Brideshead 2

Many months after I promised it, here is the second section of the compilation of my Brideshead Revisited posts from a few years ago. Almost five years ago now, I blogged my way through Brideshead Revisited starting in Advent and continuing on into the new year after Christmas. It was not meant to be, and is not, an academic exercise. I simply went through a book I had known and loved for a few decades and explained how I understood the text.
The response has been gratifying. At least one person has come here and read their way through these posts every single day since I first published these.

A number of commenters have noted that the posts can be difficult to navigate and have suggested that I find someway to present them for easier reading. This is part 2 covering teh section called "Brideshead Deserted" Part one can be found here.

What's the Tortoise for?
Brideshead has an amazing power to make critics stupid. The very first critic I ever read about it said the book was a failure because Waugh failed to see how much Charles and Rex have in common. That's like saying that Moby Dick is a failure because Herman Melville failed to recognize the importance of the whale. This moronic critic couldn't see that the similarities between Charles and Rex are something that Waugh very artfully built into the novel.

I think there are two reasons critics get stupid this way.

The first is because Waugh rebels against everything they value. The very project of writing an English Novel about Catholicism is an affront. Whether believer or atheist, if there is one thing every English intellectual knows it is that shaking off the superstition and authoritarianism of the Catholic church is what made Britain great. Because it is very much a classic English novel in its language, its techniques and its setting, Waugh effectively takes the some of the favourite vocabulary and literary devices of the English intellectual and uses them to support views the opposite of what they would have.

It's not that its transgressive. It's that it is transgressive in the wrong way. For most of us, great satire is something that mocks people we already think are stupid. A novel set in a big English house that ended up exposing the hypocrisy of the Flytes and in which the only genuine character was a young boy who worked for the family as a servant and was ignored by all while he was the only true artist in the crowd, that is a book intellectuals would love.

The other reason, as I've already said, is that they imagine they are reading a book about a social climbing snob written by a social climbing snob. Here is a critic named L.E. Sissman ranking Waugh's novels:
I would rank Decline and Fall and Pinfold, for their very different but equally genuine qualities as art, with A Handful of Dust, placing Vile Bodies (1930) and The Loved OneThe Sword of Honor books would seem to come next, followed by Scoop (1938), and such dilute and repetitious work as Black Mischief (1932) and the embarrassingly wish-fulfilling (though often beautifully written) Brideshead Revisited (1945) at the bottom of the list.  
A quick note, notice that Sissman has to acknowledge that Brideshead is beautifully written, in parts at least. It's not Waugh's art that bothers critics: it's where he goes with it.

Now stop and think about the book itself for a moment. What is wish-fulfilling about Brideshead? Is there a single character anywhere in the book who gets what he wants? Rex maybe does in that his political career goes well but Rex can hardly be said to represent Waugh's dreams. Everyone else loses what they hoped for. The novel is very much a novel of loss and what is lost is wishes denied.

Here's an odd question: When in the novel is Brideshead revisited? At first it seems obvious: It is revisited when Charles goes there with the army in the prologue. But it is revisited over and over again. Sebastian is going back when he takes Charles the first time. Charles gets to go back for a Christmas visit and then an Easter visit and then another Christmas visit (hmmm? and the last visit is in spring and ... sorry I got distracted there for a moment.)  Later he will get to go back with Julia. And then, finally, we get to go back with him in the epilogue. But, except for the halcyon days visit in chapter four when he is alone and in love with Sebastian, every one of these visits is a disappointment. People keep going to Brideshead with great hopes only to have those hopes dashed. Everything Charles tries to build at Brideshead comes to ruin.

Literary and culture references
Brideshead is littered with these.  You can, and I have, play a sort of parlour game where you meet with other fans of the book and see who can spot the most references. Eliot Girl noted one in the comments a while ago:
Jules, can we talk about The Waste Land for a moment? The bells striking nine.

