To Spend the Rest of My Life Reading Books Like This

During my 40 years in the wilderness, reading was a mostly desultory pursuit. I went through a Dickens kick, a Civil War period, a David Foster Wallace frenzy, and a time of pure adoration for Norman Maclean. But there was no aim, no theme to my reading. It was like belonging to a Book-of-the-Month Club in which each season’s selections are chosen at random. By contrast, in the two years since I entered RCIA, I have read almost nothing but Catholic subjects. I’m pretty sure I will spend the rest of my life doing more of the same.

And yet if you had told me five or ten years ago that Catholicism was intellectually appealing, I’m not sure I would have followed. I thought of it as devotional, as something you do. I saw all those Catholics crossing Cabot Street on their way into Mass every Sunday and I thought rosary—confession—novenas (whatever those were). I was married to a Catholic (still am through God’s grace and Katie’s graciousness), but I had no idea what it might actually be like to be a Catholic.

I certainly never imagined it would be like the most exciting week in my life, the week I still dream about frequently: my first week as a freshman in college. All those books, and all the time in the world to read them! Forget Scripture, the Church Fathers, or the latest essay in First Things. What I love is, all that Catholic fiction! Some I have read: Kristin Lavransdatter, the Father Brown mysteries of Chesterton, selected stories by Flannery O’Connor, Mariette in Ecstasy. But so many I still have left to read: anything by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Chronicles of Narnia, and until today at lunchtime, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. 

Webster Discovers America! I know I am probably one of the last adult Catholics in the old British Empire who had neither read nor watched Brideshead Revisited until today. I finished the book at one o’clock. Tomorrow the DVDs arrive from Amazon.

A book like Brideshead makes me tickled to be a Catholic. Several readers of this blog suggested it to me, as had a couple of Catholic friends previously, but somehow I associated it with everything overly serious about Masterpiece Theater. Jeremy Irons never appealed to me, although he was pretty funny as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. (“You’re a very strange man, Mr. von Bulow!” “You have no idea.”) It was finally George Weigel’s writeup in Letters to a Young Catholic that sent me out to Borders looking for Brideshead. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, it is a “Catholic novel” that I wanted to begin re-reading the moment I had finished the last page. Though I’m lazy enough to wait for the DVDs.

What kind of Catholic novel is Brideshead Revisited? A very sneaky one. You’re nearly a quarter of the way through it before Waugh offers any details about the religion of the family at the heart of the novel, the Marchmains, whose country seat is known as Brideshead. On page 86 in my edition, the narrator says of his Oxford chum Sebastian Marchmain, “Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear.”

If Waugh was in any sense evangelizing why did he ever pick such an unorthodox family as Catholic exemplars? Sebastian—a confirmed drunk who carries a stuffed animal around Oxford with him—is not only the most eccentric but, for narrator Charles Ryder, the most compelling of the Marchmains. It is Ryder’s love for Sebastian (love, apparently, in all its forms) that leads him to Brideshead and his encounter with Catholicism. Though he doesn’t realize that this is what he is encountering until almost the very end of the novel—after he has fallen in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia and the two have divorced their respective spouses in order to marry. By this time, Sebastian has died of disease somewhere in Africa, tended by monks who refused him admission as anything other than a menial laborer. His younger sister, Cordelia, who may still end in a convent, reports that Sebastian ended his life somewhere between an alcoholic stupor and spiritual ecstasy. 

In the final chapter of the narrative (a prologue and epilogue frame the main story), Lord Marchmain, father of the family, comes home to die. Here—for the three other English-speaking Catholics who have not read Brideshead—I will leave off telling the tale and beg you to read it for yourself. The love between Charles and Julia must bow to a greater Love, and there is perhaps a suggestion in the epilogue that, despite a deep skepticism flashed throughout the novel, Charles himself may be on his own winding road to Rome. There are better, deeper surprises.

