Overview of Brideshead Revisited

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1901

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.

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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 critics to distraction) leaves no doubt that Charles is smitten; and Sebastian's letters to Charles on vacation indicate that his affections are returned. But Sebastian, for all his magic, is still a fallible human and disappoints Charles with his destructive drinking and lifestyle.

Charles continues to seek out love and stability, but with little success. After Sebastian, to whom he refers as the "forerunner," he tries marriage to a woman too busy with her huge circle of friends and with improving Charles's art career to be a true love interest. In book two, chapter one, when Celia asks Charles if he has fallen in love with anyone during his two-year absence, he assures her flatly, "No. I'm not in love." Like Waugh's first wife, Celia is unfaithful to her marriage vows, and this contributes to Charles's two-year excursion into the wilds of Mexico and Central America to draw ruins. While Charles sought the wilderness, however, Waugh sought the comfort and discipline of the Catholic Church. Waugh's biographers point to his wife's infidelity as pushing him toward a conversion to Catholicism.

Charles's two years in the "jungle" are a turning point in his understanding of himself. Middle-aged boredom, dissatisfaction with his marriage, and a fear that life is slipping away propel him into the dark "wild lands" of another continent. In chapter one of the second book, Charles admits that before the trip, his apparent success masked a hidden withering of his soul. "For nearly ten years I was thus borne along a road, outwardly full of change and incident, but never during that time, except sometimes in my painting—and that at longer and longer intervals—did I come alive as I had been during the time of my friendship with Sebastian." He seems to believe that if he leaves his usual haunts and goes out into the wilderness to live a simple life among ancient ruins, away from the talk of war and the crush of modernity, he will return a changed man—alive again.

But the trip does not fulfill him in the way he needs. Even though the new paintings he exhibits after returning to England are hailed as dramatically different and more vibrant and passionate than his earlier work, Charles feels as though the wilderness experience has not changed and healed him sufficiently. "There is still a small part of me pretending to be whole," he says. To fill the emptiness, Charles begins a passionate affair with Julia, Sebastian's sister. They both leave their spouses and for two years live together at Brideshead Castle, the scene of Charles's first and only other love, Sebastian. They plan to secure divorces and marry each other.

While Charles's love for Julia is true, it eventually changes and ends, being simply the next step toward a final love. In the last chapter of book two, Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead and everyone except Sebastian (who is living, ill and nearly destitute, at a monastery in Tunis) has gathered at the ancestral homestead for his impending death. When Julia's brother, Brideshead, asks that a priest be brought for his father's final sacraments, Charles finds the whole effort ridiculous, saying, "It's such a lot of witchcraft and hypocrisy." But Lord Marchmain has not been a practicing Catholic for almost twenty-five years and sends the priest away. Charles's hostility about the priest creates tension between him and Julia and prompts Julia to say, "Oh, Charles, don't rant. I shall begin to think you're getting doubts yourself."

Finally, a number of weeks later, when Lord Marchmain is nearly unconscious, Julia brings the priest back for her father's final sacraments. What happens next is so dramatic that it might seem more fit for a scene in an earlier Waugh satire, yet here the intent is not satiric. The priest asks Lord Marchmain if he will give a sign that he is sorry for his sins. Charles suddenly drops to his knees and says a small prayer to "God, if there is a God," longing for such a sign. He cannot decide if he desires this for Julia's sake or for other reasons, but, in an instant, he gets that prayer answered—Lord Marchmain makes the sign of the cross, and Charles recognizes that this "was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition."

After Julia witnesses her father's signal, she decides she cannot go against her religion's doctrines and marry Charles. Her divorce and subsequent marriage to Charles would make her an adulteress in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church; she must live a life that is pleasing to her God. "But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy," as she tells Charles.

Given Charles's usual disparaging response to a member of the Flyte family explaining Catholicism to him, his telling Julia that he understands her actions signals a huge step toward his embracing religion and God. And when Charles appears again in the Epilogue, a few years later, he has obviously begun to accept the traditional tenets of religion, if not the Catholic Church. He makes a special trip to Brideshead Castle's chapel, closed after Lady Marchmain's death many years previously. Much to his pleasure, the chapel is open and in respectable shape, with a small lamp burning at the altar. God is still present and accounted for, unwavering and forever. He kneels and says a prayer, "an ancient, newly learned form of words."

