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Waugh Contra Mundum

The problem Catholicism of Brideshead Revisited.

5:00 PM, Aug 21, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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THE NEW FILM ADAPTATION of Brideshead Revisited has forced Evelyn Waugh's most celebrated novel upon popular culture again, and popular culture has suffered enough. This time the chorus is one of sorrow and anger over the transformation of a work of art into a dangled period piece around which swim the sharks of the Academy. Nothing will compare, grumble the loyalists, to the 1981 Granada television mini-series, which, at about 700 minutes, took longer to watch than the book did to read. Director Julian Jarrod has changed the plot into one of an incestuous love triangle among Charles, Sebastian, and Julia, and so source material that was overwrought to begin with has been fashioned into an all-out festival of camp. What more would we expect from the ghastly "age of Hooper"? Yet one aspect of Waugh's flawed and complicated masterpiece pays revisiting--its ostentatious religiosity. Brideshead is a Catholic novel, all right, but an ill at ease one.

"It is a peculiarity of the literary profession," wrote Waugh in his diary in 1944, "that, once an idea becomes fully formed in the author's mind, it cannot be left unexploited without deterioration. If, in fact, the book is not written now it will never be written." And so it was written during a five-month hot spell of wartime productivity, while Waugh was on leave from the army. The germ of his inspiration is easy to detect. A year earlier, in March 1943, he'd been rereading G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday and had found at least one overriding assumption of the comic mystery wanting: "It is painful to realize that Chesterton introduced 'the Century of the Common Man'. It was easy in 1908 to believe in the basic wisdom and wholesomeness of the common man and to think all wrongheadedness confined to prigs and cranks. It is harder now after the stampede of silliness and vice in half of Christendom."

Brideshead sets about giving the case for the prosecution in this rampant epoch of democratic feeling. The book is as rife with purportedly worthy prigs and cranks as it is with hat tips to Chesterton himself. Lady Marchmain reads Father Brown stories in the drawing room of her lavish but empty estate, and one in particular furnishes the metaphor that Cordelia later remembers to Charles and also titles Book Three of the novel: "a twitch upon the thread." This refers to the inexorable pull of the divine acting upon even the most far-flung and recalcitrant soul, and it is meant to account for how Sebastian, Lord Marchmain, and Julia each return to the faith--circumstances of plot, and floridities of description, which critics have clucked at as a stampede of silliness in its own right. Martin Amis said that there was "something barefaced, even aggressive, in the programmatic way that the novel arranges for its three most unregenerate characters to claim the highest spiritual honours." Sebastian winds up a pestering monk's helper, a drunk living half in and half out of grace in North Africa. Marchmain makes the sign of the cross at the very edge of the grave and accepts the holy sacrament from a patronizing priest, but only after spending the better part of a marriage in a state of Byronic extravagance and apostasy in Venice. Meanwhile, Julia, who has hitherto evinced little if any emotion toward her estranged parent, is so moved by his passing and so instantly appalled by her own life of sin that she forsakes the one thing she really loves--Charles--because to her suffering is synonymous with redemption. Waugh's main characters are not round so much as rotund.