Sometimes, I fail at being Catholic. As I’ve mentioned here before, I try to live my faith and usually succeed, but I am far from perfect; if anything, I am acutely aware of how imperfect I am. The one constant is that I always come back. God is loving and merciful, so he always takes me back. Remembering that God is eternally waiting for my return keeps me going. When I look back on times I wandered away or felt great despair, as if God had forgotten me, I can see little hints of how those moments led me toward today. In the much-recommended classic novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh presents a family saga of spiritual journeys.
As with Frankenstein, The Canterbury Tales, and countless flashbacks in TV and movies, Brideshead Revisited has a frame story: it begins with one story that wraps around another. Narrator Charles Ryder, a soldier fighting for England during World War II, arrives at an old country manor to set up barracks and operations with his unit. Carefully looking around, he realizes that he has been at this mansion, Brideshead, before, and he recalls the experiences he had with the family of the manor. His entrance into the story is his matriculation at Oxford University, that great English school where everyone seems to go who doesn’t go to Cambridge. Charles becomes friends with high-class second son Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian and Charles spend their time drinking heavily, wandering around town with Sebastian’s teddy bear in tow, and occasionally studying just enough not to get kicked out of school.
The meat of the novel comes when Charles realizes that Sebastian has been keeping his family life very separate from his school persona. Charles has only his distant father for family, so he is particularly drawn to Brideshead and to its residents: Lord Marchmain, who lives in Italy with his mistress; Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, who resides at Brideshead and refuses to divorce her husband for the sake of her Catholicity; Julia, Sebastian’s pretty but unmarried sister; and Cordelia, still a child. Rounding out the family is Sebastian’s older brother, who goes only by (Lord) Brideshead (or sometimes “Bridey”). The dynamics of the family, their Catholic faith, and their transition through age and history are central to Charles’s journey, and he invites us along for the ride.
I would place the writing style of this novel similar to others set between the World Wars in Europe. It reads like a slightly less old-fashioned Pride and Prejudice: the story of an upper-class family living in a world where their propriety and property are both crumbling. The characters are memorable, and their futures bring a satisfying end to their spiritual journeys. I can relate to Julia’s having so many people to pray for that she can only offer one decade of the rosary for each person per week. I have seen and experienced people’s return to long cast-off religion. I hesitate to talk about my family because of their life choices sometimes taking them far from the Faith. However, like Waugh, I acknowledge that “God calls all souls to himself.” Some of us just wait a few more rings to answer the call.
N.B. Evelyn Waugh is male, and his name is pronounced EE-vuh-lynn WAW (rhymes with “straw”). Now you can sound fancy at parties.
Next time: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which may or may not be as delightful as the musical