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

Eliot knew exactly what he was doing when he mentioned St. Mary Woolnoth in his poem, at this moment in his poem. He also knew exactly what he was doing when he sounded the 9 bells. The point of this passage is that the church is there, but the crowd flows past without noticing it. St. Mary Woolnoth in London was also, in 1922, the site of the Bank St. Tube Station, so the church itself is literally transformed into a commuter's passage-way, just as the bell sounds not the angelus but simply the tolling hours of another work day. But the church is there. With all of its magnificent history and symbolic potential, which Eliot knew, the church is there. Eliot offers it in the poem as a potential alternative to modern fragmentation, loss, grief and pain that is missed by the crowd. Later perhaps this potential is realized to some extent with St. Magnus Martyr church in "The Fire Sermon".

So the bells ring nine here in Brideshead. Did Waugh know The Waste Land? We know he did. Could he have chosen some other Oxford church bells to ring out in this chapter? He lists, in chapter two, all the different church bells that do ring out. He chooses St. Mary, and he chooses the number nine. And the moment is followed, as you say, by a betrayal.

Of course "chiming" is a much nicer sound than the "dead sound on the final stroke of nine" - but it is all a matter of perception, isn't it? When Sebastian comes, the bells chime. Of course they do - he's beautiful and we love him. But the echoes from this moment in The Waste Land are, I think, still there.
The bells striking nine! Yes, the echoes are there and I'm sure they're deliberate. What Eliot Girl doesn't mention, probably because it is so obvious for her that it doesn't require mentioning, is that nine bells or nine tollers, is rung for a dead man. Dorothy L Sayers fans will remember that one of her books, a book just just full of bell lore, is called The Nine Tailors which is to make us think of the nine tollers.

The bell is chiming for Sebastian all through this book. He is marked for death. He is a child who was born to die; not unlike the child whose birth we will celebrate a week this Saturday. The bell tolls again this chapter. Cordelia has just come back from the hunt and her mother asks her where Sebastian is:
'He's in disgrace.' The words, in that clear, child's voice had the ring of a bell tolling, but she went on ...
And the aftermath of this is very much poor Sebastian's doom. Everyone gives up on him. His mother gives up on him. He's already given up on himself. Even Charles loses hope and leaves Brideshead, he thinks for ever.

Brideshead is haunted by literary references. Four works in particular haunt it. The Waste Land is one of these. Brideshead begins in early spring with bitter memories, it documents a bunch of fruitless quests in a world haunted by the First World War and then it ends in a chapel. But if a waste land haunts this book it is a peculiar waste land that keeps trying to be Tintern Abbey. Because that is the second ghost. People from Sebastian at the first visit to Charles at the end keep hoping to find treasures they buried in the past. It is also haunted by Proust because, like in Proust, life in the book keeps trying to live up to art and failing. Finally, and this is all to come, it is haunted by King Lear but the only hint of that we have so far is a daughter named Cordelia,

The significance of the pickle
Which brings me back to the tortoise. Of all the cultural allusions in Brideshead, the tortoise is weirdest. On the surface the significance of the tortoise seems obvious. It's the third reference to buried treasure.

In book one, chapter one, Sebastian imagines burying treasure:
'Just the place to bury a crock of gold,' said Sebastian. 'I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.'
In the current chapter, Charles imagines his predicament in terms of a buried treasure that he cannot retrieve:
I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.
Just down the page from that we learn that the tortoise with the embedded jewels that Rex bought Julia—trying to buy his way into what "nether land" with that?—has been buried. We learn this when Cordelia writes to Charles:
'Julia's tortoise disappeared. We think it buried itself, as they do, so there goes the packet (expression of Mr. Mottram's).'
And so we have what is a familiar pattern in Waugh, the happy dream turns into a sad reality and then a travesty. And therefore, we might say, the choice of the tortoise is obvious: the whole point is to be grotesque and Waugh just imagined a Jewel-encrusted tortoise because it is grotesque.

Except that Waugh rarely imagines anything. He's always borrowing from other literary sources and rewriting scenes and events to his own ends (just like Proust, albeit to a very different end from Proust's). And that is what he has done her. That tortoise has a literary heritage. Here it is:
This tortoise was a fancy which had seized Des Esseintes some time before his departure from Paris. Examining an Oriental rug, one day, in reflected light, and following the silver gleams which fell on its web of plum violet and alladin yellow, it suddenly occurred to him how much it would be improved if he could place on it some object whose deep color might enhance the vividness of its tints.

