“Praise the grace whose threats alarmed thee,
Roused thee from thy fatal ease.”
These words from the old Key/Wilcox hymn adequately summarize the theme of Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps they even spoil the plot a bit, but this isn’t a plot-driven story. It’s relationship-driven—maybe faith-driven. Waugh draws out the fatal ease of his characters so that we can see what God’s grace does to them in the end.
(Madresfield Court, the home of the Lygon family, Worcestershire.)
The narrator, Charles Ryder, is in the British army when the book opens. His unit relocates to the Bridehead estate, which provokes the sad memories of the rest of the novel. They don’t seem sad at first. When Charles begins his studies at Oxford, he meets Sebastian Flyte, a very friendly young man whose eccentricities seem only to endear him to almost everyone near him, especially Charles, who falls in love with him. Sebastian, a year ahead of Charles, has collected a handful of homosexually inclined friends, the worst of whom is Anthony Blanche.
While Blanche is brazenly queer (I can’t recall that he described himself with that term, but I’m confident he would have approved of it), the others are not, and Ryder suggests to his readers that we are sufficiently worldly enough to understand these relationships without delving into them. Much later in the book, he describes a monk as being naïve to not see the nature of companionship Sebastian held with a young German loaf, but all of this is subtle, perhaps because homosexuality was against the law. (Here’s a remarkable article on the autobiographical nature of Waugh’s novel, which mentions high society’s attitude on sexual matters.)
What isn’t subtle is the Catholicism of Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother. The entire Flyte/Brideshead family is at least nominally Catholic. Half the family hates it; the other half embraces it. Sebastian hates his mother apparently for her ardent faith. In fact, she seems to be a representation of the Catholic Church as a whole, certainly flawed but honest and devout. You might see each of the faithful Catholics of the Flyte family as different categories of the church: Lady Marchmain representing the institution, Brideshead, the elder brother, representing typical laity, and Cordelia, the younger sister, representing the missionary. Each of them is disliked to some degree. Cordelia gives us a reason on page 221 of my edition:
“[Lady Marchmain] was saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him, and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.”
So some of the characters distain God, regardless what they say of Him, and Waugh intends to show us how God responds. He shows us unmerited favor and lifelong mercy. Christ ignored the grief and insult of our sin, taking it to the cross for atonement once for all. Christ offers us grace, having paid for our hatred personally. Without Him, we live in sin. Waugh draws out a picture of this with one character (pg 287):
“Living with sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time…”
Without Christ, we have our sin, no matter how we dress it up. If we do not let Him pay for it, we will. If we do not end our lives as holy (“no one is ever holy without suffering”), we will end them in torment, having succumbed to life’s fatal ease.