“Something Absolutely Modern” – The Insincere Convert from Brideshead Revisited

 

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He was something absolutely modern.

And his insincerity was stunning.

Oh, true, he wanted to marry Julia Flyte. She was beautiful, sophisticated and a scion of a wealthy aristocratic English family. And she had a dowry – a huge dowry. It seemed only natural that they should be together, he assured himself. And so Rex Mottram, Canadian businessman and inveterate social climber, would pursue her.

Evelyn Waugh’s tongue must have been planted firmly in cheek as he crafted the pompous, at times boorish Mottram in his classic novel, Brideshead Revisited. Always knowing the right connections, pulling the right strings and drinking the right cognac, Rex reveled in looking good and being grand. He was the epitome of modernity: haughty, impatient and brutally utilitarian. In one particular scene, Waugh captured the spirit of Rex perfectly when he swept in to the rescue of the inebriated and arrested protagonist Charles Ryder and friends,

Rex stood in the charge room looking the embodiment – indeed, the burlesque – of power and prosperity; he wore a fur-lined overcoat with broad astrakhan lapels and a silk hat. The police were deferential and eager to help…[in response to a confused complaint by one of Ryder’s half-drunk friends], Rex said, “Better leave the talking to me.”

And so, Rex, reveled in his self-appointed role of the vital man and the vital man is a man of curious paradox. In all his polish, Rex could sweat the nuance of responsible finance, while gifting Julia with a living turtle sporting diamond-encrusted initials on its shell. He could breezily boast of an imminent marriage proposal while simultaneously engaging in a tryst with another woman. And he could profess to join the Catholic Church while having absolutely no investment in it. The results were predictably and sadly apropos.

From the beginning, Rex’s interest in the Church was shallow and self-serving. Having been struck by the beauty of a Catholic ceremony (for royalty) in Spain, Rex approached the Catholic-raised Julia,

That’s one thing your Church can do: put on a good show. You never saw anything to equal cardinals. How many do you have in England?

One can almost feel the penetrating stare and hear the exasperated sigh that would emerge from Julia. Likewise, one could quickly see that Rex wasn’t paying attention anyway. When Julia told Rex that his (ostensibly) Protestant background would not allow for the ornate proceedings of a Catholic wedding (there’s being a “mixed marriage”), Rex shot back,

Well if that’s all, it’s soon unmixed. I’ll become a Catholic. What does one have to do?

And so began the journey of an insincere convert.

Lady Marchmain, Julia’s mother and a devout Catholic, was troubled upon hearing of her future son-in-law’s casual willingness to convert. But after he assured her of his good intentions, she offered to help him receive instruction from a favorite priest. Rex would brusquely answer,

Look, Lady Marchmain. I haven’t the time. Instruction will be wasted on me. Just give me the form and I’ll sign on the dotted line. 

[Lady Marchmain responded,] It usually takes some months – often a lifetime.

Well, I’m a quick learner. Try me.

Before long, after several sessions with Rex, Father Mowbray found himself at tea with Lady Marchmain. When asked how the discussions were going, Fr. Mowbray lamented,

He’s the most difficult convert I have ever met.

[Lady Marchmain responded,] Oh dear, I thought he was going to make it so easy.

That’s exactly it. I can’t get anywhere near him. He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety…Lady Marchmain, he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.

As further weeks passed, Fr. Mowbray grew more grim,

Lady Marchmain, you should have chosen one of the younger fathers for this task. I shall be dead before Rex is a Catholic…Yesterday, I got a regular eye-opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed. Take yesterday. He seemed to be doing very well. He’d learned large bits of the catechism by heart, and the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Then I asked him as usual if there was anything troubling him, and looked at me in a crafty way and said, ‘Look, Father, I don’t think you’re being straight with me. I want to join your Church, but you’re holding too much back.’ I asked what he meant, and he said: ‘I’ve had a long talk with a Catholic – a very pious, well-educated one, and I’ve learned a thing or two. For instance, that you have to sleep with your feet pointing East because that’s the direction of heaven, and if you die in the night you can walk there. Now I’ll sleep with my feet pointing any way that suits Julia, but d’you expect a grown man to believe about walking to heaven? And what about the Pope who made one of his horses a cardinal? And what about the box you keep in the church porch, and if you put in a pound note with someone’s name on it, they get sent to hell. I don’t say there mayn’t be a good reason for all this,’ he said, ‘but you ought to tell me about it and not let me find out for myself.’

Before long, Cordelia, Julia’s little sister, begins smiling as her face lights up.

What a chump! Oh, Mummy, what a glorious chump!

[Lady Marchmain aghast,] Cordelia, it was you.

Oh, Mummy, who could have dreamed he’d swallow it? I told him such a lot besides. About sacred monkeys in the Vatican – all kinds of things.

[Father Mowbray sighing,] Well, you’ve very considerably increased my work.

As the days moved along, Rex lamented to Julia,

You’d think they’d be all over themselves to have me in. I can be a lot of help to them one way and another; instead they’re like the chaps who issue cards for a casino. What’s more, Cordelia’s got me so muddled I don’t know what’s in the catechism and what she’s invented.

The disingenuousness of Rex’s entire endeavor (paired with the bombshell that he had been married before) led the Catholic wedding plans to be dashed and with it, Rex’s insincere conversion. The couple would instead settle for “a squalid wedding” in the Savoy Chapel. Julia would call it gruesome.

Years later, after repeated offenses of indifference, Julia would divorce Rex. However, it would only just dawn on her that the selfishness toward her and the insincerity toward God was symptomatic of a deeper malady. And it took a wise priest to recognize it. Julia reflected,

You know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took me a year of marriage to see. He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory.  I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.

As I revisited Brideshead Revisited and the story of Rex Mottram, I began to consider anew just what Evelyn Waugh was doing. At one point, I was convinced Rex Mottram was a buffoon, a fool, a caricature who offered levity amidst the deeper plot of the novel. But now, more than ever, I think Waugh intended Mottram to serve as a warning. This, he seems to say, is who we might become if we let this ghastly age mold and shape us. We too could risk being insincere converts. We too could possess an intelligent, knowledgeable surface whose crust suddenly breaks to reveal depths of utter confusion. We too, if we drink deep from the draughts of self to the utter exclusion of God, risk becoming a tiny bit of a man pretending he was a whole. If we are not careful, we risk becoming absolutely modern.

At the conclusion of a lesser known, but nonetheless brilliant, story by Evelyn Waugh, Scott-King’s Modern Europe, a professor of classics, having seen the dangers of unbridled modernity, rebuffs the headmaster’s canard that “parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ any more”. The headmaster goes on saying that one cannot blame parents for wanting to “qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world.” Can you? Emphatically, Professor Scott-King says, “Oh yes. I can and do…I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”

Indeed.

 

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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