Saturday, 23 April 2011

God of Grace: How God Saved a Family

By Evelyn Waugh

In my second year of university, I picked out Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder from the Big Read of the BBC, a compilation of Britain's favourite novels. Brideshead Revisited was the "Catholic classic" in the list, and without further need of convincing, I bought it from Waterstone's 3 for 2 deal along with a A Suitable Boy and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I quickly got into the book as it starts with the kind of heady university experience that I was then undergoing. It moved into a family drama, the characters of which all seemed recognisable to me and my Catholic setting. The decadence of the overprivileged was also immediately familiar, if a little guilt inducing.

Charles Ryder is the narrator of Brideshead Revisited; Charles, a World War II officer, is part of the organisation of a battalion that has encamped on the grounds of a magnificent stately home. The place is Brideshead, a house he knows intimately as the scenes of his greatest happinesses, and he recollects these experiences, back to the beginning of his relationship with the young Lord Sebastian Flyte at Oxford. Oxford has never been so entertainingly and beautifully reminisced, but the golden summer of Charles' and Sebastian's youth ends gradually as Charles is drawn deeper into the oligarchical and Catholic Marchmain family. The family are an odd bunch: Lord Brideshead, or Bridey, the eldest brother, an intelligent but emotionally cold and dull young man, the sister Julia, a radiant socialite who most closely resembles Sebastian, and Cordelia, a clever sweetheart of an adolescent girl who dreams of entering the cloister. The head of the family can best be described as "saintly, but not a saint", the matriarch Lady Teresa, Marchioness of Marchmain. The Marquess of Marchmain is at first absent from the family portrait, as he has run away from his wife to live with the beautiful dancer Cara in a Byronic Venice. As Charles's friendship with Sebastian disintegrates with the young noble's deepening alcoholism, Charles loses touch with the family until he is called back in order to help reunite an ailing Lady Marchmain with Sebastian, who has run away to North Africa. Charles fails to bring Sebastian back, and Lady Marchmain dies unreconciled with her son. After some time of world wandering as a painter, Charles is reunited with Julia while crossing the Atlantic. This is when the unfolding and saving power of grace becomes apparent to Charles in all members of the family after the mother's death. Lord Marchmain dies in his family home surrounded by his loved ones and reconciled to the Church, Brideshead falls in love with the widow Muspratt and spends his life in happy domesticity, Cordelia enters and then leaves her convent but continues her life as a dowdy but wise charity worker, and Julia ends her sham marriage and finally her relationship with Charles in order to live a holy life much like her sister. Even Sebastian, after much heartache and suffering, finds a life attached to a North African monastery where is almost considered a saint.

What I love about this novel is that there is not just one character that one is able to relate to, but that sympathy for all is made possible by Waugh's writing. I certainly have aspects of each the children: Sebastian's hedonism, Julia's emotionality, Brideshead's cold rationality, and Cordelia's piety have all been aspects of myself that people have cited as needing improvement. But the character I have most profoundly and disturbingly resembled is Lady Marchmain herself. I know what is like to use religion with my loved ones as a means for control, by asserting the superiority of my "religious" mask to their sinful realities. I did not have the human strength to keep that kind of "love" going, one ultimately destructive and infantilising for my loved ones, and instead, in the weakness of myself I found that God could work more wonders because he was working with the real me. By letting go of the "perfect" me that I believed God and the world wanted, I could learn to live with the authentic sinner that God already loved.

A good exercise with this novel is to look at yourself and the way you believe from the perspective of each of the novel's characters. It is a bit like how Henri Nouwen asks us to pray as each character in the parable of the Prodigal Son. All the children and the father in their own ways are figures like the prodigal son, while Lady Marchmain is much like the elder brother, as her apparent saintliness does not allow her to appreciate the fullness of the Father's love. But one might ask, where is the Father in this parable of Brideshead? Where he is for all of us, moving us by his Spirit through our lives and loves.

BTW Happy Easter!

Read it if: you need to understand how God works with imperfect people, or if you want a masterclass in realistic character-writing with spiritual depth.

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