Charles has made a journey similar to the one Waugh made in the first half of his life: from a declared agnostic, educated to believe that religion is all smoke and mirrors, to a middle-aged man believing in the power of God's grace. This is not an easy journey for either man, beset by pains and temptations. Unlike Charles, though, Waugh was able to have his first marriage annulled, making his marriage the very next year to a devout Catholic woman sanctified in the eyes of the church.

When Charles returns from praying at the old Brideshead chapel, his second-in-command comments, "You're looking unusually cheerful today." Charles, the middle-aged, wifeless, and childless child of a grim and unloving family, who once admitted that very few things gave him as much happiness as being with Sebastian, finally seems to have found a constant source of love in his life. Real life, however, rarely produces such neat endings. While Waugh was, by all accounts, very satisfied with his second marriage, stories have emerged that, in his later years, well after the writing of Brideshead Revisited, he was depressed and drank heavily.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on Brideshead Revisited, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer.

Brideshead Revisited and the Modern Historicization of Memory

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5733

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 constant state of flux. Early on in Book 2, he expresses this sense of modern existence after having been expelled from the Edenic garden of Book 1: "we are seldom single or unique; we keep company in this world with a hoard of abstractions and reflections and counterfeits of ourselves—the sensual man, the economic man, the man of reason, the beast, the machine and the sleep-walker, and heaven knows what besides, all in our own image, indistinguishable from ourselves to the outward eye."

Sebastian is a more tragic type of modern misfit, torn more radically than Charles between the pull of competing impulses. The spell of memory continually pulls him back toward a primal identity associated with family, ritual, and a specific place: Brideshead. Yet memory more than anything is what Sebastian resists through drink: "I was determined to have a happy Christmas," said Sebastian. "Did you?" asked Charles. "I think so," he replied. "I don't remember it much, and that's always a good sign, isn't it?" Sebastian's life becomes a pattern of weaving in and out of memory, of moving back toward his origins and obliterating the memory of these origins. Cordelia sums up his pattern of existence at the monastery in Morocco in a line that perfectly comprehends his struggle: "He'll live on, half in, half out of the community." Perhaps the main difficulty for Sebastian is mirrored in the situation of the monastery to which he half-attaches himself—it is another ancient community of memory, like the Marchmain family, that is inwardly compelled by the need to remember what it is, and must struggle to maintain its own unique values and identity at the fringes of a modern mass culture. Troubled by similar tensions, Sebastian represents the almost totally fragmented modern subject, torn between the restless search for a meaningful identity and the need for a stable existence, torn between desire and commitment.

Cordelia is a less extreme case; but even she recognizes her own split subjectivity, her misfit nature, which is similar to Sebastian's: "people who can't quite fit in either to the world or the monastic rule. I suppose I'm something of the sort myself." Julia, too, after her own long and restless search, arrives at a sense of split subjectivity which she anticipates will be her continued mode of existence: "I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy."

There is also, however, another critical angle to consider in analyzing these modern misfits, and that involves Waugh's insistence on closing down almost every possible future for his characters which does not smack of a nearly monastic adherence to a traditional Catholic lifestyle, or at least an ambivalent magnetic pull toward such a lifestyle. According to Stephen Spender, this insistence on the part of Waugh indicates his "puzzling ethics" and "lack of sense of moral proportion." Characters like Sebastian, Cordelia, and even Julia "can't quite fit in either to the world or the monastic rule"; no balanced form of life incorporating human desire, love, and religious practice is open to them. Moreover, God's plan regarding Julia and Charles seems to involve separating those who truly love each other on the grounds of religious doctrine. Critics of Brideshead have often sounded similar complaints against Waugh's Catholic self-assuredness and snobbery. Sean O'Faolin argues that "A religious theme given institutional treatment is always liable to get lost in the embroidered folds of ecclesiasticism; and so is the author. The old detachment is sold to loyalty, and while one admires loyalty there is no place for it in art." He goes on to accuse Waugh of lowering his art to the level of a snarling argument about "the superiority of the Catholic squires of England to the non-Catholic salesmen of England." However, aside from the elitist tendencies one finds in the novel, Waugh also chose to portray, in a consistent and fairly accurate manner, the power of Catholic conscience over members of the Catholic faith living in a pre-Vatican II world. Contemporary Catholics and non-Catholics may find the novel's portrayal of dramatic religious acts and extreme religious choices (such as Julia must make about marrying Charles) to be simply contrived; but rather, these reflect with some accuracy an older form of Catholicism fading more and more into the realm of historical otherness. Furthermore, had he not dramatized such extreme choices, Waugh would not have expressed strongly enough what he feels is at stake for the modern reader of Brideshead. In Brideshead, Waugh resists a prevailing discourse of bourgeois individualism and materialism (most obviously embodied in Rex and Hooper) which he sees beneath the ruinous transformations of the modern world. Waugh resists this discourse by asserting a counter-discourse of rich, vividly realistic prose enshrining aristocratic, aesthetic, and religious values.

