Brideshead Revisited | Critical Essay by Frank Kermode

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Brideshead Revisited.
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Critical Essay by Frank Kermode

SOURCE: "Mr. Waugh's Cities," in Encounter, Vol. XV, No. 5, November 1960, pp. 63-66, 68-70.

Kermode is an English educator, literary critic, essayist, and editor. In the following essay, he examines Waugh's depiction of religious faith in England after the Reformation, particularly the place of Catholicism among the upper classes in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as represented in Brideshead Revisited.

It is probably safe to assume that most readers of Brideshead Revisited know and care as much about Papist history and theology as Charles Ryder did before he became intimate with the Flytes; and although the novel contains a fair amount of surprisingly overt instruction we are much more likely to allow our reading of it to be corrupted by ignorance than by an excessively curious attention to matters of doctrine. In fact this is true of Mr. Waugh's fiction as a whole; and one of the rewards of curiosity is a clearer notion of the differences, as well as of the similarities, between his most successful books.

At the end of Decline and Fall (1928), Paul Pennyfeather, back at Scone after his sufferings on Egdon Heath, notes with approval the condemnation of a second-century Bithynian bishop who had denied the divinity of Christ and the validity of the sacrament of Extreme Unction; a singularly dangerous heretic. A few moments later, however, he turns his attention to an apparently more innocent sect: "the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed…. Quite right to suppress them." They too tended, for all the apparent harmlessness of their idiosyncrasy, to pervert fact with fantasy and truth with opinion. More than twenty years later Mr. Waugh's Helena ridicules theological fantasies concerning the composition of the Cross (that it was compounded of every species of wood so that the vegetable world could participate in the act of redemption; that it had one arm of boxwood, one of cypress, one of cedar and one of pine with the consequent amalgam of emblematic properties). She is also offended by the untruths and mythopoetic absurdities of her son Constantine. The Cross she seeks and finds consists merely of large pieces of wood. The Wandering Jew lets her have it free, foreseeing future business in relics. "It's a stiff price," says Helena. She wanted none of that fantastic piety, only the real routine baulks of timber used on a matter-of-fact historical occasion. "Above the babble of her age and ours," comments the author, "she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone lies our Hope."

These passages illustrate what is static in Mr. Waugh's expression of his religion. Religion as a man-made answer to pressing human needs disgusts him; Constantine's nonsense is of no more value than Brenda Last's, cutting the cards to see who shall go first to the woman who tells fortunes by reading one's feet. The Church is concerned to preserve the truth, solid and palpable as a lump of wood, from the rot of fantasy. It is entirely concerned with fact. Hence it was quite right to suppress the fanciful Ebionites with the same severity as the intolerable bishop; and the sentimental myth-making of Helena's scholars is dangerous because it tends to soften hard fact.

A number of such facts are at present ignored in our society, which has apostatised to paganism. Yet they are facts. Given the necessary instruction, the necessary intellect, and the necessary grace, a man will be a Catholic. Mr. Waugh, paraphrasing Campion's Brag in his Life (1935) of the martyr does not even specify the third of these necessities: "he … makes the claim, which lies at the root of all Catholic apologetics, that the Faith is absolutely satisfactory to the mind, enlisting all knowledge and all reason in its cause; that it is completely compelling to any who give it an 'indifferent and quiet audience.'" And the author has himself written that he was admitted into the Church "on firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion." As Mr. F. J. Stopp comments, in his admirable Evelyn Waugh, it is also apparent that this "firm intellectual conviction" relates "not primarily to the vanquishing of philosophical doubts about the existence of God, or considerations of the nature of authority," but rather to "a realisation of the undeniable historical presence and continuity of the Church."