Possessed by this idea, he had been strolling aimlessly along the streets, when suddenly he found himself gazing at the very object of his wishes. There, in a shop window on the Palais Royal, lay a huge tortoise in a large basin. He had purchased it. Then he had sat a long time, with eyes half-shut, studying the effect.

Decidedly, the Ethiopic black, the harsh Sienna tone of this shell dulled the rug's reflections without adding to it. The dominant silver gleams in it barely sparkled, crawling with lack-lustre tones of dead zinc against the edges of the hard, tarnished shell.

He bit his nails while he studied a method of removing these discords and reconciling the determined opposition of the tones. He finally discovered that his first inspiration, which was to animate the fire of the weave by setting it off against some dark object, was erroneous. In fact, this rug was too new, too petulant and gaudy. The colors were not sufficiently subdued. He must reverse the process, dull the tones, and extinguish them by the contrast of a striking object, which would eclipse all else and cast a golden light on the pale silver. Thus stated, the problem was easier to solve. He therefore decided to glaze the shell of the tortoise with gold.

The tortoise, just returned by the lapidary, shone brilliantly, softening the tones of the rug and casting on it a gorgeous reflection which resembled the irradiations from the scales of a barbaric Visigoth shield.

At first Des Esseintes was enchanted with this effect. Then he reflected that this gigantic jewel was only in outline, that it would not really be complete until it had been incrusted with rare stones.
That's from Chapter 5  of Au Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Huysmans was one of the French decadents who had a huge influence on the English aesthetes. Waugh and his friends would have often discussed this odd book while at Oxford.

What does it mean that Waugh puts Huysmans's tortoise into Brideshead? It's especially odd that he has Rex bring the tortoise. It's the sort of thing you can picture Sebastian doing—if ever there was an elaborate pastiche, that tortoise is it—but not Rex.

I think about it every time I read Brideshead and I wonder. The relevant chapter from Au Rebours is at this link. It's even translated for us. Maybe you can figure it out. Really, go ahead and read it. It's short and will take less than ten minutes of your time.

Oh yeah, when you hit the last paragraph and Huysmans compares the dead tortoise to a "pyx", it may help you to know that a pyx is a container that Catholics use to carry consecrated hosts—which is to say to bring what we believe to be the real presence of Christ himself— to the sick. A pyx will often be decorated up to look quite elaborate but the real valuable is not, for a Catholic anyway, the shiny gold and jewels but the rather humble looking cracker inside.

Here is a pyx for those who have never seen one. It has a pewter relief of the supper at Emmaus on it showing the moment when the two disciples recognize Jesus at the blessing and breaking of the bread (Luke 24: 13-35).

That is a hinge on the bottom because it opens to store the host inside. You can see how someone might think of the tortoise analogy. In the history of the Catholic church there has been a tendency to build layers upon layers of fabulous decoration on top of the thing that really matters. Think of illuminated Bibles, think of Tabernacle doors, think of the fabulous mythologies built up around a  saint like Ursula, think of the great cathedrals.

And yet, if a thief were to accost me on the street and demand I hand over this little container, for that is my pyx in the picture, my highest goal should be to honour the wafer inside. Once I have secured it, I should hand the thing that actually cost me money easily because, comparatively speaking, it should be practically worthless to me.

Where am I going with all this sex stuff?
A reader who knows me asked that question today.

And if it occurred to her, it must have occurred to others so I thought I'd answer it.

Short answer; nowhere. I'm not building up some daring conclusion that this is really a book about sex or that Waugh was a closet case or any such thing. (One of my sisters has argued for the latter for about thirty years now—she claims that all Waugh's women are just boys and men with women's names—but she is wrong.)

The thing is, I think it is really important to read the book Waugh actually wrote. An awful lot of Brideshead's biggest fans and harshest critics insist on projecting a fantasy onto the pages they see instead of reading them. The distortion is rather staggering.

Not as bad as poor Pride and Prejudice. But it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that many readers don't actually read either novel. They read every word on every page and they keep turning the pages until they get the end but they spend all their time looking for confirming evidence of an illusion instead of really reading the books.

Pressed Duck!
Now that meal. I've separated it out from the rest of chapter 1 because it is the turning point in the novel. It's all Sebastian up until Rex and Charles eat together and it's all Julia afterward.

