Another Look at Brideshead (More)

This editorial message appeared in a recent TLS.  It relates to the subject of Eleanor’s Doughty’s article in The Critic that was discussed in a previous post. Here is the opening section from the TLS:

Edith Wharton was buried in the American Protestant section of the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles. Yet she was drawn towards Roman Catholicism in her final years, writes Sarah Whitehead, in her introduction to “The Children’s Hour”, a short story written by New York’s Gilded Age laureate. We take great pleasure in publishing it for the first time. Her friend Nicky Mariano, however, recorded one sceptical intime laughing at the thought that Wharton took her love of smells and bells too seriously: “if Edith should be converted to Catholicism my heart would go out to her confessor”.

Secular souls might argue it was better for her art that Wharton didn’t fully embrace Mother Church. Zealous Catholic convert writers have been criticized for sacrificing convincing narrative on the altar of faith. Edmund Wilson, a great admirer of Evelyn Waugh, wrote of the deathbed repentances and conversions at the end of Brideshead Revisited: “The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not – painful to say – meant quite seriously.” Graham Greene’s Catholicism divides the critics to this day. The End of the Affair has been described as his masterpiece. Its miracles, however, leave others cold.

A Middlebury College weblog also posts a brief essay on Waugh by John Vaaler that opens with this:

During what is hopefully the last few months of the Trump era, recommending Evelyn Waugh can seem like a daunting task. Both Waugh’s brand of Catholicism and his political views bend towards the uber-conservative, and the novels of his later years increasingly include storylines and jokes that give way to theological tirades and overwrought language.

But when he stays away from untenable beliefs, Waugh’s novels reign supreme in their painstaking style and dark humor. The word “satire” almost doesn’t apply to his books; Waugh’s jokes don’t just strike the reader with their barbed venom but simply induce sheer (if at times uncomfortable) laughter.

The remainder of the article discusses other books–with particular reference to Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust. There is also a brief mention of Brideshead Revisited:

… a good deal of the novel’s last 200 pages play out a tad ham-fisted, particularly when Lord Marchmain — an avowed atheist and philanderer — suddenly takes Holy Communion in his last minutes, dying only after making the sign of the cross. But the book’s first 100 pages have an unvarnished sentimentality which has aged well…

The Critic also posted a letter that responded to Doughty’s article. Here’s an excerpt:

…Her failure to engage with Brideshead’s theme accounts for her extraordinary claim that the novel’s punchline never comes. How did she manage to miss the climactic scene in which the dying Lord Marchmain finally accepts his previously rejected Catholicism? The agnostic narrator Charles Ryder realises that this moment is like the veil of the Temple being torn in two.

Waugh’s Catholicism arose directly out of his early satirical novels: he came to see how grace could act on people despite the world’s chaos and absurdity. This is also the unifying theme of his World War II Sword of Honour trilogy — but perhaps Miss Doughty finds that “a bore” too.

Andrew Nash

Abingdon, Oxfordshire

One of our readers (Auberon Quin) also commented. That comment is attached to the original posting and may be viewed here.


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