Yet, even more radical than a dramatic portrayal of difficult personal choices, more radical than Waugh's intended Catholic apologia, "an attempt to trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world" (Waugh's dust jacket comment), Brideshead Revisited represents, through its characters and mode of narration, the awareness of an historical subjectivity brought about by confrontation with the disruptive forces in modern mass culture. Caught in the pull between "monastic rule" and the world, between Catholic family tradition and individual absorption into broader social relations, the Marchmain family represents a site of that unique modern struggle between competing modes of subjectivity. The characters are lured by the world's possibilities, held back by family tradition; they are compelled by the forces of history, haunted by the forces of memory.

In other words, for many of the characters, memory is mingled with an historical sensibility, producing a disturbing self-consciousness which they try to suppress and whose roots are fixed deep in the tenacious ground of childhood memory. Michel Foucault states that, "Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle, if one controls people's memory, one controls their dynamism." As we see especially with Julia and Sebastian, a Catholic identity, straining outward from childhood memory, operates as the irrepressible controlling factor in their struggle for self-control. For Julia and Sebastian (and for most of the Marchmain family), these early memories locate their entry into the symbolic realm of their Catholic family heritage where language, behavior patterns, social relations, rituals, are all, in turn, rooted in the ancient collective memory of Catholic culture. As children, their intimate link to this lived tradition of memory was forged by Lady Marchmain and Nanny Hawkins, the two primary preservers of family and faith in the novel. From them, Julia first learns the word that signifies the sundering of this vital link to family tradition—sin: "A word from so long ago, from Nanny Hawkins stitching by the hearth and the nightlight burning before the Sacred Heart. Cordelia and me with the catechism, in Mummy's room, before luncheon on Sundays."

Separated from this context, Julia, Sebastian, and also Lord Marchmain go along rudderless through life, until the "twitch upon the thread," the force of memory, recalls them to a repressed identity firmly interiorized during their youth (though admittedly for Lord Marchmain this identity is not rooted in childhood memory but was simply chosen and later abandoned). Cara's assessment of Sebastian and Lord Marchmain is therefore only half right. Both in a sense refuse to grow up, but Sebastian's is a selective memory of childhood: he suppresses his early bonds of memory to the Catholic tradition and chooses to remember only a time of playful frolic, symbolized by his toy bear. Lord Marchmain avoids more than just a loss of youthful freedom; he specifically avoids any memory of the Catholic identity he chose, with all its resulting obligations. Sebastian, Julia, and Lord Marchmain all know that to maintain their Catholic heritage consciously and deliberately demands a hard sacrifice of personal responsibility. To remember and protect the trappings of their Catholic family identity is an extremely difficult task considering the combined demands of their exclusive religion and their aristocratic status. Together, both of these factors create and intensify the sense of isolation they feel at Brideshead. When memories finally do resurface, as in Julia's case, they are accompanied by a tremendous weight of self-consciousness, a traumatic awareness of how the modern world has taken its toll on her, sundering her vital link to a meaningful family tradition and leaving her a torn, isolated individual without an identity:

Past and future; the years when I was trying to be a good wife, in the cigar smoke, while time crept on and the counters clicked on the backgammon board, and the man who was 'dummy' at the men's table filled the glasses; when I was trying to bear his child, torn in pieces by something already dead; putting him away, forgetting him, finding you, the past two years with you, all the future with you, all the future with or without you, war coming, world ending—sin.

Julia's dilemma can be more clearly defined by a comment from Nicholas Kostis on the force of memory in Brideshead: "Memories are but intermittances, momentary enchantments which are less an inner substance or property of the individual than a force from without which imposes itself on the individual and crushes him between past and future, leaving him more with the terror of his own absence than with the presence of a consoling reality." The novel asserts that, without the consoling reality of a memorial consciousness linked to a common tradition, the individual is left with an empty personal history of discontinuous attempts to ground identity. Indeed, the possibility of reconstructing a kind of Catholic tribal life with a shared and enduring memory seems closed down for all the characters at the end of the story. Each embarks on a private quest for those sites of memory that relink them to their origins and allow them to understand their history and their historical subjectivity. These sites of memory represent for the characters an image of historical difference through which they seek to retrace an unrecoverable identity, or as Pierre Nora states, "the decipherment of what we are in the light of what we are no longer."