And here is where I make enemies of some readers. A lot of people—I was one of them the first few times I read the book—take everything Charles tells us about this meal and about Rex at face value. We want Charles to be right and everyone else, especially Rex, to be wrong. It is a tribute to Waugh's genius that we do feel that way—that is the way he wants us to react. But he also expects us to be intelligent enough to recognize that there are problems with Charles' story. Remember that he is the sickly child and it is up to us to figure out what is wrong with him.

This meal offers us some powerful hints because Charles is both threatened and jealous of Rex and that effects how he presents the story.

The most blatant example of this is the way Charles presents Rex's tastes as flamboyant and even crass and, by implication, Charles' own tastes as subtle and refined.

Except that he orders pressed duck! A pressed duck is a very special item. It requires a specially slaughtered bird which is still in its blood that that is then partially cooked. This bird is brought from the kitchen and the final preparation is done in front of the diners. It is pressed in a mechanical device that pushes the juices out and these are cooked along with the meat. This is one very ostentatious choice.

As he recounts the meal, Charles mocks Rex for the kinds of things he hears—about death and bankruptcy—and yet he wraps the tale up with a bit of gossip of his own about how the wedding didn't some off as Rex had planned. It's the sort of thing Charles hears.

And for all his insistence that he doesn't want to hear about what Rex has to say about himself and what he is doing, what Charles really doesn't want to hear about is Rex and Julia. Even recounting it all these years later, he doesn't want to do anymore than cite disjointed phrases.

Julia has been slowly looming up in the story and she will explode, fully blossomed in the next chapter. We know that Charles is sexually attracted to her. But he doesn't seem to really want her until she is linked to someone else. This is very Proustian. In Proust, people fall in love and stay in love driven by jealousy and insecurity. As we see read about how Julia falls in love with Rex over the next few paragraphs and then of how Charles falls in love with her, we might keep this in mind. How much of this relationship is driven by jealousy and insecurity? And  we might reconsider, in retrospect, how important this jealousy and insecurity was to Charles falling in love with Sebastian.

Finally, for I will be brief-ish today, let's consider two criticisms that Charles directs towards Rex, two sneers really.

The first concerns Brenda Champion. Charles says that Rex owes his place in the world to Brenda Champion. She is the one who got him access to society. And he further says that once she was no longer of any use to him, Rex loses interest in her.

The second thing Charles says of Rex is that he sets about acquiring Julia as if she were a bit of real property he was trying to get the best deal for.

Keep those two things in mind and see if they might apply to anyone else as the story goes along.

It's time to speak of Theresa
Because the story about Julia is pretty straightforward without her mother just as the story of Sebastian would be straightforward without his mother.

Let's flash back to the first things that Charles says about Lady Marchmain.
She accepted me as Sebastian's friend and sought to make me hers also, and in doing so, unwittingly struck at the roots of our friendship. That is the single reproach I have to set against her abundant kindness to me.
Looking back from the end of this chapter that doesn't quite seem adequate anymore does it? Charles, unfailingly chivalrous as he always is, says what a gentleman ought to say and no more. Perhaps we should say more.

In this chapter, Rex makes a number of astoundingly crass remarks, the very crassest of which is the following remark in response to being told that a mixed marriage is a low key affair:
'How d'you mean "mixed"? I'm not a nigger or anything.'
And we are shocked, not least because he uses what is for us the only truly unspeakable word anymore. But poor Rex, who has only made the point rhetorically, does not realize that Mady Marchmain has raised it in a literal way:
'We know nothing about him. He may have black blood—in fact he is suspiciously dark. Darling the whole thing's impossible. I can't see how you can have been so foolish.'
And note how little heed she pays to her daughter's thoughts. Theresa Marchmain treats her twenty-year old daughter like a child. Charles and Cordelia try so hard to love Lady Marchmain, as they should, but she is not easy to love.

I had a girlfriend once who treated me very badly. It took me years to forgive her because it took me years to actually blame her for for what she did to me. I kept thinking of ways to excuse or explain away what she had done. It was only when I finally said out loud that it really was her fault that I could begin to forgive her. Lady Marchmain has that effect on us. We need to say out loud what she has done.

