Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – 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.
Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited has everything that fascinates me in a story. It takes place in post-World War I England (one of my favorite time periods in history and literature) and tells the story of Charles Ryder’s spiritual journey as he encounters the wealthy Flyte family. Waugh’s writing, which is both beautiful and hilarious, makes this one of the more memorable novels I’ve read.
At Oxford, Charles becomes infatuated with Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric and quirky black sheep son of the Lord and Lady of Marchmain. When Charles visits Sebastian’s family at their mansion, Brideshead, he begins relationships that will continue to affect and change him for decades to come. Lady Marchmain is devoutly Catholic and struggles to instill her faith in her four children. Of the four, Sebastian and Julia prove to be the less compliant to their mother’s hopes but have the biggest impact on Charles’ agnosticism.
The specifics of Charles’ and Sebastian’s relationship seem to be left purposefully vague and while it serves as the catalyst for Charles’ journey, it’s only one aspect of the story. As a result of his own journey, Sebastian slowly and eventually fades into the background of the novel. Charles’ point of conversion also has very little detail and occurs mysteriously at the end of the novel; however, it is completely realistic and gives me the impression that Charles’ journey (as opposed to his conversion) is what Waugh found most intriguing and most important and what he really wanted to write about.
I can now include Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as novels that effectively weave faith into stories that remain profoundly human. I don’t consider any of these novels to be “religious” novels in the sense that their purpose is not to promote a specific religious belief or to provide entertainment only to those within that belief set. Instead, they happen to beautifully and realistically illustrate the human condition with characters that happen to have varying degrees of faith.
While this may seem like a very serious novel, Waugh’s wit shines through to make this story just about perfect for me. I found one scene, in which a very long debate occurs as to whether to give last rites to a lapsed Catholic, both incredibly serious and irreverently funny. Julia’s politician suitor gives her a birthday present in the form of a live tortoise with diamonds etched into it’s shell. Waugh’s description of the gift and the family’s reaction is priceless. And finally, I found it hysterical when Charles attempts to assign a degree of excitement to an aristocratic get-together by counting the number of water droplets falling off the beak of the ice sculptured swan.
This novel became a groundbreaking PBS mini-series in the early 1980’s starring Jeremy Irons. It was also made into a film a few years ago with Emma Thompson. I haven’t seen either of them, but it would just be my hunch that the mini-series would be the better option.