Quod semper, quod ubique…. The English Reformation was not only an attempt to break this historical continuity, but a very insular movement. The Counter-Reformation, on the other hand, was an affair of genuine vitality and spirituality, universal in its scope; England was impoverished by its failure to participate. The consistency of Mr. Waugh's opinions is indicated by his admiration for Baroque art, the plastic expression of Tridentine Catholicism and a great European movement that left England almost untouched. His version of English history at large is simply but fairly stated in this way: after being Catholic for nine hundred years, many English families, whether from intellectual confusion or false prudence, apostasised in the 16th century to schismatic institutions which were good only in so far as they retained elements of the true worship. The consequence has been modern paganism (at a guess, Mr. Waugh thinks of this as an atavism in degenerating stock); the inevitable end is a restoration of the faith, but the interim is ugly and tragic except in so far as it is redeemed by the suffering of the martyrs and the patience of the faithful. ("Have you ever thought," asks Helena, "how awfully few martyrs there were, compared with how many there ought to have been?") This conservatism is of course reflected in the author's social opinions; the upper classes are good in so far as they hold on to the values and the properties cherished by their families. Aristocracy, like the Church, fights a defensive action, and that which it defends is, in the long run, a Catholic structure. Very intelligent upper-class Englishmen are not common in Waugh, and when they occur (Basil Seal is the notable case) they are not intellectuals. Their brains have nothing solid to work on; not being Catholics they are not in a position to pursue the truth with any seriousness. Yet if they preserve their families and their customs they do as much as they can to maintain the link with those "ancestors—all the ancient priests, bishops, and kings—all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter." The words are Campion's.

This is the "historical intransigence" that Ryder (in the first edition of Brideshead Revisited) learnt to admire. It is like Guyon smashing up the Bower of Bliss; a great deal that might, to a less ruthless mind seem admirable, if mistaken, is pulled down without a regretful glance. The age of Hooker (and Shakespeare) becomes merely a good time for prospective martyrs to live in. The piety and intellect of Andrewes, the learning of Casaubon, were all wasted in a cause self-evidently indefensible. The torment of Donne's conscience (a man who knew the ways of Topcliffe and the temptation of martyrdom) was an unnecessary perplexity; his dealings with Sarpi were treasonable, and all those high eirenic hopes futile. There is no need to pray, "Show me thy spouse," for any unblinkered eye can see her. How did these great men allow themselves to be reduced to pettifogging heretics? They should have seen that it was unlikely that "the truth, hidden from the world for fifteen centuries, had suddenly been revealed … to a group of important Englishmen." They should have seen that, on the Romanist side, any apparent deviousness or error was tributary to the workings of the divine purpose. Thus it may be agreed by historians of all parties that the Bull excommunicating Elizabeth was palpably unwise: but

had he [Pius V] perhaps, in those withdrawn, exalted hours before his crucifix, learned something that was hidden from the statesmen of his time and the succeeding generations of historians; seen through and beyond the present and immediate future; understood that there was to be no easy way of reconciliation, but that it was only through blood and hatred and derision that the Faith was one day to return to England?

It may not be amiss to say parenthetically that I write without the least intention to be controversial; the point is merely to establish in a sketchy way how much Mr. Waugh's historical intransigence excludes from consideration, with a view to showing how sharp that weapon is, not that it is wrong to use it. If you consider that the English Reformation opened up the way not only to paganism but to Hooper and to the salesman with the wet handshake, dentures and polygonal spectacles, you will not be disposed to dwell on the intellect of Hooker or the spirituality of Herbert. It is not unusual for people to believe in a kind of second Fall, a great historical disaster that began our era; for Mr. T. S. Eliot it is the Civil War. Few, however, even among Roman Catholics who might share Mr. Waugh's admiration for Tridentine as well as for medieval piety, have ever applied the doctrine with such harsh consistency. The apostate aristocracy, adulterated by politic Tudors and later by other secular forces, moved slowly to disaster, checked only by a respect for ancient Barbarian traditions and by a hatred of middle-class Protestants. The second war was to be the apocalypse; meanwhile the behaviour of the lapsed could cause dispassionate amusement. But when the war came it awakes certain recessive characteristics, and even Basil Seal, in Put Out More Flags, hears the feudal call to arms and, after his amusing betrayal of the outsider Silk and his exploitation of the evacuees, renounces his intention to be one of the hard-faced men who did well out of the war; with the rest of his kind he mans the crumbling ramparts; and in spite of the nuisance caused by a thousand Hoopers, the defence does not fail. One gets the full statement of this position in the story of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington, whose past achievements include the betrayal of Paul Pennyfeather; he leaves his Sonia and his black velvet not to take a commission but to join the ranks. The socially acceptable reason for this is that he can't bear to meet the temporary officers, but the astute Sonia knows a deeper one: Alastair "went into the ranks as a kind of penance or whatever it's called that religious people do." He was paying for all that irresponsible fun, getting back into line; soon he finds people of his own sort to be an officer with, and the penance ends.

