Faith and Film Friday: Brideshead Revisited
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth review in our series, Faith and Film Friday. Read the whole series here.
Anyone who has even briefly surveyed popular Catholic novels has no doubt come across Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Waugh called his famous work a “book that will bring tears” (A Life Revisited), and the faithful 1981 eleven-episode BBC film adaptation will do no less. The story follows the thoughts of Charles Ryder as he reminisces about his relationship with the Flyte family and his visits to their estate, Brideshead. Charles, an agnostic, leaves home for the University of Oxford, “searching for love.” He forms a close relationship with Sebastian Flyte and is introduced to a world of mystery and intrigue, led to the very core of the human experience, fallen and redeemed in Christ, through the Catholicism of the Flytes.
Charles and his newfound friend set out to find happiness in the world, away from all suffering and sadness, contra mundum—their own arcadian oasis. “If it could only be like this always—always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper,” opines Sebastian. However, even in arcadia suffering cannot be escaped.
Et in arcadia ego. Sebastian experiences inner turmoil, as one pulled between sin and grace; even as he behaves like a heathen, he hears his conscience, calling him to repentance and the sacraments. However much he tries to secure the comfort of happiness by his own pleasure, he is always aware of its passing away into time. As an agnostic, Charles is unsettled by his friend’s suffering and, out of friendship, attempts to help Sebastian escape from the imposing standards of his familial religion and live freely in the world. His efforts, however, make matters worse, sending Sebastian deeper into alcoholism and, ultimately, out of the country.
Years later, Charles and Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s sister, cross paths during a voyage, and, as both are unhappily married, they begin an adulterous affair. As he had done with Sebastian, Charles, trying to make this woman he loves happy, pulls Julia from a bad situation into a worse one. Charles finds himself fighting for his friends against the world of their religion, which he perceives to be an archaic morality play based in fiction, but passed on as truth.
While Charles is willing to take what he likes of Brideshead and ignore the religious references—to drink the champagne and walk through the fields without thinking of tomorrow, to live in arcadia and ignore death, grace is working within the Flyte family. Waugh brilliantly juxtaposes the Catholic Flyte family with a plethora of worldly characters who are constantly judging the Flytes for their archaic ways and, at times, attempting to lure members of the family to a more worldly life. For even the Flytes, for all their moral rigor, seem deeply flawed.
Yet there is a hidden force in the background pulling them in another direction, one made only indirectly explicit through a quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” However much the Flytes are tempted to bend to the world, as hard as Charles and others may try to bring them into their own flawed happiness, God is constantly pulling them to himself and promising perfect happiness that will never end.
The Flyte family is caught between two realities, one material and the other spiritual, the former passing and the latter timeless. Sebastian and Julia, two “semi-heathens,” are experiencing the turmoil of being tempted by the world of sin but being drawn into the world of grace. Unbeknownst to him, Charles, showing that it is impossible to be merely passive in the spiritual life, is essentially fighting against God for his friends. Charles attempts to lure those he loves from the God who is love itself.
Grace is working within the lives of men and women who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, and this gift of love, however much one may run from it, is transformative and engaging. “Grace is not confined to the happy, prosperous, and conventionally virtuous,” writes Waugh. “There is no stereotyped religious habit of life” (The Guardian). Brideshead Revisited is the common story of every Christian trying to live his baptismal promises seriously in this material world, which offers only passing happiness and pleasure.
“Today there is much pleasure,” writes Blessed Henry Suso, “tomorrow a heartfelt grief. See, that is the game of the world” (Little Book of Eternal Wisdom).
Waugh highlights the reality that being a Christian is uncomfortable and causes suffering, but, as the insightful Cordelia Flyte remarks, “No one is ever holy without suffering.” Charles is searching for love, which he equates with earthly happiness, but it is precisely in suffering that the Christian finds love. According to the logic of the world, this is madness. The Christian, however, lives for another world, eternal life in God. It cannot always be summer in this life, a harsh reality that dawns upon Julia and Sebastian, but God’s love, far superior to that offered by the world, remains effective in our lives and comforts us in our sorrow as we purify our desires and allow ourselves to be led by him and through him to eternal happiness.
Next week we will review Babette’s Feast.
Photo by Skeeze