What would we do without the English Stately Home(o)? The family dynamics of the Flytes seemingly reflect the classic recipe for the making of the homosexual. Dominant mother, absent father, send the boy to boarding school – stand back. They are Catholics living in the stately home which itself appears to have a non-speaking part in the drama. It is mentioned several times that it is a relatively new establishment having been moved from its original location at Marchmain village. There is a suggestion that this move using the original stones represents a fall from greatness into the filth of modern life. The elder son nicknamed after the seat ‘Bridey’ is the inverse of a spoiled priest. He still wants to be a priest, Jesuit of course, but primogeniture oblige. The great house has its own Arts and Crafts chapel which Lord Marchmain, now resident in Venice with his mistress, had built for his devout wife. He ‘changed’ when he married but it is clear that it was purely to marry. It is the 1920’s when the book opens and Daddy never came back after the war. Still, life goes on, the rosary is said every evening and mass is celebrated in the chapel though this may be stopped shortly as the congregation has dwindled since the old days.
The narrator is Charles Ryder who first saw Brideshead during his first year at Oxford accompanied by the second son Sebastian who goes about with a teddy-bear, a beautiful youth probably based on Waugh’s Other Side dabbling. Young Lord Sebastian’s orientation is lightly intimated, infantile and asexual if anything. The visit to Brideshead is to see Nanny Hawkins who lives on as an old retainer with a room of her own in the dome, surely a symbol of emotional supervenience. Did Aloysius the teddy go with them? I forget. It was just a two seater Morris-Cowley and it might have been unsafe given the drinking that Charles and Sebastian do. The Twenties are on.
What occurs is what Archbishop Whately remarked – without a principle a man grows gradually worse. Sebastian goes to Fez and continues to drink himself to death. By the end of the novel he is living with monks in Tunis. Ryder sees him as a broken saint whose charm remains intact. That may be a sentimental note.
Through the middle of the book Charles Ryder and Lady Julia Marchmain, Sebastian’s sister and double, have an affair. They divorce their spouses. What happens next is the spiritual heart of the book and the reader may take it as a possibility through grace or a flagrant nonsense unconnected to human psychology.
Comic interludes such as Ryder and his Father on the long Vacation are there. Waugh knows well the sort of eccentricity that people with independent income can develop. The Granada T.V. series (on youtube) stays close to the book and in its own way is an independent triumph.
We dined in a room they called "the Painted Parlour." It was a spacious octagon, later in design than the rest of the house; its walls were adorned with wreathed medallions, and across its dome prim Pompeian figures stood in pastoral groups. They and the satin-wood and ormolu furniture, the carpet, the hanging bronze candelabrum, the mirrors and sconces, were all a single composition, the design of one illustrious hand. "We usually eat here when we're alone," said Sebastian, "it's so cosy."
While they dined I ate a peach and told them of the war with my father.
"He sounds a perfect poppet," said Julia. "And now I'm going to leave you boys."
"Where are you off to?"
"The nursery. I promised Nanny a last game of halma." She kissed the top of Sebastian's head. I opened the door for her. "Good night, Mr. Ryder, and good-bye. I don't suppose we'll meet to-morrow. I'm leaving early." I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for relieving me at the sick-bed."
"My sister's very pompous to-night," said Sebastian, when she was gone.
"I don't think she cares for me," I said.
"I don't think she cares for anyone much. I love her. She's so like me."
"Do you? Is she?"
"In looks I mean and the way she talks. I wouldn't love anyone with a character like mine."
Confession is good for the soul. I had read a lot of Waugh before my recent reading of this book. Is it Waugh without the Waughness, tilting into seriousness and theology? As a devout Filbertine I liked it.