Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and the Profane

Evelyn Waugh's “Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder,” was published in 1945 and is considered to be a masterpiece. Time Magazine included “Brideshead Revisited” in its list of “All-time 100 Novels.”

For Waugh, the novel deals with “the operation of grace, the unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls.” This issue is explored in the context of one aristocratic family, the Flytes, as seen by the narrator Charles Ryder.

In Waugh's preface to the 1959 revised edition, he notes that the novel was written between December 1944 and June 1945 following a minor accident, during a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster.

“Brideshead Revisited” was adapted to the screen in the 1981 TV series produced by Granada Television. A big-screen adaptation is now released by Miaramax.

After a chance encounter, the protag and narrator Charles Ryder, a student at Oxford University college and Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of an aristocratic family and himself an undergraduate at Christ Church, become friends. Sebastian takes Charles to his family's residence, Brideshead Castle, where Charles meets the the Flytes, including Sebastian's sister, Lady Julia Flyte.

During the holiday, Charles returns home, but he is called back to Brideshead when Sebastian incurs an injury, and the two spend the rest of the summer together.

Sebastian's family is first generation Catholic. Lord Marchmain, an Anglican, converted to his wife's religion, Roman Catholicism.

Indeed, religious arguments often take place among the family members–Catholicism influences their lives and the subjects of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles. He is in fact put off by Lady Marchmain, Sebastian's mother, a devout Catholic who tries to control others through guilt and manipulation.

Sebastian learns to find greater solace in alcohol than in religion, and descends into that habit, drifting away from the family over a two-year period, which occasions Charles' own estrangement from the Flytes. Yet Charles is fated to re-encounter the Flyte family over the years, and eventually forms a relationship with Julia, who by that time is married but separated from the wealthy but uncouth Canadian entrepreneur, Rex Mottram.

Charles plans to divorce his own wife who has been unfaithful so he and Julia can marry. However, motivated by a comment by her brother and by her father's deathbed return to the faith, Julia decides that she can no longer live in sin, and for that reason can no longer contemplate marriage to Charles. Lord Marchmain's reception of the sacrament of Extreme Unction also influences Charles, who had been “in search of love in those days” when he first met Sebastian, “that low door in the wall…which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden,” a metaphor that informs the work on a number of levels. Waugh desired that the book should be about the “operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.”

During WWII, Ryder, now an army officer after establishing a career as an architectural artist, is billeted at Brideshead, once home to many of his affections. It occurs to him that builders' efforts were not in vain, even when their purposes may appear, for a time, to be frustrated.


The book's most significant theme is Catholicism. Evelyn Waugh was a convert to Catholicism and the book expresses the Catholic faith in secular literary form. Waugh wrote to his literary agent A. D. Peters, “I hope the last conversation with Cordelia gives the theological clue. The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that the theologians won't recognise it.” Considering his readership, who were generally urbane and cosmopolitan, a sentimental or a didactic approach would not have worked. Sentimentalism would have cheapened the story while didacticism would have repelled a secular audience through excessive sermonising. Instead, the book brings the reader, through the narration of the agnostic Charles Ryder, in contact with the severely flawed but deeply Catholic Marchmain family. While many novels of the same era portray Catholics as the flatfooted people put on the spot by brilliant non-believers, Brideshead Revisited turns the table on the agnostic Charles Ryder (and presumably the reader as well) and scrutinises his secular values, which are tacitly portrayed to fall short of the deeper humanity and spirituality of the Catholic faith.

The Catholic themes of divine grace and reconciliation are pervasive in the book. Most of the major characters undergo a conversion in some way or another. Lord Marchmain, a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, who lived as an adulterer, is reconciled with the Church on his deathbed. Julia, who is involved in an extramarital affair with Charles, comes to feel this relationship is immoral and decides to separate from Charles in spite of her great attachment to him. Sebastian, the charming and flamboyant alcoholic, ends up in service to a monastery while struggling against his alcoholism. Even Cordelia has some sort of conversion: from being the “worst” behaved schoolgirl her headmistress has ever seen, to serving in the hospital bunks of the Spanish Civil War. Most significant is Charles's apparent conversion, which is expressed very subtly (otherwise, it would have been sentimental); at the end of the book, set 19 years after the main thread of the novel, Charles kneels down in front of the tabernacle of the Brideshead chapel and says a prayer with “ancient words newly learned” implying recent instruction in the catechism. Waugh speaks of his belief in grace in a letter to Lady Mary Lygon: “I believe that everyone in his (or her) life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It's there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there's a particular time sometimes, like Hubert, on his deathbed when all resistance is down and Grace can come flooding in.” Waugh uses a quote from a short story by G.K. Chesterton to illustrate the nature of Grace. Cordelia, in conversation with Charles Ryder, quotes a passage from the Father Brown detective story “The Queer Feet:” “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”[1] This illustrates how the hand of God works invisibly in each person's life, allowing him his free will until he is ready to respond to Grace, at which point God will intervene in his life. Aside from Grace and Reconciliation, other Catholic themes in the book are the Communion of Saints, Faith and Vocation.

Nostalgia for the Age of English nobility
The Marchmain Family, to some, is a symbol of a dying breed the English nobility. One reads in the book that Brideshead has “the atmosphere of a better age,” and, referring to the deaths of Lady Marchmain's brothers in the Great War, “these men must die to make a world for Hooper … so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat, wet handshake, his grinning dentures.” This is viewed by some as elitism. According to Martin Amis, the book “squarely identifies egalitarianism as its foe and proceeds to rubbish it accordingly.”

The nature of Charles and Sebastian's relationship remains a topic of considerable debate; are they simply close friends, or does Waugh mean to imply a physical relationship between the characters Given that much of the first half of the novel circles around the initial encounter, friendship, and falling-away of these central characters, this issue continues to pique the curiosity of readers.

A frequent interpretation is that Charles and Sebastian had a passionate yet platonic relationship, a strong attachment that prefigures future heterosexual relationships. Cara, Lord Marchmain's mistress, says to Charles in the context of the novel itselfthat his relationship with Sebastian forms part in a process of emotional development “typical to the English and the Germans”. Waugh himself said that “Charles's romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years.”

Others draw alternative conclusion from the line “naughtiness high on the catalogue of grave sins”, although the “naughtiness” in question could refer to the boys' gluttony, not to mention the sloth and greed that characterize their carefree days, rather than homosexual acts per se. Similarly, visits to female prostitutes could just as easily have been meant, especially since prostitutes are mentioned in regard to Mulcaster. The latter interpretation is supported by the fact that a minor character, Anthony Blanche, is portrayed as unambiguously homosexual in the book. Reference is made at one point to Charles' impatiently anticipating Sebastian's letters in the manner of one who is love-smitten, but this could just as reasonably be interpreted as a reflection on the dreariness of Charles' own circumstances at that point.

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