Saturday, September 12, 2015

Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion; and Brideshead Revisited


Opening Passages: From Edmund Campion:

In the middle of March 1603 it was clear to everyone that Queen Elizabeth was dying; her doctors were unable to diagnose the illness; she had little fever, but was constantly thirsty, restless and morose; she refused to take medicine, refused to eat, refused to go to bed.

From Brideshead Revisited (you could use either the opening for the Prologue, which gives the frame narrative, or the opening for Chapter One; I use the Prologue):

When I reached C Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning. We were leaving that day. When we marched in, three months before, the place was under snow; now the first leaves of spring were unfolding. I had reflected then that, whatever scenes of desolation lay ahead of us, I never feared one more brutal than this, and I reflected now that it had no single happy memory for me.

Summary: Edmund Campion was a promising and charismatic scholar who could have gone far in the world; he was recognized as exceptional in talent, received powerful patronage from people close to Queen Elizabeth I, and could likely have had all the things that are usually recognized as success by the world. He gave it all up, became Catholic and a Jesuit, and in 1580 he joined the Jesuit mission to England. He was hunted down and captured, was tortured and tried for treason, and was hanged and drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1581. And as Waugh notes, his work did not end; it continued and continues still. Scholar, priest, hero, martyr: he was a saint for a gallant and adventurous age, and a figure of the grace of God. We think of grace as a consoling thing, and console it does; but this, too, is grace, to give up all the success of the world and walk the road to Calvary, and it is not a different grace from the consoling kind.

There is an interesting passage at the end of Edmund Campion: A Life that I think serves as an interesting bridge between it and Brideshead Revisited:

Years later, in the sombre, sceptical atmosphere of the eighteenth century, Bishop Challoner set himself to sift out and collect the English martyrology. The Catholic cause was very near to extinction in England. Families who had resisted the onset of persecution were quietly conforming under neglect. The Church survived here and there in scattered households, regarded by the world as, at the best, something Gothic and slightly absurd, like a ghost or a family curse. Emancipation still lay in the distant future; no career was open to the Catholics; their only ambition was to live quietly in their houses, send their children to school abroad, pay the double land taxes, and, as best they could, avoid antagonising their neighbours. It was then, when the whole gallant sacrifice appeared to have been prodigal and vain, that the story of the martyrs lent them strength. (p. 201)

By the time Brideshead Revisited opens, Catholic Emancipation has already occurred, and there is little enough persecution; but such a long oppression leaves an impression, and Catholicism, while entrenched enough, is in a sort of stagnation -- the aesthetic is Baroque rather than Gothic, but the Church is regarded by the world as "slightly absurd, like a ghost or a family curse". There is something Romantic about it, but it is also on the verge of falling apart.

Charles Ryder seemed set for a humdrum existence when he happens to meet Lord Sebastian Flyte while studying at Oxford; Sebastian becomes a friend and takes him to his ancestral home, Brideshead Castle, which for Ryder, an artist by temperament, becomes a fixture of his imagination. It was splendid in every way, something of a relief to Charles, whose childhood has been all limits. And eventually he meets the rest of the family. It is not a very functional family; they are very definitely family, but there is something about them that sets them at odds with each other.

The theme of Brideshead Revisited is grace amid our human decay. As this is traced in rather different ways through each of the characters, Brideshead Castle becomes almost a microcosm of the Catholic Church itself: there are the devout Catholics who thrive happily in their faith, like Cordelia; and the devout Catholics who seem thwarted and unhappy in it, like Bridey; and the half-heathen Catholics who find consolation in it, like Sebastian; and the half-heathen Catholics who find it a burden, like Julia; and the apparent saints who are nonetheless failures, like Lady Marchmain; and the apostates who nevertheless can never quite shake all their connection to it, like Lord Marchmain; and the cradle Catholics who know almost nothing about their faith except that they are Catholic, like Celia; and pseudo-converts like Rex for whom it is but a means to an end; and real converts like Charles for whom it is a difficult but hopeful coming home. The bonds of home, at once unifying and divisive, are a sort of metaphor for the bonds of religion. Brideshead Castle could almost be seen as a temporal expression of grace itself. The reason for this is put well by Charles when he describes why he becomes an architectural painter:

I have always loved building, holding it to be not only the highest achievement of man but one in which, at the moment of consummation, things were most clearly taken out of his hands and perfected, without his intention, by other means, and I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers and short-term sub-lessees of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes. (p. 226)

We build, but another builds after. We receive, and we add or destroy, and we pass on. But this thing that came before and continues after us, this enduring thing, is something in which we are mere tenants; the whole is greater than we can know at any given time.

But while this symbolism runs throughout the book, the work is not an allegory. All the characters have quirks that take them in their own unique directions. Lady Marchmain, for instance, who is intelligent, and beautiful, and charming, is also a manipulative schemer. There is no malice in it. But she is driven by an intense desire for close connection with those she loves, and it is a close connection that eludes her every attempt to grasp it, driving all those she loves farther from her. She dies a failure, everything having slipped away. But that is not the whole of the story; things have been set in motion, in some cases because of her and in some cases in spite of her. Love and grace cannot be managed. They work on their own terms. But the thread that binds to home and Church can stretch very far indeed, becoming so thin it almost cannot be seen, and yet still, one day, like a pang of nostalgia or an accidental turn down a familiar road, you find yourself back again, in one way or another.

Much of the first part of the book is concerned with Lady Marchmain's failures. The second half of the book is mostly concerned with the growing affair between Charles and Julia, Sebastian's sister. There is a wrongness to it -- they are both committing adultery -- and yet there is a rightness to it, as well. Their connection to each other through Sebastian is the thread pulling taut before it snaps them both back; their error is to think that this connection is pulling them to each other rather than simply through each other's lives. And perhaps that is the way the whole thing works: the threads that bind us together are not so much between us as threaded through us. That is why grace can be found in the lives of even the drab or the miserable or the horrible. And that is why the destruction of our attachments, or the degeneration of our comforts, like the physical deterioration of Brideshead Castle itself, is sometimes at the same time a spiritual regeneration and a coming home.

Favorite Passages: From Edmund Campion:

It was an age replete with examples of astounding physical courage. Judged by the exploits of the great adventurers of his time, the sea-dogs and explorers, Campion's brief achievement may appear modest enough; but these were tough men, ruthlessly hardened by upbringing, gross in their recreations. Campion stands out from even his most gallant and chivalrous contemporaries, from Philip Sidney and Don John of Austria, not as they stand above Hawkins and Stukeley by finer human temper, but by the supernatural grace that was in him. That the gentle scholar, trained all his life for the pulpit and the lecture room, was able at the word of command to step straight into a world of violence, and acquit himself nobly; that the man, capable of the strenuous heroism of that last year and a half, was able, without any complaint,to pursue the sombre routine of the pedagogue and contemplate without impatience a lifetime so employed--there lies the mystery which sets Campion's triumph apart from the ordinary achievements of human strength; a mystery whose solution lies in the busy, uneventful years at Brunn and Prague, in the profound and accurate piety of the Jesuit rule.

From Brideshead Revisited:

"But who can he have been talking to? Did he dream it all? Cordelia, what's the matter?"

"What a chump! Oh, Mummy, what a glorious chump!"

"Cordelia, it was you."

"Oh, Mummy, who could have dreamed he's swallow it? I told him such a lot besides. About the sacred monkeys in the Vatican -- all kinds of things."

"Well, you've very considerably increased my work," said Father Mowbray.

"Poor Rex," said Lady Marchmain. "You know, I think it makes him rather lovable. You must treat him like an idiot child, Father Mowbray."

Recommendations: Highly Recommended, both.


Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion: A Life, Ignatius Press (San Francisco: 2005).

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Back Bay Books (New York: 2008).

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