Evelyn Waugh’s life and work still captivate us. It’s not hard to understand why – he is one of the prose stylists of the age, and one of its funniest writers. His comic gift is all the greater for being shot through with pleasing melancholy and joyful malice.
The curious thing is that, of all his books, it’s Brideshead Revisited that enchants the public more than any other. Waugh obsessives, including me, prefer A Handful of Dust – for its macabre chill – or Scoop, for its mixture of comedy and eternal accuracy about the ridiculous side of journalism.
But it is Brideshead that dominates the popular vision of Waugh; Brideshead that was a huge hit in America after it came out in 1945; Brideshead that was made into the excellent Granada series in 1981, and the third-rate film in 2008.
Waugh was clear about the main point of Brideshead in his 1959 preface to the revised edition. “Its theme – the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters – was perhaps presumptuously large, but I make no apology for it.” And, it’s true, Catholicism provides the spine of the book.
Charles Ryder begins, at his own admission, with “no religion … The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth.”
By the end of the book (spoiler alert), Ryder is kneeling before the tabernacle in Brideshead’s chapel, saying a prayer, “an ancient, newly-learned form of words”. The implication is that he is about to become a Catholic. Lord Marchmain receives the sacraments on his deathbed. Sebastian ends up in a monastery. A devout Julia separates from the divorced Rex Mottram, and backs out of marriage to Charles, who has already been married.
So, yes, Catholicism is the central theme of the book – but it is only one of several themes. Even Waugh acknowledged that religion is concealed below them. He said to A D Peters, his literary agent, “The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that the theologians won’t recognise it.”
Read the rest there.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in the peace of Christ. George Weigel, reviewing a biography of Waugh in two volumes by Martin Stannard for First Things, quotes the dearly departed: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.” Weigel also quotes Father D'Arcy, who received Waugh into the Church:
Pray for him. As St. Thomas More noted in his Supplication of Souls, prayer for the dead is never wasted.