Put Out More Flags had a new sourness; opinion crept into Mr. Waugh's fiction. Comment and diagnosis had formerly been reserved to minor, stylised characters like Father Rothschild who, in Vile Bodies, explained the wantonness of the bright young: "they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence"—for those traditions of civility that perish without the Faith. Fr. Rothschild disappears on his bicycle; but Mr. Waugh's opinions do not go with him. A few years later there was the famous eulogy of Mussolini's Abyssinian experiment, not quite imperium sine fine, not quite debellare superbos. The extension of the frontier is not, however, the main responsibility of the faithful in our time; it is defence. And with Alastair and Basil the English gentleman turned naturally to his traditional task of defending the island of Saints and so the Church, not only the faith itself but the whole civilisation in which it is incarnate.

This, then, is what must be defended: the arts and institutions of rational humanity and the clear reasonableness of the faith. Mr. Waugh is much concerned with the clarity and openness of Catholic worship as an expression of this. Here, from Where the Going was Good, is a passage from an account of his attendance at a Mass of the Ethiopian Church, "secret and confused in character":

I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions of the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian system. Indeed, so saturated are we in this spirit that many people regard the growth of the Church as a process of elaboration—even of obfuscation…. At Debra Labanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished…. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing…. The pure nucleus of the truth lay in the minds of the people, encumbered with superstitions, gross survivals of the paganism in which they had been brought up; hazy and obscene nonsense seeping through from the other esoteric cults of the Near East, magical infections from the conquered barbarian. And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all….

Helena, we saw, was devoted to this openness, clarity, commonsense; she is brusque and reasonable, and her spirit survives in Lady Circumference, "the organ voice of England, the hunting-cry of the ancien régime," as she snorts with disapproval at an American revivalist meeting in Mayfair: "What a damned impudent woman." (This was in Vile Bodies; the last page of Helena twenty years later recalls, with a change of tone, the figure used for Lady Circumference: "Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the covert. Helena casts them back on the scent.") The Faith may be driven back to the catacombs, but its agreement with reason must never be obscured. Mr. Waugh perhaps took a hint from Mr. Eliot in characterising the years between the wars as a period during which pagan obscenities seeped in. The Reformation opened the door to Madame Sosostris, to a society in which rich women cut cards to see who shall go first to have her fortune told by a foot-reader. The religions of darkness are the pagan intrusions; Catholic Christianity is light, order, life. The Loved One, Mr. Waugh's most perfect book (as Silas Marner is more perfect than Middlemarch), sketches a highly-developed religion of darkness, in which art, love, language are totally corrupted and brought under the domination of death, as must happen when the offices of the Church are in every sphere usurped.

This is the farcical vision of total collapse, the end of the defence which must be endless, however long Mass is said in secret. Helena would like the Wall of the Empire to be at the limits of the world, but Constantius knows that there has to be a wall; it represents "a natural division of the human race." With the Donation of Constantine ("as for the old Rome, it's yours") the secular became the holy Empire, the Catholic City that the civilised must defend. Inside the City are traditions of reason, clarity, beauty; outside, obscene nonsense, the uncreating Word. Mr. Waugh is the Augustine who, because he has a vision of this City, detests Pelagius as a heretic and Apuleius as a sorcerer; anathematises the humanitarian and the hot-gospeller.

Yet barbarism has its attractions. The "atavistic callousness" of Lady Marchmain is only another form of that barbaric vitality which animates the upper classes even in decadence. "Capital fellows are bounders"—if it were not so there would not be much fun in the early novels. Sometimes it seems that not to be corrupted is the shame, as with the dull Wykehamist of Brideshead Revisited; the chic, efficient corruption of Lady Metroland belongs inside, the depredations of Mrs. Beaver outside the pale. The moral distinctions are as bewildering as the semantics of U or the social criteria which determine what is Pont Street and what is not. And they are, of course, employed without the least trace of Protestant assertiveness; to make them appear self-evident without mentioning them is one of the triumphant aspects of Mr. Waugh's early technique. One notices that the voices which tormented Mr. Pinfold puzzled him by missing out many of the accusations he would have made had he wished to torment himself. His mind worked much as it habitually did in composing his novels; the quality of the fantasies reminds one of Lord Tangent's death or the Christmas sermon in A Handful of Dust. The vision of barbarism is a farcical one, and the fantasy has its own vitality; the truth exists, self-evident, isolated from all this nonsense, and there is no need to arrange a direct confrontation.

