Thursday, February 26, 2009

Quomodo sedet sola civitas (How doth the city sit solitary)

"My theme is memory, that winged host ..."

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (published by Chapman and Hall, 1945 - republished by Penguin Classics, 2000) 331 pp.

I had only a fuzzily romantic notion of what this book was about ... an idyllic look at the British upper classes between the two wars? A cozy look at a friendship between two men - one a reluctant Catholic, the other an indifferent Protestant? Neither perception is accurate it appears. The book does stoke my not so hidden interest in the British upper classes of the 1920s and 1930s.

The book begins with Charles Ryder, an officer with the English army during WWII. The army has commandeered the estate of Brideshead for military purposes. This was the site of the beginning of a life changing relationship for him with the Flyte family.

In 1923, Charles, an aspiring painter, meets Sebastian Flyte, an aspiring alcoholic, from a rigid Catholic family at Oxford University. Charles' first glimpse of Sebastian is Sebastian staggering into Charles' room and throwing up after a bout of freshman drinking. Immediately, there is an intense homoerotic vibe here. Sebastian is beautiful, irresponsible, seemingly carefree and carries a teddy bear named Aloysius (I still can't make sense of that unless it signifies that he remains a perpetual child).

And what to make of Anthony Blanche who flutters and flits into their Oxford student life and beyond in three key scenes ... obviously gay, flamboyant, decadent. Is he a symbol of the undercurrent of sexuality that never really rears its head overtly between Charles and Sebastian despite talk of "romantic English relationships" between the two men? Does he serve as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the choices that Charles makes or fails to make?

Charles is more serious and seems so enamored of Sebastian that he lies for his friend, gives him money for booze, protects him from his overbearing mother Lady Teresa Marchmain, stuffed shirt older brother Bridey and the assorted meddlers in the family trying to save him.

Charles falls in love it seems, not only with Sebastian but with the entire Flyte family and the palatial Brideshead estate itself: the formidable Lady Marchmain; the beautiful and elusive Julia, Sebastian's sister who is engaged to the slightly louche Canadian Rex Mottram (I love it - a sinister Canadian!); younger sister Cordelia. Particularly Julia, who seems oblivious of his interest. There is a lovely scene where Charles realizes that he is not a romantic contender for Julia's affections by the way she shares a cigarette with him.

And here I will foolishly I impose a 21st c. perspective on an early 20th c. scenario: I am puzzled and alarmed by the way Charles "enables" Sebastian to drink and virtually destroy himself as he tries to "protect" him from the Flyte family's interference. Drinking appears to be their bond but Sebastian is much more adversely affected ... drinking at Oxford as undergrads, tasting vintage wines at Brideshead, accompanying Sebastian to Venice to visit the banished Lord Marchmain who lives with his Italian mistress Cara, away from the Lord's despised English countryside.

Secondly, I am mildly surprised (perhaps naively so) by the virulence of the anti-Catholic sentiment in British society depicted here. The book is much harsher and more cynical than I imagined.

Yet the language is rich and evocative and lovely. Charles beautifully compares memories to the pigeons of San Marco: " ... they were everywhere ... in little honey-voiced congregations ... perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder, until suddenly ... with a flutter and a sweep of wings, the pavement was bare."

Evelyn Waugh has said that he wrote the book in an era of privations and austerity (1944) and perhaps over emphasized the opulence of the time he wrote of - this struck him as distasteful afterwards upon re-reading the work. I'm not sure I agree, perhaps for some it is over the top, but I found myself immersed in it, craving more not less.

Charles is banished from Paradise (Brideshead) like an errant angel by Lady Marchmain for colluding in Sebastian's alcoholism by giving Sebastian money to escape the traditional family hunt to go to the local pub. But Charles is summoned again some months later by Julia when Lady Marchmain is dying. She wants him to find Sebastian who has been living (or hiding) in Morocco, having used up all his goodwill and money in England despite the family's best efforts to keep him from drinking.

