…[Rather than being like an old friend, a] book is much more like a house — and someone else’s house at that, to which you are periodically invited, but you may not rearrange the furniture. I’m reminded of my favorite place in Boston, the Isabel Stuart Gardner Museum, which consists of that wonderful eccentric’s art collection hanging exactly as she left it. By terms of her will, not a Chinese screen or crusader’s sarcophagus may be shifted from the precise place where she left it. An astronomically high Anglican and a Jacobite, she asked that once a year upon her birthday, that rite should be said for her soul in the glorious, gloomy chapel she constructed from bits and pieces brought over from Europe. (A woman of her means today would more likely fill up her elegant home with the works of Damien Hirst.) The world is a poorer place now that we have run clean out of heiresses like Mrs. Gardner. Requiem aeternam dona eae, Domine, et lux perpetuam luceat eae.
The house I’m visiting this Lent is one more stately than Mrs. Gardner’s — although it lacks her indoor Venetian courtyard — and most of you have surely spent your weeks under its eaves. Its name is Brideshead, and it has endured the petty hurricanes of literary fashion, the vagaries of cinematic adaptation, an avalanche of “Queer theory” and the sniffy disdain of postconciliar primitivism. Here it stands and will endure as long as there are readers who understand English. An English friend and colleague, the icon painter David Clayton, told me that when he first converted and began to attend Mass at London’s extraordinary Oratory, some cradle Catholic warned him away from the place: “All you’ll meet there,” the fellow said, “are ‘Evelyn Waugh Catholics.'”
To which I answer, “Is there any other kind?”
No doubt there are, in Yamoussoukro, or the mountain chapels of Bolivia. May God bless and keep them. But in the English-speaking world, I cannot imagine any properly formed Catholic who wouldn’t feel deep-running sympathy, right down to the clench of his gut, with Waugh’s excruciated elegies to the remnants of a vanishing Christendom. Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar is finally fading — and in England is daily more dully drowned by the cats-in-heat call of the muezzin.
The house is irregularly shaped, of a style that seems more organic than fabricated — like one of those cathedrals that started off Romanesque, then over the course of centuries grew gradually Gothic. Brideshead begins, of course, in the grim futility of Britain’s Second World War. For that was how Waugh really viewed the war — as one learns in his masterful Sword of Honour trilogy, which shows how the Quixotic hope of saving Poland from modern savagery gave way to the necessary, squalid alliance with Stalin, and ended with the cooperation of secret British Communists in the betrayal of Eastern Europe. “The modern age in arms,” his hero Guy Crouchback crows when he learns of the Hitler-Stalin alliance that launched the war with a joint invasion of England’s sworn ally. Reading these novels is a necessary rebuke to our current, entirely imaginary account of the Second World War — which pretends, essentially, that the fight against Hitler was launched by Rosa Parks and conducted to save Europe’s Jews. Alas, few cared about them at the time — as no one before had bothered about the millions of dead Ukrainians. Had the Nazi barbarians outfought the Soviet hordes, we’d no doubt be watching films like Schindler’s List recounting Stalin’s crimes, and the memory of Pope Pius XII would be forever tainted by his failure to save the Ukrainians.
But Brideshead hides something quite different behind the camouflage netting it wears for the war; its narrator Charles Ryder swiftly returns us at the speed of memory to another style altogether: the neoclassical, even neo-pagan idyll he titles “Et in Arcadia Ego.” And for the reader who first encounters the book as I did, at age 16, it is this section he remembers. Viewers of the masterful BBC adaptation — which proved once and for all that really good books need a miniseries — are mostly taken by the callow, happy decadence of the book’s early Oxford section. I know it inspired me to apply to a better class of college than I had looked at, and use the money from my summer jobs to pick up tweed coats, flannel pants, and ties from the 1920s. (None of which I ever went on to wear — it turns out you really do need a valet to press all that wool.)
It’s easy for the youthful reader to miss some critical facts about Charles Ryder’s romps with Sebastian Flyte. I, for one, completely overlooked the homoerotic subtext — which surely would have been obvious to any British man who’d been to a public school. Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, and C. S. Lewis in Surprised By Joy, both comment on that peculiarly English institution that Graves called “artificial homosexuality.” (It’s unclear whether we’re meant to think that Charles and Sebastian actually committed this sin against nature; but their “romantic friendship” was not far removed from the intraschool “love affairs,” often unconsummated, that Graves and others record.) Having settled on Waugh as an upright Catholic author, I steadfastly overlooked any hints he dropped in the text — although when my father, a sturdy Slavic mailman, saw me watching the BBC series, he demanded to know, “Why are you watching a show with a bunch of pansies?” I answered with an ignorant, knowing sigh, “Dad, they aren’t queer. They’re simply English.”
Just as well. It would have ruined the book for me.
More importantly, as I read the book for the ninth time, now deeply settled into middle age, I notice that the happy times Charles and Sebastian spend tippling champagne and munching strawberries last only about a year. By their third term together at Oxford, Sebastian has already slid from happy to sloppy drunk, and his fall is quick and cataclysmic. By the time he should have been graduating with a well-earned gentleman’s “C,” Sebastian is hopelessly addicted to drinking and caught in the clutches of a loathsome German sociopath named Kurt.
So it goes with all the joys recorded in Waugh’s exquisite novel, whose lush and musical prose conveys to us the intensity of perfect, lyrical moments. But that is all they are. The love Charles finds for Julia sustains them in an idyllic affair for barely two years before her conscience (sparked by her father’s deathbed acceptance of absolution) sunders them again. They each are left alone, with the memories of brief and fleeting experiences — all flecked and crusted with sin, but nonetheless lovely — to sustain them through decades of isolated dryness and penitence, and the slow attempt to warm themselves by the cool, unearthly fire of the sanctuary lamp Charles finds relit at Brideshead, at a chapel reopened for soldiers.
Such is Waugh’s cold-hearted warning against the joys of earthly life. There are few accounts in his novels of happy marriages, friendships untouched by betrayal, or families whose Faith holds them together. Instead, the Church seems to bind her children to her with wires and hooks that pierce the flesh, perhaps as the only means to bind it to the spirit — then pull it, inexorably, toward the tabernacle with a twitch upon a thread. Indeed, in her human and institutional side, the Church in this novel is symbolized by the femme fatale Lady Marchmain — as dying, wistfully pagan Western man is portrayed by her errant husband. That, at any rate, is how I have come to read this book, and make sense of the toxic influence this willfully kind and generous lady exerts on her spouse and offspring. The claims she makes are superhuman, as are her demands, and they cannot be reconciled with lasting happiness in a world made by men like Mottram for the comfort of men like Hooper.
I don’t think Waugh was so Gnostic as to suggest that there could be no room for earthly consolation in the creed of Christ, to make a fetish of the Cross and exult unduly in suffering — which is for us a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless. …It is the modern world, constructed with subhuman comfort in mind, that forms men and women whose quest for happiness puts them deeply at odds with the natural order, with our own natures and any decent order. The chaos ensuing is like that of half an orchestra that has rebelled against the conductor — to lift a metaphor from The Silmarillion, by the other great English Catholic novelist of the century. We musn’t blame the instruments, or the Author.
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.