This co-existence of truth and fantasy is most beautifully sustained in A Handful of Dust, surely Mr. Waugh's best book, and one of the most distinguished novels of the century. The great houses of England become by an easy transition types of the Catholic City, and in this book the threatened City is Hetton; it will not prove to be a continuing city. Non hinc habemus manentem civitatem-the lament resounds in Brideshead. Hetton is not beautiful; it was "entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest," says the guide-book. But Tony Last has the correct Betjemanic feelings for the battlements, the pitchpine minstrels' gallery, the bedrooms named from Malory. He is "madly feudal," which means he reads the lesson in church at Christmas and is thinking of having the fire lit in his pew. The nonsense that goes on in the church troubles nobody. Tony is a nice dull gentleman who knows vaguely that the defence of Hetton is the defence of everything the past has made valuable. He loses it because his wife takes up with a colourless rootless bore; Hetton and Tony are sacrificed, in the end, to a sterile affair in a London flat. The death of her son shows how far Brenda Last has departed from sanity and normality. There is a hideous divorce, a meaningless arrangement in the middle of chaos. All this without comment; ennui, sterility, cruelty represent themselves as farcically funny. But the attempt of the lawyers to reduce him to the point where he must give up Hetton rouses Tony, and he breaks off the proceedings. Leaving England he goes in search of another City; but there is no other City, and this one is a fraud, like the Bõa Vista of When the Going was Good. Tony was in search of something "Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton." He found the deathly Mr. Todd, and a prison whose circular walls are the novels of Dickens. Hetton becomes a silverfox farm. Throughout this novel the callousness of incident and the coldness of tone work by suggesting the positive and rational declarations of the Faith. Civility is the silent context of barbarism; truth of fantasy. And Hetton, within the limits of Tony's understanding, is an emblem of the true City. Mr. Pinfold's mind proliferates with infidel irrationality; this is useful, provided the truth can be seen by its own light.

In Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, it is not allowed to do so. The great house as emblem of the City is enormously developed, but opinion—or truth, if you are Catholic—breaks into the text. The tone is less certain than that of A Handful of Dust, the prose slower, more explicit, more like that of the Campion biography than any of the other novels; a slower prose, weighed with semi-colons. Even in the making of the house itself fantasy has a smaller part than it had in Hetton. It has to be seen in the historical perspective I have been sketching; the account of Ryder—"solid, purposeful, observant" no doubt, as an artist should be, but not at the time of observing a Catholic—has to be put in order. Brideshead is English Baroque, but its stone came from an earlier castle. The family was apostate until the marriage of the present Marquis, reconciled to the Church on marriage (his wife, he said, "brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors"). Lady Marchmain's family were old Catholic; "from Elizabeth's reign till Victoria's they lived sequestered lives among their tenantry and kinsmen, sending their sons to school abroad, often marrying there, inter-marrying, if not, with a score of families like themselves, debarred from all preferment, and learning, in those lost generations, lessons which could still be read in the lives of the last three men of the house"—Lady Marchmain's brothers, killed in 1914–18 "to make a world for Hooper." The Chapel at Brideshead is accordingly not in the style of the house but in the art nouveau manner of the period of Lord Marchmain's reconciliation, as if to symbolise the delayed advent of toleration.

