The idea of using an English novel as a menas of Catholic apologetics seems a strange one, but Dr. Allen White, in a series of lectures given last March to Winona seminarians, shows how it was successfully done by one of the greatest Catholic novelists of the 20th Century, Evelyn Waugh.
Acknowledgements to VERBUM, Spring 2001
the weekend of March 9th finally arrived, the stage was set
for Dr. David White's series of four conferences-the longest ever given
during the normal Seminary year. Remarkably, he had never taught the novel
publicly, having only used it in private as a means of presenting the
Catholic Faith to young people who came to him "with a certain gleam
in the eye." Not surprisingly, this apologetic use was a major motive
for his presentation of the novel to seminarians, who must evangelize
concrete modern man, in all their real-life imperfections. They must be
able to see the hand of God working even in (one may say especially
in) the disaster areas of modern life, as God gets through to people with
His grace in seemingly unlikely ways.
book is about God," said Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) to a friend in
1944. He had been given leave from the British Royal Marines in order
to write it, and he considered it his best work, certainly his first openly
Many critics hated Brideshead Revisited: the non-Catholics because it was so Catholic, the Catholics because it was so shocking. Typically, in the era preceding Vatican II, Waugh's Catholic critics were divided between the conservatives (who, detesting the sins described, hated the book and made harsh judgments about its author) and the progressives (who abhorred Waugh's stubborn insistence on God's order in the world and the real Faith as the only cure for the world's madness).
on an Atlantic crossing with his wife Laura (1916-1973) in November 1950.
as the real God is often surprising (My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor my ways your ways," Isaiah 55,8), a book which is really about
the real God will most likely be surprising as well. Waugh himself had
been caught by the real God, becoming a Catholic in 1930 after his thorough
familiarity with the modern world convinced him that the Catholic Faith
was the only alternative to chaos and destruction. He despised modernity
because he saw right through it from first-hand experience. His upbringing
in the wishy-washy Anglican Church had already proved to him that being
"nice" and keeping up a minimum of external "religion"
were no answer to the central problem of Ja world running away from God.
He would live tomourn the disastrous Second Vatican Council as the logical
outcome of such foolishness, which had been implicit in the "?Catholicism"
of many Catholics for decades before. Waugh's integral Catholicism, based
on the adherence of mind and will to objective truth, was thus set on
a collision course with both neo-pagan critics and with Catholic critics
whose Faith, based more on "niceness" and sentiment than on
cold, hard truth, was already turning slightly askew.
some VERBUM readers who have tried Brideshead without liking
it will dispute that it is "about God." While it is undisputedly
true that the Almighty never makes an obvious intervention in the lives
of any of the novel's characters, nevertheless He is the central figure.
The characters' acceptance or rejection of His grace-in every detail of
their daily lives as much as in moments of tremendous decision-is the
key to understanding the entire book.
White points out, "Waugh designs a novel chronicling the impact of
grace on human beings. It is impossible to show this directly, but it
can be seen indirectly throughout the novel by the characters' acceptance
or rejection of grace." As Waugh himself said in a jacket note published
with the first English edition, the purpose of the novel is "to trace
the workings of the Divine Purpose in a pagan world," and particularly
in a Catholic English family "already half pagan themselves."
going any further in an effort to examine Waugh's surprising answer to
the problems of modern man, it is necessary to present briefly the plot
of Brideshead and to respond to some objections which will surely
arise concerning the sins of many characters.
The first-person narrator of Brideshead is Captain Charles Ryder, an English officer serving in 1942 during the lowest ebb of Britain's fortunes in the ghastly Second World War. In a sudden change of encampment, Charles finds himself stationed at Brideshead Castle, the family seat of the Flytes of Marchmain, the noble English family already mentioned. Since the family is scattered to the four winds by the War, the entire story of Charles' association with them is formed by his own reminiscences from his new "camp." The novel thus forms "the sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder," as Brideshead is sub-titled.
As Dr. White explained, the retrospective nature of the entire novel emphasizes the difficulty of seeing the pattern of events clearly while they are happening. It is necessary to look back, to take stock. Charles is a Catholic in 1942, but he first came to Brideshead as an agnostic Oxford student in the 1920's. The entire book is, in a sense, the story of his conversion, seen clearly by hindsight.
friendship with the Flytes begins by his chance meeting with Lord Sebastian,
the younger son of the Marquis of Marchmain. Sebastian is the "most
remarkable young man" of his year at Oxford, and he is even then
quickly slipping away from the practice of the Faith by a hedonistic life
which Charles gladly joins. Sebastian rapidly descends into alcoholism,
but he nevertheless retains his grip on the principles of the Faith. He
knows it is true, but he does not live up to it.
thinks the Church cruel in Bridey, he is taken aback by the simplicity
and innocence of Lady Cordelia, the youngest sister of Sebastian, who
"?scatters grace everywhere she goes," according to Dr. White.
