Sunday, November 24, 2013

Brideshead revisited yet again

Brideshead Revisited is the story of agnostic/atheist Charles Ryder's encounter with The Faith, his confusion over it, his contempt for it, his reluctant dawning understanding of it, his frantic retreat from it, and, finally, his surrender to it.

In the final drama, Charles is living in sin with Julia Flyte Motram, married sister of his college friend/infatuation, Sebastian Flyte.  The Flytes are that rarest of commodities in England, aristocratic Catholics.  Their magnificent family home, Brideshead, is complete with an elaborate chapel, at least until the death of Lady Marchmain, the family matriarch.  The local bishop closes the chapel upon her death, and with Christ no longer physically present at Brideshead, the hearts of the Flyte children seem to drift farther away.  Lord Marchmain, having deserted his wife and retreated to Venice with his mistress Cara at last comes home to die.  [Cara has explained to Charles years before when he visited Venice with Sebastian that Lady Marchmain is a good woman who has done nothing to incur her husband’s hatred except to be loved by him---the wrong kind of love.  One infers that he is simply incapable of being in the presence of someone who really believes and acts upon the Faith that he has converted to, and which inconveniences him.]

 Weeks before his death he tells his youngest, and most devout child that he claimed his freedom when he left his wife praying in the chapel he had built for her.  Was this a crime, he asks?  "I think it was, Papa," says uncompromising Cordelia.

Lord Marchmain's homecoming accelerates Julia's reluctant return to religion---Charles' greatest fear--because, of course, if Julia returns to the Faith, she will no longer be willing to divorce her divorced "husband" in order to marry another divorced man---Charles himself.  Julia has left the Church in order to marry the first time, and has felt grief over it ever since.  She once tells Charles that although she no longer believed in God herself, she had intended to make certain that her daughter was raised a good Catholic.  The baby, however, is stillborn, and Julia accepts it as part of her punishment.  She tells Charles that she has earned sadness.

Charles has blamed the Church for every "misfortune" and grief that has befallen the Flytes, beginning with his friend Sebastian's alcoholism.  In Charles mind, it is never the fact that the Flytes disobey God which leads them to disaster, it is merely the fact that God has rules.  He believes that the very thought of God is rubbish, and it never occurs to him that if the Flytes, especially Julia and Sebastian, had submitted to Him, Sebastian would have not ended his days in drunken exile and Julia would never have contracted a miserable marriage.

As Lord Marchmain's death looms, His oldest son and Cordelia begin a campaign to reconcile him with the Church.  Charles' objections are frantic and disproportional, as the objections of so-called objective and logical agnostics always are to anything which cements the existence of the God they flout.

Most distressing to him is the fact that his Julia is slowly drifting into the enemy camp.  He steps up his protests and, in doing so, opens her eyes to the obvious. 

   “I really can’t see why you’ve taken it so much to heart that my father shall not receive the last sacraments.”
    “It’s such a lot of witchcraft and hypocrisy.”
    “Is it?   Anyway, it’s been going on for nearly two thousand years.  I don’t know why you should suddenly get in a rage now…For Christ’s sake, write to The Times; get up and make a speech in Hyde Park; start a ‘No Popery’ riot, but don’t bore me about it.  What’s it got to do with you or me whether my father sees his parish priest?...I shall begin to think you’re getting doubts yourself.”

In the end, in her siblings’ absence, it is Julia who makes the decision to call a priest to administer last rites to her father, and all Charles’ fears are realized---Lord Marchmain’s reconciliation with God, and Julia’s, and the her consequential “Goodbye” to Charles and to all their plans, but most of all his own realization of God and His Church.  At the end of their brief and agonizing goodbye, when Julia tells Charles that she had almost committed the unpardonable sin of raising a rival good to God’s, Charles tells her that he doesn’t wish to make things easier for her, but that he does understand.

In the epilogue, we glimpse Julia’s lonely but purposeful life, and Charles’ conversion to his lifelong nemesis. But he leaves us with the assurance that for all his loneliness, for all his lack of temporal “happiness”, he has acknowledged his own responsibility for his actions and their consequences and he has, quite unexpectedly, found Joy.

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