The Case Against Bridey

I must first make it clear that I actually like Bridey. He’s affable enough. He’s a comic character, and is not an apparently evil person. He doesn’t do anything wrong as such…and there lies the problem: he doesn’t do anything at all.

It is true that Bridey is not a drunken homosexual or an promiscuous adulterer, but it is all too easy to mistake not doing anything wrong with virtue. We should not ask ourselves, “What evil does Bridey do?” but “What good does Bridey do?”

I believe his are the sins of omission, not commission. What should Bridey do? First of all, as the eldest son, he should take charge in his fathers’ absence. At first we see him being involved with the country gentry and exercising a kind of leadership at the hunt, and hosting the locals as the Lord of the manor should, but as the story progresses Bridey withdrawls further and further into his own little, self absorbed world, allowing Rex and Julia to take over Brideshead. He retreats to ‘two little rooms in the attic’ next to Nanny Hawkins, where he collects matchboxes. Is this not just as much an escape from reality and duty as Sebastian’s and his father’s flight?

In his father’s absence a man of Bridey’s privilege, education and influence should be a leader of men. He should be a Member of Parliament. He should pursue and marry a beautiful and intelligent woman of his own class who could successfully stand at his side, father a brood of children to fill that house and be châtelaine of Brideshead. He should use his wealth and influence to fight the good fight in all sorts of worthy causes. Instead he abdicates and allows the vulgar bounder Rex Mottram to usurp his place. Bridey withdraws into a world of intellectual and spiritual superiority where he never fails because he has never tried. He never sins, but neither has he really lived life. He never makes a mistake, but then he never makes anything. His life is not so much pure as sterile. He obeys the letter of the law, but misses the Spirit entirely. He is the perfect elder son in the parable of the prodigal son–the one who stays at home and points the self righteous finger at others.

He practices a Catholic faith that is dry, passionless and dead. Time and again Charles tells Bridey that his faith is unattractive and dull to the point of idiocy and Bridey is impervious to the criticism. For Bridey everything is simply a point that is ‘arguable.’ Bridey’s faith is Catholic legalism, and he has used the faith as his most effective tool to marginalize the threat of reality, kill life, to kill love and to kill his family. The scene where he righteously destroys Julia’s planned marriage to Rex, and then casually inquires, “what one usually does with the bridesmaid’s dresses in such cases?” exemplifies the oblivious cruel heartlessness within the man.

Even his marriage to dear, sweet Beryl Muspratt is part of the problem, not the solution. Beryl Muspratt? He simply married a woman who could be his Nanny.

Bridey a virtuous Catholic hero? Not in my book. At best, he’s a pathetic victim of his parents’ broken marriage. At worst he’s a coward–a milquetoast who was bullied by his mother and afraid to live life for fear that he might make a mistake, and his religion was no more than a Jesuitical comfort blanket thrown over his head to help him escape reality.

The fact that he loses his rightful inheritance to live in a little house with Beryl and collect matchboxes is justice.

If we are looking for the Catholic heroes of the book we must look to the more minor characters. I reckon they are Nanny Hawkins, Cordelia and Fr. Mackay. The other Catholic heroes are Charles, Julia, Sebastian and Lord Marchmain, for though they were sinners, each one of them, in their own way, finally repent. They are the ones over whom the angels rejoice.

There now… shoot me down dear readers.

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  • I have to whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of Bridey.I too have seen Bridey as an archtype of the sin of omission. He does nothing. Sebastian does too much and what he does is done without any forethought. Charles does very little of his own accord. The little that he does is always done in reaction to the positive action of someone else. It seems that Bridey exemplifies the middle-ground in doing nothing despite the grave need to attend thereto.(Thanks for this mini-series of posts. I spent my evenings-off at my summer parish assignment watching Brideshead Revisited for the second time.)

  • Shoot you down! No way! I have been enjoying all your Brideshead posts. You are so perceptive about Bridey. He never does anything positively wrong, but the end result is terrible.

  • Anonymous

    I most certainly agree with you, Father, in your case against Bridey. Anthony Blanche describes him best as a “learned bigot, a ceremonious barbarian, a snowbound lama.” Sebastian’s description works as well: “he’s much the craziest of us, only it doesn’t come out at all. He’s all twisted inside… He was the most upset when Papa went abroad – much more than Mummy really.” He can’t stand living in his own skin, so he counts the sins of others, and he covers up his own insecurities with a legalism he learned from his mother. He is perceived by the other characters as ‘something other’ than the rest of the family. He has no common characteristics to his siblings, he is… what is he? I think he is a sad man that got too wrapped up in pleasing his controlling mother. Living in a house ruled by Lady Marchmain, one would be forced to leave, revolt against her, or help spin her spider web of manipulation. Bridey is the typical pleaser. Jason

  • Anonymous

    Not acting (or choosing not to act, which is a choice/action too) is indeed what Bridey often does.I, too, am enjoying your Brideshead posts. And I also wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of Bridey’s character, Fr Dwight. Thank you so much! Maria

  • This is a good assessment of Bridey. I agree very much with it, as you’ve pointed out certain things I didn’t notice. Yet his character is a sort of unwitting “paradigm shifter”, most notably in the life of Julia, and by consequence, of Charles: his “bombshell” that he lands on Julia when he bluntly states how she is living in sin with Charles, sending her out crying. Of course this isn’t the momentous Grace she and Charles encounter at the end deathbed scene. But it is for sure a changing point for them. I think Waugh shows how, even where the Catholic faith has been so twisted into cold legalism, even in such a case as we see with Bridey (and surely we are not recommended such legalism), even with someone who is “all twisted inside”, that “twitch upon the thread” can still come through, even through such a person as Bridey. So infallible is this Church insituted by Christ.If I remember correctly, aren’t Bridey and Cordelia absent from Lord Marchmain’s death and conversion? A curious absence, and it makes me wonder why Waugh left them out.

