The Villain of the Piece

The Villain of the Piece February 19, 2008

Is divorce a crime? One of the greatest aspects of Brideshead Revisited is to observe the results of Lord Marchmain’s abandonment of his family. He claims on his deathbed that ‘We were fighting for freedom. I took my freedom. Was that a crime?’ In a devastating moment Cordelia (as always) speaks the truth. “I think it was papa.” In the film version, at that point Marchmain is visibly shaken, and from then on he declines into death, and his final reconciliation.

The results of Marchmain’s crime are clear to see. It is arguable that Lady Marchmain would not have become quite the insufferable tyrant if Lord Marchmain had taken charge and been the responsible man of the family rather than running away to Venice. If he had done that Bridey and Sebastian would have had a proper role model, and been disciplined enough not to follow the paths they chose. If he had stayed with the family and been a proper father Sebastian may have had the self discipline and courage to have followed the religious vocation he truly had.

If he had stayed on the estate and ruled it as he should have, Brideshead may have flourished. Because of his indolent and immature selfishness, Marchmain House is sold to make way for a vulgar block of flats on top of which Rex Mottram reigns in the penthouse. Furthermore, Rex Mottram eventually takes over Brideshead itself, and when the estate is finally used as an army barracks and training ground you can bet it is Rex Mottram, now in the war department, who is getting his revenge. Had Lord Marchmain been the man he should have been none of this need have happened. So his weak selfishness and divorce divorces him (and his heirs) from their rightful inheritance. They are all exiled and cast down.

The girls, too, are affected by the abdication of the father. Psychologists tell us that the adolescent female needs a strong father just as much as the adolescent male. She needs the strong father to show her what a strong and responsible and good husband is like. Without the strong father girls are prone to drift into promiscuous behavior or drift in life–without direction and purpose. Evidence: Julia-who ends up with a divorcee who is older than herself. In many ways Rex Mottram is her father. His vulgar, self seeking ignorance–his being ‘less than human’ is simply a reflection of Marchmain’s moral condition without Marchmain’s veneer of sophistication. Cordelia, while saintly, obviously spends some time drifting–first seeking a religious vocation, then winding up serving abroad.

Cara tells us that Lord Marchmain hates Lady Marchmain and cannot even breathe the same air as her. Does he hate her, or does he hate himself? I think the latter. Doubtless Lady Marchmain is difficult to love, but had he loved her rather than projecting his own self hatred on to her, the marriage may have survived. At very least they should have ‘stayed together for the children’. This option is laughed at nowadays as being hypocritical and hopelessly idealistic. I disagree. Such a choice may very well be the first time a couple begin to be selfless in a marriage, and it may be the decision which saves all.

Waugh beautifully interweaves the characters so that if we really want to see what Lord Marchmain is like we need only look at his progeny. He is the adulterous Julia. He is the self indulgent, spoiled runaway child Sebastian. He is the twisted, self righteous, emotionally cold introvert Bridey all wrapped up in one.

The only one who escapes his villany is the ‘pick of the litter’: Cordelia

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  • Brilliant Fr..just brilliant!

  • Well done, Fr. Excellent. Though you and I must still disagree on Lady Marchmain, whom I see as not the tyrant but the voice of measured moral reason and discipline, the good discipline refused by her children who fled from Christ but completely and wholeheatedly embraced by Cordelia, the Christ-hearted one.Will you write more on the conversion of each character? It seems they all have their conversions except those who never left the faith, Lady M. Cordelia and Bridey. What do you think?

  • I too am enjoying your insightful reading and the thoughtful comments.Re Lady Marchmain. A pscyhologist of my aqauintance says that while a woman can (obviously) bring up children on her own, there is a fundamental conflict between the nurturing role and the discipline role; the latter comes more naturally to men. If the woman has to take it on she is likely to be cold and/or shrill. This confirms your analysis, Father, of the role of the divorce in the novel. With a husband by her side Lady Marchmain would likely have been just soft/warm enough to be a good enough mother.Incidentally, while Cordelia is a beautiful person, she is asexual – another consequence of not having father around.

  • Father, I have been married for thirty-two years–yes, divorce is a crime. I always told my husband–I would never divorce because of the broken families (he never wanted to–that’s a good thing). To me it seems like a broken family would be much harder in the long run-extra in-laws and out-laws would complicate a life more that just staying together. My brother (not Catholic)was married to his first wife and had seven chldren–he divorced her. Now he has a new wife who has four kids of her own–what a zoo! At holidays they fight constantly and there is always some emotional upheaval. Now my brother;s first wife decided they should not have gotten divorced and is chasing after my brother again–ignoring the fact that he is married again. Sheesh, when your having a down time in a marriage–just “ride it out.” Divorce is evil!

  • Fr. J. I think your gentlemanly kindness is misplaced, and I hope it doesn’t affect your ministry. Women have an obligation, certainly, to be “the voice of measured moral reason” but it is also a duty to allow legitimate freedoms in others. We have no way of knowing how the marriage unravelled at the start, but I firmly posit that many men abandon their responsibilities because the women subtly undermine their masculinity. Did Lady Marchmain ever honour and obey this man? Did she confirm his better characteristics? This sort of woman is a common foil in literature and film, showing that outward rectitude can mask underlying pride, insufferability, and frankly a horror show. (Yes, I know such women.) I don’t want to give men a pass, but they are at the mercy of the women in their lives, and when a women subverts masculinity around her, no wonder when it crumbles and disappears.

  • Also, Fr. J., while we might say that Lady M. never left the faith, I’m not sure she ever grasped it. Even if she did, she (like all Christians) needs a constant metanoia. Like so many orthodox but “brittle” people, there is no indication of the example of forgiveness — especially for the sake of forming the children properly in their faith. Those who have been wronged wear the injustice like a garment, for the pity of all who see.

  • I enjoyed this. Thank you. I am a divorced Unitarian poet that practices Buddhist meditation and yoga but I love Brideshead. It is so beautifully and clearly written and if anything were ever to make me think about becoming Catholic this book would. I found this post looking for a quote about Rex being just a small piece of a man. My copy seems to have disappeared.