Sebastian, when he is found by Charles, is quite ill, hospitalized and living in bohemian squalor with a none too swift ex-Foreign Legion soldier named Kurt who has shot himself in the foot to escape service. He is too ill to travel to see his mother.

Lady Marchmain dies. Brideshead is to be torn down and replaced by a series of flats. Lord Marchmain, long separated from the formidable Lady Marchmain, is in debt and only the sale of the estate will cover his debts it appears. Bridey, Sebastian's brother, asks Charles to paint a series of portraits of Brideshead as a sort of commemoration. Lady Marchmain is gone. Julia is married to the dreadfully mercenary Canadian Rex Mottram. Cordelia's fate is uncertain (mother dead, father seemingly indifferent). The fate of Brideshead appears doomed perhaps like the very rich who inhabit it.

Is Brideshead then like Sebastian - an extravagant, beautiful thing that must die, that cannot survive in the modern world?

Significantly, the portraits that Charles paints mark the beginning of a long and successful career in architectural painting. He thrives because many manors are being threatened with decay and extinction. "My arrival [as a painter] seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneer's, a presage of doom."

Fast forward ten years to 1933 ... Charles is married to Celia Mulcaster, an old school chum's sister. He is a successful painter and re-encounters Julia Flyte on a voyage across the Atlantic from America. They are irresistibly drawn together. Wife Celia is efficient and aggressive in her pursuit of Charles' commercial success in a way that he is not (as well as being unfaithful). Charles seems supremely uninterested in both wife and family. In the two years that he has been away painting in a foreign climate a child has been born and he seems not only uninterested but has seemingly forgotten that it has occurred. I find the English upper classes extremely queer - is this a form of British humour or Charles' real emotion?

Julia and Charles agree to divorce their spouses and marry. Sebastian is living in a monastery in Tunis and leading a more or less devout life. Bridey wants to marry a slightly avaricious widow and eject his sister Julia from the estate. Cordelia is now a nurse and, to Charles' eyes, has grown disappointingly "plain".


Unexpectedly Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die on the eve of WWII and his arrival creates an uproar. Bridey is removed from the will as the inheritor of Brideshead. A religious crisis which I won't disclose forces Julia's hand and compels her to choose between Charles and her faith. As a Catholic (lapsed) I can't quite fathom her dilemma. The pull of religion is too strong, she cannot forsake it. In any event, the two are separated forever.

The last few pages of the novel show Charles returning to Brideshead during the war in the same setting as the book's opening. Describing himself as "homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless", he too has made a momentous change by the book's end.

I found the book immensely appealing ... sure, I am fool for this sort of British upper class twittery in a way I can't explain and have explored elsewhere. The book has tremendous power and beauty. I'm glad I finally took the plunge and read it.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

A small correction, in the TV series it is not Brideshead but Marchmain house in London that is to be torn down to pay debts

Anonymous said...

This book is so beautifully written that I have read it again and again over about thirty years.
It is worth reading just because the words are so beautiful. In my opinion, Charles is everyman. In his search for meaning and purpose
he meets the Marchmains. They represent the things Charles desperately wants - love, belonging, family - but in the end they all disappoint him. He tries to find meaning in art, love and serving his country, but it all rings hollow. Anthony Blanche pops up like a greek chorus and tells Charles that he will not find what he is looking for until he is true to himself. Charles is repulsed but cannot deny the truth in what Blanche tells him. This book is beautifully written and a profound description of the human experience.

A Lit Chick ... said...

Thank you for the correction Anonymous. I assume this is the same person who posted twice?

Yes, I found the book immensely moving. I have had it on my mind for years and never got to it unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Nope, I am the second commenter and I did send in the correction!!!
I am just a book lover who stumbled onto your site and I love it!!!

A Lit Chick ... said...

Thanks, that's very kind of you.

Anonymous said...

OOPS keyboarding error - I DIDN'T send the correction!!!