  • Great Fr Dwight…no-one is answering my discussion on I will stick with you!

  • Anonymous

    For a Catholic hero – what about Lord Marchmain’s mistress? Can’t remember her name. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the film, but wasn’t she praying for his conversion at the end?

  • Marchmain’s mistress Cara also retains a simple, but deep Catholic faith, and it is a good point that Bridey’s legalism is the thing that directs and corrects Julia. Bridey’s position isn’t wrong. The question is not where he stands, but his posture.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t disagree with your assessment of Bridey, but I must admit that when I read the book (only one time and a few years ago) that I was more sympatheic towards him… I think I recognized something in him (perhaps because I am the oldest, though I sincerely pray I never end up like him), and I do feel as if Sebastians faults complement Bridey’s in some manner, and vice versa. In the brokenness of their lives, Sebastian went one way, and Bridey went the opposite. Because Bridey never ‘left’ the faith though, he would be much less aware of his need for conversion, which is his great tragedy. ~mary

  • Anonymous

    Bridey is totally clueless, an early member of the Church of Aren’t-I-Fabulous (cf. Amy Welborn), and a humourless Pharisee to boot. Your analysis of his character is spot-on. Thank you, Fr. Dwight, for these marvellous posts!

  • He’s like fog. Thick and wet. He talked high, but didn’t seem to take his duty seriously. But it’s hard not to feel sorry for him.

  • Poor Bridey. When the old man deserts his family to drown in Venice, he leaves the son no one to be like. His frozen boy, an imitation adult, will be holding open his father’s place forever, playing with matchboxes, with no way to light a fire. To behave otherwise would be a sin of presumption: to be confessed.

  • In a way Bridey is an empty matchbox: all outward show–no fire within

  • Fr. Longnecker, I am new to Brideshead R., having just completed the miniseries. I was incredibly moved–more than by anything else I’ve watched. Nothing beats a good conversion story or six!You assessment of Bridey is very helpful and explains much.What kept jumping out at met throughout, is that he could analyze with dead on accuracy the moral dimensions of a situation. He would always be right. But he understood half the mystery of Christ who is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful.Bridey gets Christ’s justice down cold. But he hasn’t an ounce of insight into Christ’s mercy.He even treats the moment of conversion as something mechanical and legal. He does not understand the heart.

  • Anonymous

    Fr’s post and these comments make me wonder what Bridie would say in answer to these charges – apart from “it’s arguable I suppose.”Doesn’t he give some clue when, towards the end of Lord Marchmain’s life when they are discussing when it’s permissible to give the last rites…The others get frustrated with his style (or posture), but he answers that people always think he is nit-picking when he is only trying to be precise. If he were nit-picking, that would be deplorable because it is dispassionate and disinterested. being precise can go hand in hand with an authentic spirit and inner life, but importantly, also with a sincere concern for others’ souls. Perhaps it doesn’t always go with sensitivity, but to accuse him of being ’empty within’ is a step too far.

  • Bridey is the anthisis of Sebastian ; he has to be both to give tonality to the family assembly; he is monochrome where sebastian is all luminous and like a brilliant bubble from a pipe – exudes for an instant the exquisitenesses of a rainbow and then opuff and its gone- Anthony Blanche.Blanche later described Bridey as a sort of a great LLama heading of to the endless and pointless destiny of his predictable life.He is happy after all to take over the meaningless continuiyty of the feudal systaem and has no vision or concience to see the inequality his forbears have foisted of the farming community. the Wealth is assumed ; it is not earned nor is there any thought given to any altruism of the spirit. He prays dutifully – but disdains Catholicism and Christianity; he is not a reformer – that is repugnant to his nature; neither will he end up as a monk dying alone in an abbey never to be reconciled to god or to his family , because he has no spiritual attachment to either – He is ritualistic and predictable ; for him noblesse oblige and preserving the family escutcheon is all ; But nothing matters because he is so soulless.

  • On reflection I think Bridey was the character who best personified Waugh himself. Waugh had an indifferent relationship, was fastidious and petty minded inmany things . He aspired to discovering an aristocratic lineage , and having failed to do so in the UK he retired to Ireland and bought a castle where he tried to life out his pretentious imaginings. But he disdained the indigent Irish who had little interest in blue blooded ancestry , much to Waugh’s exasperation . He eventually abandoned the project. If we are to believe what is written about him he was a pretentious ,intolerant and insufferable snob.He also , let it be said , wrote at least one masterpiece in Brideshead, which remains one of my favorite books and will remain in the canon of English literature , and Waugh’s own name is firmly placed in the pantheon of major 20th century writing.Why not open a page about Sebastian