“Bridey’s Bombshell” Queried

In his Daily Mail blog, Peter Hitchens wonders whether Evelyn Waugh got it wrong about the Roman Catholic view of marriage in Brideshead Revisited, at least as it has been applied to the recent marriage of twice-divorced Boris Johnson in Westminster RC Cathedral.  He cites the scene he describes as “Bridey’s Bombshell” (Book II, Ch. 2, revised ed., 1960, pp. 218-19) where Lord Brideshead announces to the assembled family that Rex Mottram’s marriage to Julia Flyte cannot go forward, at least not in a Roman Catholic church. He quotes the entire scene but the crucial lines are these:

‘Don’t you realize, you poor sweet oaf,’ said Julia [to Rex], ‘that you can’t get married as a Catholic when you’ve another wife alive?’

‘But I haven’t. Didn’t I just tell you we were divorced six years ago?’

‘ But you can’t be divorced as a Catholic.’

‘I wasn’t a Catholic and I was divorced. I’ve got the papers somewhere.’

Hitchens asks:

If I have got the current rules right, Rex’s marriage to Sarah Evangeline Cutler didn’t count because it wasn’t a Roman Catholic marriage, and would not have been even if Rex was a baptised Roman Catholic at the time. So why the fuss? But in that case, if Rex had married Julia in an RC Church, a large chunk of the rest of the book would not have made sense. By the same token, Julia’s non-Catholic marriage to Rex Mottram would have been no bar to her marrying Charles Ryder  and so the book’s ending, when she refuses to marry him, could not have come about either, at least not in that way. So, was Waugh wrong? Or have the rules changed since then? Or am I missing something?

The same question occurred to me as soon as I heard about Johnson’s wedding ceremony. According to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph (see previous post), what made Boris Johnson’s situation different from Rex’s is that Johnson was indeed a baptised Catholic, and his earlier non-Catholic marriage and divorced non-Catholic wives were not a barrier to his later Catholic marriage to a new Catholic wife. The RC church simply treated the first marriage as non-existent.  What is complicated and what Waugh oversimplifies a bit is how this same situation is different if the later marriage involves a convert to Catholicism.  In that case, as I understand the DT story, the church recognizes the earlier marriage as valid as between the two then non-Catholics and requires that it be annulled before the later Catholic marriage goes forward. So Julia’s statement as quoted above is over-broad as a general matter but correct as applied to Rex, a convert. Whether or not the interpretation offered in the DT is based on rules or interpretations that were not applicable in the 1930s is not addressed in the article.

The second question is, I believe, unanswerable, at least based on the DT’s interpretation. Both parties in this case have a divorced spouse still living. Julia (a baptised Catholic) might be eligible to marry, but Charles a non-Catholic at the time of his earlier marriage to another non-Catholic would seem to require an annulment such as Waugh himself had to obtain. Charles would also need to have converted to Catholicism in order to marry Julia in a Catholic ceremony. I don’t, in any event, recall any discussion in the novel in which either of them assumed that they would have a Catholic ceremony.

For the record, the posting makes one statement that is partially inaccurate:

[Waugh] spent three years, from 1933 to 1936, obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Evelyn Gardner from the RC church authorities, allowing him to marry Laura Herbert, an aristocratic Catholic from an old RC family, in an RC Church. [Emphasis supplied.]

According to Selina Hastings (p. 321),  Laura’s mother converted after her husband’s death in 1923 much to the dismay of her staunchly Protestant mother-in-law Lady Carnarvon. Laura herself, who was seven when her father died, converted some years later in her teens (but probably before she met Waugh).

Anyone wishing to explore the matter further may wish to accept the invitation to comment on Peter Hitchens’ Daily Mail weblog at this link.

UPDATE (4 June 2021): Clarification was added on Boris Johnson’s status and Charles Ryder’s marital issues. In addition, this article in The Tablet may be relevant relating to Canon 1085 adopted in 2015, although as read literally, it doesn’t appear to change things in the case of Boris Johnson and was, according to The Tablet,  not in effect at the time of Rex Mottram’s or Evelyn Waugh’s marriages.


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