And their old religion sits just as uneasily upon the house's occupants. Mr. Waugh is always emphatic that his reasonable religion has nothing to do with making or keeping people in the ordinary sense happy. Lady Marchmain herself uneasily bears the sins of her family; Julia (descendant of earlier, somewhat Arlenesque heroines) drifts into marriage with Rex Mottram, a sub-man with no sense of reality (the scenes in which he dismisses it—when he is under religious instruction with a view to his being received into the Church—are the most amusing in the book because Mr. Waugh is always at his cruel best with people who cannot face reality), and is forced in the end to a self-lacerating penance. Cordelia's life is, on any naturalist view, squandered in good works. Sebastian, gifted with the power to attract love, attracts the love of God and is hounded through alcoholism and pauperism into simple holiness. Only Brideshead, the elder son, lives calmly and unimaginatively with the truth; understanding even that Sebastian's career, so wildly outside his own experience, has in the end a purpose. They are all locked into a class, these characters, and into the religion, which, by the logic of Mr. Waugh's fiction, is in the long run inseparable from that class. Lord Marchmain makes his Byronic protest but dies in awkward splendour at Brideshead, finally reconciled to the Church. Only in misery, it seems, will the Faith be restored in the great families of England.

The death of Lord Marchmain is the climax of the process by which Ryder returns to the Faith of his fathers, at the end of which he can see his love for Sebastian and for Julia as types and forerunners of this love of God. He begins in deep ignorance. (In the first edition he complained that "no one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims." Now he says, "They never suggested I should try to pray…. Later … I have come to accept claims which then … I never troubled to examine, and to accept the supernatural as the real." This shift of emphasis is an improvement, since Ryder's intimacy with the Flytes may teach him something of "the operation of divine grace" but nothing directly about the validity of the Church's historical claims.

Ryder learns certain associated lessons from the Flytes. It is Sebastian who shows him that the beauty of the City can be known only to the rich, that architecture and wine, for example, are aspects of it. The scene of Ryder's dinner with Mottram is a parable; the Burgundy is a symbol of civility, "a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his;" the brandy is a test of a man's truth and authenticity. Devoting his life to such civilities, exempted by an infection of the Flyte charm-as Blanche tells him—from the fate of the classless artist, Ryder is already a Catholic in everything but religion. Mr. Waugh has done a little to reinforce this point in his revised text by re-writing the passage describing the reunion of Ryder and his wife in New York. His indifference and distaste are unchanged, but now they make love with chill hygiene; a sham wasteland marriage, essentially terminable. But he too must lose everything; he loses Brideshead and Julia. So, in the end, all these lives are broken, the war is on and Brideshead itself a desolation (quomodo sedet sola civitas), defaced by soldiers and housing Hooper. However, in the art nouveau chapel the "beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design" burns anew. The saving of a soul may call for the ruin of a life; the saving of the City for its desecration.

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played.

The desecration of the City as a mysterious means to its restoration was the vision Mr. Waugh attributed to Pius V.

Mr. Waugh says he has kept in certain details because "they were essentially of the mood of writing; also because many readers liked them, though that is not a consideration of first importance." I think it is possible to like these details but to dislike other, perhaps more radical elements; though this is doubtless even less important, since to name them is to place oneself with the Hoopers. I mean that the characters are sometimes repulsive, and it spoils this book, as it doesn't the earlier work, to disagree with the author on this point. It is, for example, such a surprise to learn that Ryder is beautiful and beloved. Again there is Hooper, in whose person we are to see an abstract of the stupidity and vulgarity that beat upon the outer wall. The defenders have made a wrong appreciation; their enemy is more dangerous, much cleverer, than Hooper. As soon as Mr. Waugh disciplines his fantasy to a more explicit statement of the theme that has so long haunted him that theme is played falsely; Hooper marks the degree of distortion.

What we have in this book is the fullest statement of this image of the City, powered by that historical intransigence that equates the English aristocratic with the Catholic tradition; and very remarkable it is. But the operation of divine grace seems to be confined to those who say "chimney-piece" and to the enviable poor. Hooper and his brothers may be hard to bear, they may be ignorant of the City, but it seems outrageous to damn them for their manners. One would like, no doubt, to keep the Faith, in all its aspects, uncontaminated; but Hoopers are not Ebionites, and the novelist, imitating the action of grace, is not an infallible church to suppress them. For all that one admires in Brideshead—the City, the treatment of suffering, the useful and delightful Blanche, and Ryder's father—there is this difficulty, that intransigence when it gets into the texture of a novel breeds resistance; one fights rather than becomes absorbed. To suspend disbelief in these circumstances would be an act of sentimentality; a weakness not wholly unrelated to intransigence, and according to some discoverable in the text itself as well as in many readers.

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