We might pause and remember how she tries to deflect responsibility for the suggestion that Sebastian stay with Msgr. Bell away from herself and then compare that with the ruthlessly manipulative way she behaves in this chapter. And, given her remark above, we might wonder whether Bridey is solely responsible for the awful affront of hiring a private detective.

Julia's sin, which I will get to in a moment, is essential to understanding the story but we might wonder if it isn't somewhat forced on her by Lady Marchmain's constantly manipulative behaviour. She tells Julia that she is concerned with her happiness but she doesn't seem to think that Julia herself should have any input into this. In the extreme, we might wonder if Lady Marchmain would be as happy achieving her daughter's happiness through electroshock therapy.

Compare that approach to Lord Marchmain's response:
Lord Marchmain did not concern himself with the finer points of Rex's character; those, he believed, were his daughter's business. Rex seemed a rough, healthy, prosperous fellow whose name was already familiar to him from reading political reports; he gambled in an open-handed but sensible manner; he seemed to keep reasonably good company; he had a future; Lady Marchmain disliked him. 
That is far from sufficient but, on the whole, it's about as much as an absent father might do. It is definitely better than what Lady Marchmain manages. And, in it, we can see powerful hints of why Lord Marchmain left his manipulative wife to begin with. Not enough, in my view, to justify what he does, but there are always some good reasons to sin aren't there?

Julia's sin
In modal logic we might say the reasons to sin are often compelling in that we have necessary but never quite sufficient cause to sin.

Right from the beginning, Julia's pursuit of Rex is a little dubious.
Perhaps Julia recognized in Brenda Champion an intimation of what she and her friends might be in twelve years' time; there was an antagonism between the girl and the woman that was hard to explain otherwise. Certainly the fact of his being Brenda Champion's property sharpened Julia's appetite for Rex.
By the way, that paragraph makes every bit as much sense if you replace Julia and Brenda with Charles and Rex for there is an antagonism that is otherwise hard to explain and Julia being Rex's property certainly sharpens Charles appetite for her.

But back to the main question: what is Julia's sin? This may elude non-Catholics but that Julia would refuse confession is a big thing. We have had a lot of talk about grave sins and mortal sins but by leaving the confessional the way she does, Julia commits the only certifiable mortal sin in the book. She doesn't just do something wrong or even knowingly do something wrong, she decides that what she wants is more important than maintaining her relationship with God.

Now non-Catholics are maybe thinking now is the time to click away and find some more reasonable and secular approach to the book. I don't blame you but remember, Julia is a Catholic. You may think this is the wrong way to approach these questions but they are the approach she takes.

Waugh, by the way, has embedded the reasoning right in the text when he has Charles comment on Julia's thinking it unfair that her protestant friends can do what they want because their ignorance renders them innocent.

So what makes her do it? Is it sex?

I know, here Jules goes again. Always back to the sex, you'd think I thought of nothing else (and you wouldn't be far wrong some days). But what are we to make of this?

Well, we have some hints.

Rex awakens real passion in Julia and that attracts and frightens her. She has done "things" we have no idea what they are, with "uncertain and sentimental boys"before (and who might they have been?) but she never responded before. Now she has. So even if you think it was just kissing, it was kissing that got her ... well, I don't have to delve into the facts of a woman's physical response to sexual arousal do I?

The second hint we get is that whatever it is that they are doing, it's enough to provide Rex with sufficient compensation to give up what he was getting from Brenda Champion. It is only when Julia puts a stop to it that he returns to his former mistress for, what shall we say, "relief?"

The final hint is that when Charles asks Julia why she told her mother she was Rex's mistress, she says that it is because she sort of believed it. Whatever was happening was pretty intense. And, much as I hate to make poor Charles squirm at the thought, it was intense for Julia.

It's not hard to imagine her situation is it? "Wouldn't it be nice if we were old and married, then we wouldn't have to wait so long," as Brian Wilson said. Except that they both are old. Rex is definitely so and Julia is "old enough".

Okay, let me let all the non-Catholics in on the logic of the thing. Julia could go on committing all sorts of sins. She could go home with those uncertain boys and make things they didn't even have the courage to dream of come true, she could get drunk and get scooped up by an evil man who took her home and photographed her having sex, or she she could have sixteen lesbian love affairs and never once do anything that   would separate her from God so long as she continued to repent for her weaknesses. She might even convince herself that having sex with Rex isn't really a sin and, so long as she really believed what she said she believed, she would be redeemable. But she doesn't do any of that.