But I still love your blog!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
A Lit Chick ... said...

And I still thank you.:)

A Lit Chick ... said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think perhaps you're missing some fundamental Catholic catechesis if you can't fathom Julia's dilemma.

One could also put it in secular terms: "for here there is no place/
that does not see you. You must change your life."

I'll never forget the closing lines, "...a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

"I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room.
'You're looking unusually cheerful to-day,' said the second-in-command."

Perfect.

A Lit Chick ... said...

No I did not understand Julia's dilemma. I am a lapsed Catholic who never had a particularly strong tie to my religion. These feelings are difficult to explain when one has never experienced them.

May I ask, I am speaking to the same anonymous who has written here before?

Anonymous said...

See Jeremiah's Lamentations. Chapter 1:
"Quomodo sedet sola civitas;plena populo,
facta est quasi vidua.Domina gentium,
princeps provinciarum, facta est sub tributo...."


"How the city sits solitary, that was full of people!
She has become as a widow, who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces is become tributary!...."

Brideshead represents the Church (the Heavenly City, Jerusalem): we come back to it when we realize what it really is, and how we need it.

Michelle said...

Thank you for your input.

gemoftheocean said...

Hi, I just stumbled across your post today---but the thing with Julia / Charles is that Charles has aLSO, by the end of the book and after the affair with Julia become a Catholic himself! He himself now does understand Julia's dilemma. Julia can't live in sin with Charles, because Charles is still married in the eyes of the church. [Julia's marriage could have been easily annulled, but not so Charles.] By the end of the book Charles does understand. EACH of the Flyte family Children are a different kind of Catholic (and the parents.) All the family members, in one way or another are reconciled to the faith.

Go back and re-read the very passive tenses Charles uses regards anything of the faith. Wish I had the book at hand, but you'll see what I mean.

Michelle said...

Hmm, thanks Karen, that merits a second look.

JJ said...

One minor correction: It was not the mansion Brideshead that was to be demolished and turned into flats, it was the Flyte's London home . . . a second home, the sale of which deprives Cordelia her "coming out party." Brideshead is very much in the family as the place where the father dies and which is eventually deeded over to Julia.

Second, emoftheocean's interpretation that Charles has himself become Catholic in the intervening years is very interesting. It explains the "newly learned form of words" comment in Charles' description of kneeling before the Eucharist in the tabernacle where "I said a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words and left..."

While I was originally just a bit mystified by this statement . . . and may even have chalked it up to war fatigue drawing this irreligious man to offer up a sentimental, hopeful prayer, I think Gemoftheocean is exactly right (and Waugh a bit too vague).

What drew Charles to become Catholic? The fact that Julia's choice challenged him to deeply consider, "What is it in this faith that could draw her to choose to give up all the happiness that lay before us just to be true to some abstract religious principles?" Overtime, his pondering and study must have led him to believe that there was indeed "something to it" and that Julia had acted honorably, not foolishly.

For Julia's part, though she lived most of her life with very secular priorities, as evidenced by her choice of a husband, intellectually she was much more convinced of the truth of Catholic faith then any of today's lapsed Catholics. Julia had been very thoroughly catechized, even if reluctantly. By contrast, modern Catholics, lapsed or not, have generally receive very weak instruction in the faith, especially the "why we know this is true" sort of way.

For Julia, the crisis was witnessing her father's demise toward death and the growing certainty and desire for him to be reconciled to God before he died. This crisis, marked by uncertainty whether he would repent and desire salvation, forced her to confront the fact that if she wanted her father to repent . . . shouldn't she do the same?? She realized it was hypocritical to bring a priest to her dying father so he could be reconciled with God at the last minute if she was unwilling to be reconciled with God for the last forty years of her own life. In fact, it might even be more than hypocritical.

A LIT CHICK said...

Thanks for your comments JJ ... of all my posts, this one seems to generate the most attention from readers. The book has obviously had an intense and long lasting influence on readers.