Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Art Reflecting Life?

Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh

I had never read this, and frankly did not know much about Waugh's work, but came across an article in Vanity Fair a couple of months ago about this novel that intrigued me, so I decided to read the book. The novel is about an upper class British family in the years leading up to World War II (with flash forwards to the war itself), and the friendship that a less blue-blooded young man (although certainly not a pauper, kind of a middle class guy) forms with them. Apparently, Waugh really did have a long relationship with a similar family as a young man, and the novel is at least partially based on that experience. Ever since the book was published, Brits have been trying to figure out which pieces of the story really happened and which ones Waugh made up.

Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, starts out being friends with the young scion of the family when they are at Oxford together. Charles does not have much family of his own, and Sebastian's family kind of adopts him. Charles and Sebastian both like to party, but it quickly becomes clear that Sebastian's drinking is more than just youthful antics. Charles gets caught in the middle of Sebastian's unacknowledged war with his family. The family is concerned about his alcoholism, but rarely discuss it for fear of being "unseemly." Charles does not want to make it easier for Sebastian to get access to alcohol, but he also does not want to lose his friendship, so he finds himself in an awkward place on several occasions.

Two aspects of the story especially intrigued me. One, when Sebastian does experience a recovery of sorts, he returns to the Catholic church after years of disdaining her practices and doctrines. In fact, he becomes a religious ascetic, although one who still occasionally falls off the wagon. It was at this point in the story that Sebastian became transformed (in my mind at least) from a spoiled playboy into someone with no sense of entitlement who recognized his utter dependence on God. Sadly, he apparently felt he had no other option than to turn his back on his family - it was as if he could not take even tentative steps into a new way of being as long as he was under their eyes.

The other piece that was sad but oddly redemptive to me was Charles's love for Sebastian's sister Julia. Julia is married to someone else, but she and Charles fall in love. They both make plans to divorce their respective spouses and marry each other. Julia is Catholic but has been in a long state of rebellion and estrangement from the church. Charles thinks that all faith and doctrine is utter nonsense. Nevertheless, as Julia's father is dying, she comes to the realization that she cannot separate from her faith, even when there are things about the church that seem absurd to her. "I am not sure what I believe, but I cannot purposely cut myself off from the possibility of God's grace," she says to Charles. The reader aches for them, for their love is clearly real. The book ends with the possibility of Charles coming to faith as well. When he understands how important it is to Julia, he begins to open himself to the possibility that there is something to it after all.

I had some discomfort with the story - being a Protestant, the idea of excommunication is anathema to me, and it was off-putting to me how that threat cost Julia the possibility of happiness. While I do not condone the sin of adultery, I kept searching for some way that Julia and Charles could still be together and be within the circle of the church as well. It bothered me that there was not any room for that possibility. But, I also was touched by the ties that Julia had to her faith that she could not, in the end, relinquish. Because we know we can be welcomed back at any time, I think we Protestants are too quick to walk away. There is a sadness that Julia and Charles cannot be together, but a glimpse of hope that their decision to part might open the way for each of them to find a sustaining (and even fulfilling) relationship with God.

Reverent Reader


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