I suspect that the majority of those who have loved this novel have not even been Catholics. George Orwell was one of them, calling Waugh “as good a writer as it is possible to be while holding untenable positions.” But for the Catholic minority of readers, few books could be as entertaining, thought-provoking, or pride-inducing. At least that’s how I felt: seriously amused, perplexed, and proud.

"Vaya con Dios, Leonard; Rest in Peace."

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  • One minor quibble: The Chronicles of Narnia series is, strictly speaking, not Catholic fiction, since C.S. Lewis remained an Anglican to the end of his days. He was, however, strongly influenced by Catholics — his conversion from atheism to Christianity was due in large part to long conversations with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, and he greatly admired and enjoyed the writings of G.K. Chesterton. I have found it interesting that every single Catholic author I've been reading so far that I really like has had something to attribute to Lewis.I'm also reading Letters to a Young Catholic and can hardly imagine a better book for someone in the process of conversion (or anyone interested in Catholicism). The review of Brideshead was wonderful, and I've also enjoyed your comments here.

  • I'm adding this to my hold list at the library. Thank you! 🙂

  • OK, you talked me into it. I just ordered my copy. You're not the first one to tell me to read it, but you're the most convincing. (I'm not going to be able to take on Kristin for some time, though.)

  • Anonymous

    I read "Brideshead Revisited" many years ago before I was even considering becoming Catholic. Now that I am, I will have to read it again. If you haven't done so already, please add "In This House of Brede" by Rumer Godden to your list. It's a beautiful story of cloistered Benedictine nuns.

  • Sal

    "Brede" is high on my list of "YIMC" novels.But pride of place must go to "The Cardinal" by H.M. Robinson.Which is kind of a terrible novel, really, from a literary standpoint, but it did the job.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with "Anonymous" – everyone should read Rumer Godden's "In This House of Brede." I've read it at least 4 or 5 times. It's magnificent! Now I can't wait to tackle "Brideshead"! Thanks for the great review.

  • jedesto

    Here's the key to Brideshead that many critics missed: Turn to the title of Book II, and then go back a couple of pages where Charles asks Cordelia, "Still trying to convert me, Cordelia?" and read her reply to the end.

  • Anonymous

    Also The Brother Karamozov and Anna Karenina, Morris West's The Devil's Advocate and Clowns of God, Shoes of the Fisherman and Lazarus….so many great books out there!

  • Anonymous

    waugh had very catholic tastes; at oxford he had a penchant for other young men. no doubt his diaries, which chronicle his homosexual affairs, aided him in realising the relationship between sebastian and charles. of course, brideshead revisited invokes catholicism, but i'm not sure for what other reason it can be said to be "catholic fiction".

  • Anonymous

    The Black Robes, No Other Life by Brian MooreManalive, The Napoleon of Notting Hill or anything by by GK ChestertonMariette in Ecstacy by Ron HansenAnything by Flannery O'ConnorSo many books, so little time!

  • I'll add another recommendation for "In This House of Brede." The author, Rumer Godden, was a convert to Catholicism, and tells an absolutely beautiful story.

  • EPG

    In reply to Anonymous (above) — I recently re-read Brideshead, and found its Catholic foundations unmistakeable (although I did totally miss that when I first read it over twenty years ago, and you won't get it from either of the film adaptations). Some of this is not apparent until the very end. Some of this comes from the sense, throughout the novel, that sin and longing, hope and regret, and mixed together in very real ways. Some of it comes from Charles' realization that earthly love (in all its forms) never quite brings peace, and that, humans being humans, even the best of earthly love is compromised by our own faults, foibles, and sins.The main character and narrator is (mostly) a non-believer. Some (but not all) of the "official" Catholics are (to one degree or another) ridiculous. Charles scoffs, but he can never quite shake the sense that there is something there. Perhaps not an "official" Catholic novel (no priests, nuns, or saints as main characters). Just a load of flawed humans — looking (to varying degrees) and finding (or failing to find) redemption . . .Very Catholic, I suspect . . .

  • Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell is about St Luke. It's wonderful! Very densely written, every noun has at least 2 adjectives (and at least one of them a color lol) but I loved it.