"I caught him [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
In the middle of a recent enebriated evening with friends, I was asked to name my favorite book. Obviously that’s a tough question. Does that mean fiction? Nonfiction? Genres within each of those categories? (And no, that doesn't include Cosmo or People, for those of you who were wondering if that sort of thing counts.) Having spent over a decade in academe I could think of many scholarly works - a majority being from the history shelf - that made an impression: Gilje, Road to Mobocracy; Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium; Lockridge, A New England Town; Wood, Creation of the American Republic; and Brinkley, Voices of Protest. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. "No, no, no," my friends protested, reminding me of my geeky professor's profile. They wanted to know which novel ranked first among my favorites.
Although I’m partial to the whole Austen/Bronte cycle, thoroughly enjoy most of Dickens, and certainly worship at the altar of great 20th century American fiction - including Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Updike, and Cheever - I didn’t hesitate to chime in with an unexpected answer, knowing it would spark debate: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
The vast majority of Waugh's novels - for example, A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, or Vile Bodies - represent the best of pre-World War II English satire. Waugh lampooned the aristocracy mercilessly and left to English literature a collection of first-rate comic novels. (Several have been adapted by Hollywood.) Yet it is Brideshead Revisited for which Waugh is best known. Its popularity in this country can be traced directly to the beautifully made TV adaptation aired on PBS stations in 1982. (Only 18 at the time, I spent 11 weeks glued to the TV at the expense of homework, family and friends.) How could this be my favorite novel?
On the surface it possesses some of Waugh's "tried and true" satiric characters. (The gay, lisping Anthony Blanche comes to mind.) There's the upper-crust - albeit Catholic - English family and a vast country estate and ancient home, echoing the great English literary tradition of rooting a story in a stately manor house. Toss in some moments of university debauchery at Oxford, the atmosphere of 1920s society, and one has a fun read if you're a fan of the Masterpiece Theatre genre. Visually, it made for a stunning television production, considered one of the best novel adaptations ever. (The role also propelled Jeremy Irons' career to the next level.) And no doubt at 18 I approached it on those terms, because at that point I had already developed a rapt anglophilia. Nevertheless, as I've grown older and re-experienced the book - which is by no means long compared to Waugh's English literary antecedents - I've taken more and more from it each time.
Brideshead Revisited is ultimately about the grace of god and the ways in which each of its characters acts within the framework of Catholic faith and grace. It is certainly a Catholic novel and reflects Waugh's own conversion to hyper-orthodoxy in middle age. Waugh examines each of the main characters, including the protagonist, Charles Ryder, in terms of his or her relationship to god. And, symbolizing the Church is the estate and house - Brideshead. There's the overly devout mother, Lady Marchmain who's faith carries her to her deathbed through repeated trials and disappointments. Her estranged husband, Lord Marchmain has rejected his wife and the Church and has fled to far off Venice. Cordelia, the youngest daughter of the family, possesses the faith of a child and devotes her life to service, even if she does fail to become a nun. Sebastian, the younger son, drinks his way out of Oxford and descends into a world of alcholism and dissipation in northern Africa. Julia, the older daughter, rejects convention, marries badly, and engages in an adulterous affair. And Charles Ryder, essentially a thinly disguised Waugh, regards matters of faith with unvarnished skepticism as he moves in and out of the circles frequented by the Marchmain family.
If Waugh had simply left the story at that point - and plenty of novels do just that - this would be an entirely one-dimensional work, a comedy of manners and morals and nothing more. Nevertheless, he takes that "twitch upon the thread" theme, borrowed from one of G. K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" novels, and very carefully draws the main characters back to Brideshead and thus back to the grace of god. Lord Marchmain, nearing the end of his life, returns home and, making the sign of the cross during last rites, acknowledges the faith he so soundly rejected for decades. Witnessing this, Julia recognizes the sin of her adultery and accepts god's grace, devoting herself to service thereafter.
But for Charles,the agnostic, redemption takes a bit longer. The novel begins and ends at 1944, with the bulk of the story having been a flashback to the 20s and early 30s. An older Charles Ryder has returned to the Brideshead estate as an army officer, with the estate now used as a temporary billet for soldiers. With a bit of reflection on all that he's experienced - love, loss, divorce, approaching middle age, and the stress of wartime - Charles Ryder, sitting in the estate's chapel, finally acknowledges and accepts the grace of god. Indeed, Ryder, almost certainly echoing Waugh's own sentiments, recognizes an even deeper, more ancient connection to the first communities of believers.
Now this is a rather crudely constructed precis of the novel. Scores of scholarly articles have dissected every page of Waugh's masterpiece. Of course I highly recommend it . . . and hope my clumsy description doesn't deter some of you from picking it up. Or watch the PBS adaptation! It is strictly faithful to the book, leaving little out (hence the 12 or 13 hour running time).
(To one friend's charge that my reading is far too serious, I'll counter with Bill Bryson, whose volumes cover one shelf in my home. His books are immensely funny, not at all serious, and regularly climb the ranks of the bestseller lists. His most recent The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, offers a fantastically funny memoir of a 1950s childhood in DesMoines, Iowa. Who says I don't know how to have fun!?)