Named, of course, from the truthful and innocent daughter of King Lear,
Cordelia presents a more cheerful-if a bit odd-face of Catholicism to
Charles. Upon hearing that he is an agnostic, she promises to pray for
him (as she does for Lloyd George and for her pig).
Marquis of Marchmain, having abandoned his wife-as well as the Church-after
the First World War, lives an openly sinful life in Venice. He is much
more Charles' idea of a reasonable man. The Marchioness, on the other
hand, saintly and sympathetic though she is, seems always to contradict
Charles' ideas about what is good for Sebastian. To him, she seems an
over-protective mother and a bit of a religious fanatic. He is puzzled
by the fact that such intelligent people can believe such "nonsense."
Lady Julia Flyte, Sebastian's dazzlingly beautiful sister, shocks the
entire family by "marrying" a divorced man, just after Sebastian
exiles himself to a life of wandering dissoluteness in Europe and North
Africa. The Marchioness's death from cancer completes the first cycle
of the family's destruction, and Charles goes off to marry and to become
a famous artist.
from America a few years later as a failed artist and husband, Charles
finds that Julia is also on the liner. They renew their old acquaintance,
and they "fall in love." The eventual end of both their marriages
is sealed when they begin to live more or less openly "in sin"
at Brideshead Castle. Bridey's off-hand remark concerning their state
leads to Julia's magnificent soliloquy on mortal sin (surely unique in
modern literature), but she nonetheless continues her bad life until Providence
plays a trump card.
Lord Marchmain returns home, dying, he remains steadfast in his refusal
to repent despite the attempts of Bridey and Cordelia to bring him a priest.
They are fought at every step by Charles, but Julia becomes anxious as
she sees her father about to meet God with sin on his soul. The Marquis
finally relents and receives Extreme Unction on his deathbed, in response
to the graces gained by countless prayers-by now including both Julia's
and Charles'. Charles' first prayer ("O God, if there is a God, forgive
his sins, if there is such a thing as sin"?) leaves much to be desired,
but it is a beginning. Julia's however, is obviously much more sincere
and profound, because it is coupled with true repentance and a firm purpose
of amendment. She wastes no time in sending Charles away forever: she
knows that she must never again "set up a rival good to God's,"
and she gives up her false happiness to return to the Household of Faith.
many Catholic readers may be disturbed by the narration of so many sins
("Each of the seven dead sins is there," says Dr. White) they
should remember that God permits evil that greater good may come of it.
Some sinners never convert until they are crushed (the true meaning of
contrite) by the guilt and results of their sins. As Dr. White explains,
Waugh is constrained by the fact of describing a pilgrimage from sin to
grace to show how his characters act without grace. Many of them behave
reprehensibly and show little concern for the gravity of their actions
for a long time, but their eventual conversions show God's mercy and the
action of His grace more clearly in proportion to the depravity of their
earlier behavior. Their experience of their own weakness and malice leads
them to cast themselves down-not sentimentally but reasonably and ardently-before
White maintains that the novel is an apologetic for the Faith inasmuch
as it shows clearly the inevitable end to which modernity leads and insofar
as it presents the real God and His real Church as the only remedy. Modern
men who see themselves in this novel will, as a result, often be well
disposed to listen to the details of the Faith. Apologetics by syllogism
is most often ineffective today since modern man has largely forgotten
how to think clearly. Brideshead Revisited, on the other hand,
offers modern man both an accurate picture of his own life and an incentive
to look back over his past while thoughtfully considering Waugh's alternative.
The core of Waugh's surprising answer to the world's problems is no more mysterious or unknown than it has been since Our Lord's time. In the Gospel, the publicans, Samaritans and prostitutes all lived lives of grave sin, while the Scribes and Pharisees were "zealous" for the Law. Our Lord surprised both groups by His mercy to the sinners and His anger against the "righteous." If Waugh has caused controversy by this novel, it is largely because he believes in the Gospel and has presented a bit of it in modern terms. "Publicans and harlots are getting into the Kingdom of God before you!" says Our Lord to the Pharisees. The reason is that grave sinners have more cause to be humble and to trust in God's mercy than those who seem to avoid sin by their own efforts. Dare one say that God can permit to sinners to act so badly (by their own fault, to be sure) in order to pave the way for their eventual repentance?
The novel's ending is dismal from a worldly point of view: Charles' life is ruined, the Flytes are in shambles and World War II threatens to destroy everything good and beautiful remaining in the world. But grace has returned to the pagan half of the family and has vivified Charles Ryder. However badly the Earthly City may fare, nothing save their own infidelity can rob them of their inheritance in the Heavenly City. It is a message of profound Christian hope.
Dr. White testifies that, whenever he uses the novel to help a suitably-disposed young man towards the Faith, it works. He sees Brideshead as a reasonable motive for hope for Catholics suffering in the modern world as an effective tool for spreading the Faith. Catholics should be grateful, he says, that such a novel has been a best-seller even in the dark 20th Century.