What she does do is decide that what she wants is worth more than doing what she believes God wants for her. So she shuts the doors. And my litany of "grave sins" above is not just prurience here. Even though what she and Rex are doing is nothing more than what used to be called "petting" it is the most serious sin in the whole book not because of the actual acts but because of what the act means in the context of Julia's relationship with God.

Okay, but what did they actually do?
Don't be so prurient says Sebastian. In any case, I don't know.

But we should not be like baby boomers here. As some snide critic said back in the 1980s, baby boomers tend to think they were the only people to really have childhoods, loves and become parents. Most of all, baby boomers had and have a hard time imagining that other generations really had sex.

This is all digression from here on down and had nothing to do with Brideshead but I was reading Christian Rossetti the other night and came across a poem I'd never read before called "The Convent Threshold". In it, Rossetti takes on the persona of a young woman who has "sinned a pleasant sin" with a young man and now has decided to enter the convent and wants her lover to accept this choice because:
Lo, stairs are meant to lift us higher:
Mount with me, mount the kindled stair.
It is the night before her entry and he visits and she turns him away. But she has a dream. She has lots of dreams. Here is how she recounts part of what she dreamed:
I tell you what I dreamed last night:
A spirit with transfigured face
Fire-footed clomb with infinite space.
I heard his hundred pinions clang,
Heaven-bells rejoice and clang,
Heaven-air was thrilled with subtle scents
Words spun upon their rushing cars:
He mounted shrieking: 'Give me light.'
Still light was poured on him, more light;
Angels, Archangels he outstripped
Exultant in exceeding might,
And trod the skirts of Cherubim.
Still 'Give me light,' he shrieked; and dipped
His thirsty face, and drank a sea,
Athirst with thirst it could not slake.
There is a nice bit of ambiguity in the last line don't you think? I mean the way the sea itself seems to be just as thirsty as the one drinking. As Charles might say, "What can you mean?

Somewhere along the line, the spiritual goal gets mixed up with the sensual one. But, and this is my main point here, Christina Rossetti, who was as high Anglican as high Anglican gets and never married is rather knowing here. At some point her spirit with transfigured face stops mounting the ladder and does his mounting elsewhere. And when he dips and drinks it is impossible not think of another specific act and dear Christina seems to know exactly what it is like to feel "athirst with thirst" that cannot be slaked. In our crass way we'd say "insatiable".

Anyway, Christina Rossetti also wrote the words to "In the Bleak Midwinter".

Just an oddly decorated room
An awful lot happens in this chapter and I will have to rein in my desire to try and comment on everything of significance.

The most important thing in the chapter, however, is to note who really has deserted Brideshead. Charles is in France, Sebastian is in Morocco, Bridey, Cordelia and Julia are all at Marchmain House. Lady Marchmain is in her grave at Brideshead. But, if we want to be very realist-minded about it, the only place that is really deserted in this chapter is Marchmain House because it is sold and torn down.

To figure out how Brideshead is really deserted, you have to think like a Catholic and we have the example of Cordelia here describing the de-consecration of the chapel at Brideshead:
After she was buried the priest came in—I was there alone. I don't think he saw me—and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoop and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary, and left the tabernacle open, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn't any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.
The really odd thing is the thing she doesn't say. Because there is one more thing the priest would have done that Cordelia would have also seen but she omits from her recounting.

But let's start from the beginning and build up to that. An altar stone is a specially consecrated stone that was at the time of the story the only place a consecration of the host could take place. It's a very old belief—preceding Catholicism by hundreds of years—that a stone would be a place for a sacred presence. Those who know their Bible may remember that Jacob dreams of his struggles with God while resting his head on a stone and, in the morning, uses that stone to build an altar. Ancient religions all over the place, Japan for example, have long associated special stones with a sacred presence.

This is an important thing to consider when thinking about Catholicism. "Catholic" means universal and the church claims to be the church for everyone—dead, living or not yet born, Catholic or non-Catholic—the Catholic church claims to exist for you.

