her a way out of the confinement of family tradition into a world of international, Gatsbyesque play. The Second World War and the strike of 1926 represent the broader political forces that surround and threaten the insular aristocratic paradise at Brideshead. Even Cordelia, who chooses social service over the stability of aristocratic Catholic culture, is drawn away from Brideshead where she experiences a violent modern world and the devastation of war in Spain.

The text represents the experience of modernity as the force of history invading a tradition of memory protected within the Catholic enclave at Brideshead. Pierre Nora describes this living tradition of memory, which we see fading at Brideshead, as "an integrated, dictatorial memory—unselfconscious, commanding, all-powerful, spontaneously actualizing, a memory without a past that ceaselessly reinvents tradition, linking the history of its ancestors to the undifferentiated time of heroes, origins, and myth." On his deathbed, Lord Marchmain nostalgically retraces this link to an ancestral memory, a link that barely survives and that he himself has all but broken: "Those were our roots in the waste hollows of Castle Hill, in the brier and nettle; among the tombs in the old church and the chantrey where no clerk sings.… We were knights then, barons since Agincourt." In the novel's epilogue, as Charles reflects on the chapel's beaten-copper lamp, he also draws this connection between the house at Brideshead and the ancestral memory contained there: "Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work … the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones."

Though the burning lamp is often read as the religious focal point of the novel, signifying a rekindling of faith in each of the characters, it is crucial to note that Waugh places this image of faith within a context of a faith tradition stretching back through Marchmain family history to the time of the crusades. Only in this context of tradition, legend, and memory does faith achieve any significance, the text seems to tell us. Through Charles's comprehension and articulation of this vital context, Waugh urges the point that faith needs to be linked simultaneously to the preservation of a Catholic identity, a sense of historical continuity, threatened with extinction by the forces of modern culture.

Waugh demonstrates this point primarily through Charles, who finds a means to understand and redeem his personal history of dislocation ("I'm homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless") through his newly formed link to an ancient tradition and memory barely surviving among their historical remnants, the sites of memory at Brideshead—the old stones, the chapel, the lamp. Yet, despite his intimate bond with this tradition of memory, Charles does not experience it from inside, since it no longer exists either for himself or the other characters as a social, collective, and all-encompassing form of subjectivity. Rather, he experiences his bond with Catholic memory indirectly, as a psychological, individual, and subjective phenomenon. What Charles experiences is an historicized memory, which Pierre Nora defines as "voluntary and deliberate, experienced as a duty, no longer spontaneous." Since he himself was neither born into the Catholic tradition nor sustained within an environment of memory such as Lady Marchmain and her ancestors once were, Charles can only look longingly in on this rapidly disintegrating Catholic society as a double outsider; that is, through his own memory of those whose memories and lives provided him with a record of a more noble and meaningful existence, a grandeur that is lost.

Though a lonely individual believer at the story's end, Charles has interiorized the Catholic memory enshrined at Brideshead and now recognizes his allegiance to this fading Catholic heritage by dutifully maintaining his "ancient, newly learned form of words" (though his conversion to Catholicism is, perhaps necessarily, only hinted at in the epilogue). Moreover, the novel shows us that, in being severed from a collective experience of lived memory, all of the characters, not only Charles, become in their own degree "memory individuals." No longer on the inside of a tradition of memory, but longing to be there, the characters can only experience it through its outward signs, through rituals, symbols, modes of behavior. The characters become obliged to defend and preserve these markers of identity against the disintegrating power of the modern world.

Waugh portrays his characters in Brideshead as modern outsiders, modern misfits, always trying to get inside of a more meaningful existence, always experiencing life on the fringes. Throughout his fictional existence, Charles has always been the outsider lacking an experience of being inside. His childhood has left him without any knowledge of what it means to be in a family. Later, we see him as the outsider trying successively in different ways to get inside of Brideshead. At first, his love for Sebastian offers him one level of entry into the world of Brideshead. At Oxford, he follows Sebastian through "that low door in the wall … which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden," an experience leading into other gardens, orchards, and parlors during their languid summer at Brideshead. This first extended stay at Brideshead offers Charles a chance to relive a more meaningful childhood. Brideshead becomes a kind of nursery where he is given an "aesthetic education" simply by living in its environs with Sebastian. Moreover, Charles develops a powerful, art historian's attraction toward all he sees at Brideshead, and he carefully records each detail of landscape, architecture, art work, and interior design. Yet, despite his appreciation of the physical environment, Charles's entry into Brideshead at this point goes nowhere beyond a comprehension of its historical and aesthetic significance. Later still, Charles's expected marriage to Julia renews the promise of entering and possessing Brideshead. However, just as he feels he's about to get inside, the vision eludes him. Through this final disappointment, Waugh tells us that Charles has misunderstood what it means to get inside of Brideshead. For an outsider (or a reader of the novel), getting inside of Brideshead requires more than an understanding of Brideshead as an historical monument dedicated to aristocratic and aesthetic values. Getting inside requires that one understand Brideshead above all as a shrine dedicated to an ancient religious tradition, and, more specifically, as a refuge or sanctuary where one finds the living heart of a Catholic family memory. As Charles learns later in life, to truly enter Brideshead would be to merge into this living tradition of memory, like Nanny Hawkins does. But since he arrives at this understanding too late, it seems the low door in the wall is closed to him for good. The closest he can come is to interiorize the memory that Brideshead evokes and preserve it through a personal acceptance of Catholic faith.

One finds this ending somewhat illogical, however, when considering that by becoming a Catholic, Charles eventually could have been reunited with Julia; the two of them could then have returned to inherit Brideshead and there revitalize a Catholic family and tradition. But to go this route, Waugh would have had to make Charles's conversion more obvious, and thus make his theme too exclusive, his appeal too limited. Waugh was obviously writing something more than a simple Fr. Brown story of conversion. As it actually stands, the plan of the novel enables Charles to become a broader type of character, a representative modern Western individual. Charles's experience represents the modern experience of human subjectivity in its almost...

(The entire section is 5733 words.)