During my 40 years in the wilderness, reading was a mostly desultory pursuit. I went through a Dickens kick, a Civil War period, a David Foster Wallace frenzy, and a time of pure adoration for Norman Maclean. But there was no aim, no theme to my reading. It was like belonging to a Book-of-the-Month Club in which each season's selections are chosen at random. By contrast, in the two years since I entered RCIA, I have read almost nothing but Catholic subjects. I'm pretty sure I will spend the rest of my life doing more of the same.
And yet if you had told me five or ten years ago that Catholicism was intellectually appealing, I'm not sure I would have followed. I thought of it as devotional, as something you do. I saw all those Catholics crossing Cabot Street on their way into Mass every Sunday and I thought rosary—confession—novenas (whatever those were). I was married to a Catholic (still am through God's grace and Katie's graciousness), but I had no idea what it might actually be like to be a Catholic.
I certainly never imagined it would be like the most exciting week in my life, the week I still dream about frequently: my first week as a freshman in college. All those books, and all the time in the world to read them! Forget Scripture, the Church Fathers, or the latest essay in First Things. What I love is, all that Catholic fiction! Some I have read: Kristin Lavransdatter, the Father Brown mysteries of Chesterton, selected stories by Flannery O'Connor, Mariette in Ecstasy. But so many I still have left to read: anything by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Chronicles of Narnia, and until today at lunchtime, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Webster Discovers America! I know I am probably one of the last adult Catholics in the old British Empire who had neither read nor watched Brideshead Revisited until today. I finished the book at one o'clock. Tomorrow the DVDs arrive from Amazon.
A book like Brideshead makes me tickled to be a Catholic. Several readers of this blog suggested it to me, as had a couple of Catholic friends previously, but somehow I associated it with everything overly serious about Masterpiece Theater. Jeremy Irons never appealed to me, although he was pretty funny as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. ("You're a very strange man, Mr. von Bulow!" "You have no idea.") It was finally George Weigel's writeup in Letters to a Young Catholic that sent me out to Borders looking for Brideshead. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, it is a "Catholic novel" that I wanted to begin re-reading the moment I had finished the last page. Though I'm lazy enough to wait for the DVDs.
What kind of Catholic novel is Brideshead Revisited? A very sneaky one. You're nearly a quarter of the way through it before Waugh offers any details about the religion of the family at the heart of the novel, the Marchmains, whose country seat is known as Brideshead. On page 86 in my edition, the narrator says of his Oxford chum Sebastian Marchmain, "Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear."
If Waugh was in any sense evangelizing why did he ever pick such an unorthodox family as Catholic exemplars? Sebastian—a confirmed drunk who carries a stuffed animal around Oxford with him—is not only the most eccentric but, for narrator Charles Ryder, the most compelling of the Marchmains. It is Ryder's love for Sebastian (love, apparently, in all its forms) that leads him to Brideshead and his encounter with Catholicism. Though he doesn't realize that this is what he is encountering until almost the very end of the novel—after he has fallen in love with Sebastian's sister Julia and the two have divorced their respective spouses in order to marry. By this time, Sebastian has died of disease somewhere in Africa, tended by monks who refused him admission as anything other than a menial laborer. His younger sister, Cordelia, who may still end in a convent, reports that Sebastian ended his life somewhere between an alcoholic stupor and spiritual ecstasy.
In the final chapter of the narrative (a prologue and epilogue frame the main story), Lord Marchmain, father of the family, comes home to die. Here—for the three other English-speaking Catholics who have not read Brideshead—I will leave off telling the tale and beg you to read it for yourself. The love between Charles and Julia must bow to a greater Love, and there is perhaps a suggestion in the epilogue that, despite a deep skepticism flashed throughout the novel, Charles himself may be on his own winding road to Rome. There are better, deeper surprises.
I suspect that the majority of those who have loved this novel have not even been Catholics. George Orwell was one of them, calling Waugh “as good a writer as it is possible to be while holding untenable positions.” But for the Catholic minority of readers, few books could be as entertaining, thought-provoking, or pride-inducing. At least that's how I felt: seriously amused, perplexed, and proud.