By "revisiting" these sites, rituals, and trappings of memory, the characters represent those modern historical subjects who perceive their historical progress from ancient communities of memory, bound in devotion to the rituals of tradition, to fragmented modern communities whose individual members must maintain for themselves the historical signs that link present identity to a past communal or traditional identity. However, at the end of the novel, the characters are represented not merely as individuals who now try to comprehend who they are "in the light of what they are no longer," but also as individuals attempting to reinscribe themselves in these sites of memory, seeking to revitalize there a sense of community and tradition that lives on in individual memory. Sebastian tries to relink himself to past memory at a monastery where a Catholic communal tradition survives. Through Nanny Hawkins we learn that Julia and Cordelia plan to return to Brideshead after the war, and there we expect them to reconstitute what they can of a Catholic family tradition.

In this story about the extinguishing and relighting of a beaten-copper lamp, a story about the gradual extinguishing of a family tradition, a Catholic aristocratic identity, with the religious and aesthetic values they stand for, the power of memory represents the light of the lamp that Waugh will not allow to be extinguished or kept hidden. The power of memory is the primary agent which motivates the characters' lives; memory perpetuates a level of subjectivity that replays itself in their lives, reemerging in the same and in different contexts uncontrollably.

The novel records, therefore, not just the nostalgia of outsiders trying to get back in and return to a certain origin, but also an obsession with preserving the outward signs and historical traces of this origin. Through Charles we realize how preoccupied the novel is with historicizing memory; that is, making memory the object of historical study, enshrining in an almost fetishistic manner each place, gesture, image, and object that tells the story of memory. One perfectly encapsulated example of this is Charles's reflection on the diamond-studded tortoise Julia receives from Rex:

this slightly obscene object … became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake, and remain in the mind when they are forgotten, so that years later it is a bit of gilding, or a certain smell, or the tone of a clock's striking which recalls one to a tragedy.

Charles the artist/storyteller is more accurately Charles the historian who, to preserve textually his own memory and the memory of Brideshead, depends entirely on the materiality of the trace, the visibility of the image. But most especially, to take in Waugh's more specific purposes, Charles's history text depends on the immediacy of those images and signs that sustain a link to a tradition of memory, a religious faith, a cultural heritage. As an example, Charles's paintings of Marchmain House and other doomed old houses represent a type of history writing within his larger historical narrative wherein he records with a fetishistic realism the disappearing sites of aristocratic life and values.

Lord Marchmain’s deathbed sign is also a prized piece of historical evidence in Charles’s historical narrative. Charles eagerly yearns for this sign, and his anticipation reflects a larger obsession seen throughout the novel with recording all the material indicators of inner dynamics and values, all the scenery and gestures that made the drama real. What is most significant, though, about Lord Marchmain’s sign is that he finally gives it only after recounting his memories of Brideshead family history as once told to him by Aunt Julia and the field workers—“unlettered men” with “long memories.” Lord Marchmain’s deathbed repentance marks his return to an ancient family heritage; the last of the knights of the old guard returns to the historical site of his ancestral memory, stretching back before Henry VIII and the Reformation, back to the time of Agincourt. Lord Marchmain yields to the spell of memory which increasingly takes control of his consciousness, as his broken, spontaneous narrative seems to indicate. In his last remaining days he feels compelled to pass on his family story orally. Yet he fully recognizes his link to family tradition and memory only when he submits to the power of memory by marking himself with a sign of its dominance.

This act, however, does not simply reaffirm the need for a radical relationship to the transcendent. Again, a purely religious interpretation is insufficient to account for what motivates a relighting of the lamp in each of the characters. Religious motivations lose their primacy and autonomy when we consider how they are inextricably tied to the novel’s politics of identity preservation. Lord Marchmain’s sign expresses his fidelity to a Catholic family identity and history, while it simultaneously refutes his personal history of resistance to the work of sustaining this identity. The sign of the cross which he makes on his deathbed is both a private and a public gesture, a final attempt to reclaim his position as keeper and teacher of a family faith and memory. The sign tells a story of how he personally accepts his subjectivity to tradition and memory, of how through this sign he inscribes himself within the history of his family’s faith tradition. He thereby helps to perpetuate a living history marked by similar signs, rituals, symbols, social practices—all maintained as part of a common Catholic memory.

