Return to Brideshead [Brideshead revisited] is the most famous novel Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), writer converted to Catholicism and also author of a biography of the martyr Saint Edmund Campion. Following the celebrated 1981 television series and the film he directed Julian Jarrold in 2008 (with a relevant role of emma thompson), a new version for the small screen was announced for 2022, directed by Luca Guadagninobut he himself announces that needs a ‘miracle’ to release it.
But there’s never a lack of reasons read it or reread itand an expert in English literature such as Joseph Pearce gives us some Within the series that he is dedicating to great works of universal literature (such as Romeo and Juliet, Don Quijote of La Mancha either Wuthering Heights), has reserved a space to delve into the significance of Return to Bridesheadunequivocally religious, as explained in Crisis Magazine.
Return to Brideshead in a nutshell
The profoundly Catholic spirit of Return to Brideshead was encapsulated by its author, Evelyn Waugh, in the prologue he wrote for the second edition of his best novel. The theme of the novel, she wrote, was “the influence of divine grace in a group of characters very different from each other, although closely related”.
Faithfully following Waugh, and keeping in mind that ignoring the author’s authority is always dangerous for the understanding of the work, we must recognize from the beginning that Return to Brideshead it’s supernatural to the core of his own being. Its main protagonist is not any of the human and physical characters, but the invisible hand of the Providence, which provides the necessary grace for the conversion of souls. It is this invisible hand of grace that guides the plot, writing in straight lines with crooked lines and the lives of flawed human characters.
Some scenes from the 1981 British series, a good version of the novel written by Evelyn Waugh in 1945.
The very title of the novel offers a clue to his supernatural identity. Brideshead, the name of a stately mansion, the home of an aristocratic and dysfunctional Catholic familyis clearly symbolic: the “head [head] of the bride [bride]” is the boyfriend, a signifier for himself Christ. “Return to Brideshead” is therefore a return to Christ. This supernatural dimension is accentuated by the liturgical structure of the novel, since the first part metaphorically ends on Good Friday and the novel itself ends, metaphorically, on Easter Sunday.
A family divided around faith
The “closely linked characters” that are intertwined and woven into the pages of the novel are the various members of the aristocratic Flyte family. Lord Marchmain, the head of the family, has abandoned his wife and children and has settled in Venice with his mistress. Lady Marchmain, the deserted wife, is a stoic and pious Catholic woman, if somewhat aloof.
Lord Brideshead, the eldest son, is a solid and faithful catholic, steeped in scholastic philosophy and Jesuit spirituality, but socially awkward and inept. Sebastian, the youngest son, is the complete opposite of his brother. He is a wavering catholic whose faith is not based on reason but on a romantic aestheticism driven by emotions. However, he is very charming, at least on the surface.
Julia, the eldest daughter, is physically beautiful and very self centered. Like Sebastian, she resents the demands that practicing the faith places on her, and she resents having her “freedom” curtailed. Her youngest daughter, Cordelia, lacks her sister’s physical beauty, but she has piety and faith that Julia is missing. Here’s how Sebastian describes his family: “We’re a motley family. Brideshead and Cordelia are staunch Catholics; Julia and I are half-pagan. I’m happy, but I suspect Julia isn’t. and papa is excommunicated…I haven’t the slightest idea which one of them is happy.Anyway, from every point of view, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it…and it’s the only thing what interests me…”
Grace surrounds the characters in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ whatever their attitude towards it.
As well as allowing the narrator, Charles Ryder, to get to know the Flyte family better, Sebastian’s words also introduce the enigma of happiness that the novel tries to solve. What is happiness? How is it achieved? And once achieved, how can it be preserved and maintained?
When the presence of the supernatural prevails
Charles Ryder, the narrator, is the other key character, whose voice must be understood if we are to understand the novel itself. The narrative voice, introduced in the prologue, speaks with apparent disappointment… “Here, at the age of thirty-nine, I began to grow old. […] My last love died here. There was nothing particular about the manner of his death.” It is this jaded, middle-aged voice that speaks throughout the novel, recounting the past with the wisdom of experience. This is most evident when we are told how Charles turns his back on Brideshead for what he believes will be the last time: “‘I have left the illusion behind,’ I said to myself. ‘From now on I will live in a world of three dimensions, with the help of my five senses’. Later I have learned that such a world does not exist, but then, losing sight of the house at a bend in the road, I thought that it would not cost me anything to find it, that it would spread out before me at the end of the avenue.
In this brief passage, we see the subtly subversive voice of the middle-aged narrator judging the naivety of his younger self. By turning his back on Brideshead, young Charles believed that he was turning his back on what he supposed to be an illusory supernatural cosmos. From then on, he would only believe in the three physical dimensions perceived by his five physical senses. Everything else was an illusion.
However, an older Charles has learned that “such a world does not exist” as the naive atheist believes. The world of the materialist is the world of illusion. The older Charles has seen through the disillusionment of her youth and has become disillusioned with her.
We come to understand that the Charles Ryder’s disillusionment with his younger self’s atheism it is the fruit of the wisdom of experience and especially of the wisdom of the experience of suffering. Two powerful metaphors are used to evoke the role of the suffering when it comes to making selfish souls see reason. The first is “Pulling the Thread,” the title of the last part of the book, which is taken from a story by Father Brown of G. K. Chesterton. The thread is divine grace working its way through the story, as Waugh had proclaimed in the prologue. The shaking of the thread is the moment of suffering in which the wandering soul is violently removed from its chosen destructive path. By the hook of God’s own suffering love.
The other metaphor is that of an avalanche, which is used as a recurring motif in the later chapters of the book. Charles compares the happiness he and Julia seek in the middle of a cold and loveless world with that of a trapper in the heat of an arctic cabin. Outside, snow piles up against the door as the blizzard picks up. Inside, they are warm, “until very soon, when the wind calms down, the sun rises over the frozen slopes and the thaw arrives, a block moves on top, slips, hesitates and gains strength, until the entire skirt of the hill seems to be crumbling and the little lighted shelter opens, breaks into a thousand pieces, and rolls down the slope in the avalanche to go to the bottom of the ravine”.
The paradox evoked by these powerful metaphors is that suffering is essential for the growth of the soul into the depths of truly selfless love to which she is called. Health does not consist in avoiding suffering, but in accepting it. Only in that acceptance can health, healing, and suffering come together in a trinitarian synthesis known as holiness. It is this wisdom that Waugh weaves with the invisible thread of grace that he evokes. It is this wisdom that answers the enigma of happiness that Return to Brideshead it is proposed to solve.
True happiness is not possible without the health and healing that only come through suffering. This is the wisdom that Charles Ryder has learned by the end of the novel. By losing everything, he has reached a deeper happiness than he had ever known. He is disappointed in his own disappointment and disappointed in his own disappointment. Thus, it is a re-enchanted Charles Ryder who is described in the novel’s final sentence as “much happier than usual”.
Translated by Verbum Expensive.