The excellent 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was re-run on my local TV recently. Watching it again, I remembered how, at the time of the original screening, the letters columns of a number of publications were filled with argument as to whether Charles and Sebastian had had a homosexual relationship.
It was a pity this argument engaged so many people’s attention apparently to the extent of excluding consideration of some of the important themes the book and the film dealt with. Perhaps it is time to re-consider at least some of the other things it is actually about.
From the religious point of view, the themes it dealt with included one that few writers in modern times have tackled — the fact that Salvation is offered to all and by Divine Grace the rich may be saved as well as the poor. The Marchmains, an ancient Catholic family, have inherited enormous wealth, the great estates and palatial building of Brideshead (played in the series — it can be counted a character — by Castle Howard) and sonorous titles, while Charles Ryder, the narrator, who attaches himself to the family, first as Sebastian’s friend and later as Julia’s lover, seems to be at least upper middle-class. His father has a large house in London and makes him an allowance.
However, apart from the fact that they do not have the spiritual blessing of poverty, the characters tend to be a convincing and realistic mixture of good and bad. They have been dealt some bad cards: apart from the spiritual dangers of inherited wealth and luxury, Sebastian is a weak-willed, rather stupid alcoholic, without dignity or courage. His elder brother Brideshead is insensitive to the point of grotesquerie, his sister Julia is infatuated by the politician Rex Mottram’s power, their mother is spiritually devouring, their father, Lord Marchmain, is an enigmatic, spiritually bleak and withered old man, a lapsed Catholic, spending most of his time in a pointless social round in Venice. The young sister Cordelia, who grows into a plain, pious spinster, seems the only unreservedly good and fulfilled person among them. Cara, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, comes across as kind and wise, and genuinely loves Lord Marchmain, but is also living in a form of high-class prostitution. Charles Ryder himself is, as a painter, a sort of fashionable fraud. He behaves vindictively toward his wife, though she had been at least supportive of his career, and, it appears, abandons his children.
Most of them appear to be spiritually in a bad way. Yet by and large, through what the author Evelyn Waugh called Divine Grace, they come to some sort of terms with life, and with God. Even Sebastian, who ends up an assistant porter in a monastery in North Africa, unfit for either the monastic order or the world, finds a way of living. Cordelia, when she sees him and how he has ended up, says she believes such people are very near and dear to God. The others, one way or another, become reconciled to their situations. They also become morally and spiritually aware — as befits beings who have been promised everlasting life.
Even Charles Ryder finds purpose and some earthly as well as spiritual happiness at last, though he has lost his family and also lost Julia for whom he left them, and squandered his talent. When we last see Ryder he is an infantry Captain in World War II, and a Catholic convert, though it is Julia’s return to Catholicism that has made it impossible for them to marry (and cost him the palace and fortune of Brideshead as well).
He has returned with the Army to Brideshead where he has spent so much of his life, including an idyllic, Arcadian part of his youth, and which it looked at one time as if he would, with Julia, inherit, to find it occupied by soldiers, battered and made squalid, its beautiful rooms bordered up, its ornate statues chipped and broken. His youth is gone beyond recall. He will soon be going into battle with the allied invasion of Europe. He has become disillusioned with the Army. But the old Chapel, long closed, has been re-opened by Julia, and, as the billeting officer he is relieving tells him, a surprising number of the soldiers use it. As he meditates on this, he finds an unexpected, and, we fell, deep and lasting happiness. He had been moved to think, surveying the dilapidated palace and the squalor that had replaced its former splendor: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” But with his final reflection comes the knowledge that it is not so. The light in the chapel has been re-lit.
Rick Warren wrote recently in A Purpose-Driven Life:
Many Christians misinterpret Jesus’ promise of the “abundant life” to mean perfect health, a comfortable lifestyle, constant happiness, full realization of your dreams, and instant relief from problems through faith and prayer. In a word, they expect the Christian life to be easy. They expect heaven on earth.
This self-absorbed perspective treats God as a genie who simply exists to serve you in your selfish pursuit of personal fulfillment. But God is not your servant, and if you fall for the idea that life is supposed to be easy, either you will become severely disillusioned or you will live in denial of reality.
One message of Brideshead Revisited is that the rules Christianity imposes on a believer can be hard: they do not guarantee earthly happiness or the satisfaction of earthly desires (C. S. Lewis said that trying to lead the Christian life by the rules can “be more like the dentist’s drill or the front line” than like a bed of roses). But they show one how to get through life and in the long run offer something a great deal better. Brideshead Revisited is a work with a serious theological message, and, beyond all the complex sexual linkages and comedy about teddy bears and so forth it deserves to be treated as such.