In the task of preserving memory and identity, Charles’s narrative performs an archival function: it is absorbed in the work of recording, remembering, and meticulously reconstituting each sign and site of memory that tells of his own story and the story of Brideshead. Moreover, the history recorded in Charles’s narrative is about the merging of his personal story with the history of Brideshead. It is this integral bond between storyteller and story, between the archivist and his historical material, that makes Charles a representative of the modern historian as described by Pierre Nora. According to Nora, the role of the old historian was that of “an erudite transparency, a vehicle of transmission, a bridge stretched as lightly as possible between the raw materiality of the document and its inscription in memory—ultimately, an absence obsessed with objectivity. But with the disintegration of historymemory, a new type of historian emerges who, unlike his precursors, is ready to confess the intimate relation he maintains to his subject. Better still, he is ready to proclaim it, deepen it, make of it not the obstacle but the means of his understanding.” Accordingly, the fictional history that is Brideshead Revisited is also the personalized document of Charles Ryder; it is the historical novel into which he writes himself and records his memories.

Charles preserves and legitimates his memory through an historical narrative that anchors, condenses, and expresses an identity born of these memories, an identity which has intersected with the memory, lives, and religious heritage of the Marchmain family. In addition, Waugh represents both Charles and the Marchmains as having intersected with a modern world that sweeps them up in the historical process summarized so well by Marx in the Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face... the real condition of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.

The novel encloses this moment of intersection where memory and history meet, where an identity once sustained within a living tradition of memory becomes distanced from itself, other than itself—the moment when a subject realizes he is an historical subject, a split, fragmented subject, who must go in search of his origins in memory. Rather, he must preserve those originary sites of memory with all their symbolic excess. These function as the core of an historical subjectivity whose formations and deformations in the modern historical process mark a path of difference along which identity can be traced, represented, and preserved. Like the modern individual, the text of Brideshead is preoccupied with the questions of who we once were, what we have become, and how we have changed.

Within the novel we see various historical, literary, and aesthetic modes of preserving memory: the story told by Capt. Ryder, Lord Marchmain’s recollections, Charles’s architectural paintings, Mr. Samgrass’s biography of Lady Marchmain’s brothers, the “new house” at Brideshead containing the historical remnants (the original stones) of the old castle. The realistic, factual quality of these “texts,” both in themselves and as the novel presents them, suggests an attempt to materialize the immaterial, to stop time and forgetting through the concretion of memory. At the same time, the living quality of these memory texts entices others to share in their virtual reality. Also, the rich, pictorial language of Brideshead attests to this desire to materialize memory, as if Waugh were demanding that each word and image be given visual and audible reality— a feat nearly accomplished in the exhaustive and meticulously exact PBS television version of Brideshead Revisited.

Through Charles, the text hearkens back to a time when an aristocratic Catholic culture sustained itself and expressed an identity through a collective memory and through gradually evolving but always self-enclosed, self-referential signs, rituals, images, and structures (such as the house at Brideshead, the chapel, the Catholic Mass, Catholic family life, and the perpetually burning sanctuary lamp). But also, through the two different personae of Charles and Capt. Ryder, the text highlights the historical distancing and rapid transformations wrought by the modern world. As a result of these modern changes, the text gives the central role to the operations of the historian—Charles Ryder— whose intimate involvement with the Marchmain family allows him to record accurately, to take inventory, and thus provide a means to understand the historical transformations of this family and its Catholic heritage. Moreover, because of his intimate relation to his subject, both Charles the historian and his historical narrative represent sites of memory; what Charles records is not merely history, it is the means of his own understanding and the ground of his identity.

Through Charles, the novel suggests that what was once the province of a collective tradition and memory is now dispersed and maintained within individuals who may at times gather to share memory and enact rituals, but are ultimately absorbed by the larger collective of modern society. Tribal life and memory are gone; the modern world sweeps them into its vortex, and the way is marked only by historical traces, by signs and sites of memory, which individuals and protective enclaves must dutifully preserve for themselves to defend and maintain a specific identity.

Source: David Rothstein, “Brideshead Revisited and the Modern Historicization of Memory,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall 1993, pp. 318–31

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Critical Overview