The oil is used for anointing especially anointing the sick. Holy water is used in blessings. Most important of all: the sanctuary lamp is lit to signify that the real presence of Jesus is in the consecrated hosts.

And that is what Cordelia doesn't mention. There would have been consecrated hosts present in the tabernacle which the priest would have consumed during this ritual. Why doesn't she mention those? Well, it could be that she or Waugh just forgot but I don't think so. I think Cordelia is more aware of the connection with something eternal.

Again let me say that I appreciate that non-Catholics don't believe this and perhaps really don't want to believe it. But, for the sake of understanding the book, it is important to remember that this is a book about Catholics and readers need to understand how Catholics think to get this just as you would need to know something about Buddhists to read a novel about them or Jews to read a novel about them or about secular humanists to read a novel about them, you really need to grasp this point to fully understand Brideshead Revisited.

What concerns Cordelia is not a particular object that is leaving the room but with the connection to what she (and I) consider an eternal sacrifice. For we Catholics believe that the sacrifice that Jesus makes on the cross takes place both inside and outside history. It is an historical event but there is also a sense in which it is always happening. For an individual Catholic to make any sacrifice at all is, therefore, not delayed gratification but a way of connecting to this one perfect sacrifice. We believe that sacrific is its own reward.

Anyway, every time the sacrifice of the mass is performed, it is, for us Catholics, the supreme connection with the eternal and the sacred. That is what Cordelia is talking about. It isn't any particular thing that is gone, it is the ability to make this connection here in this room that is gone. This is the reverse of the discussion about the tortoise and the pyx. The room is just an oddly decorated room once that function is gone.

And that is why she stays there until he is gone and only then is it a just an oddly decorated room. For when God's priest walks out the door this room can no longer perform the function it was built for.

A few odds and ends
The above is what really matters but there are quite a few other things happening and some of them are interesting.

Parallel lives
For example, this parallel between something Boy Mulcaster says here and what Sebastian said back in Venice.
Boy Mulcaster: 'You and I,' he said, 'were too young to have fought in the war. Other chaps fought, millions of them dead. Not us. We'll show them. We'll show the dead chaps we can fight too."

Sebastian: I remember Sebastian looking up at the Colleoni statue and saying: 'It's rather sad to think that whatever happens you and I can never possibly get involved in a war.'
Colleoni was a soldier of fortune and the famous statue shows him on horseback. Boy and Sebastian have more in common than we might like to admit. And the name "Boy" does suggest an pre-occupation with youth doesn't it?

Everybody in this novel is a lot like the person we might imagine to be their opposite.

Wish fulfillment
Charles regrets leaving Paris to come help with the national strike.
I thought of the evening I was forgoing, with the lights coming out along the banks of the Seine, and the company I should have had there—for I was at the time concerned with two emancipated American girls who shared a garçonnière in Auteuil—and wished I had not come.
"Emancipated" is a great word isn't it. What can he mean by that? As recently as the 1980s, people used to say that a woman was "liberated" without irony. Nowadays, it's hard to think what is left for a girl to be liberated or emancipated from.

But–being the gross disgusting pig of a boy that the Serpentine One occasionally accuses me of being—I must point out that "garçonnière" (gar-sun-ee-air is a rough approximation of the pronunciation) means bachelor apartment so whatever "concerned with" means it all happens with the three of them in the same room together.

Which leads me to revisit the issue of "wish fulfillment". When Charles goes to Paris we might say there is evidence of wish fulfillment. All his life Waugh regretted that he had not learned to speak or read French well. We might say that surely here Waugh is writing the life he wished he might have lived. And that is true. I think that is exactly what Charles does—he lives the life Waugh might have wanted. BUT we should remember to notice what the consequences of this are. Charles is indeed, somewhat like a Waugh who does exactly what he wants but where does he end up. If anything, the novel is the opposite of wish fulfillment.

Hating God by hating people
There is the memory of the late Theresa Brideshead as recounted by Cordelia:
'Well, you see, she was saintly but she wasn't a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can't really hate God either. When they want to hate him and his saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it's God and hate that. I suppose you think that's all bosh.'
There is, if we're paying attention, about as harsh a condemnation as sweet little Cordelia is capable of in that: "she was saintly but she wasn't a saint". You may think you're being hard on Lady Marchmain but anything you may think is small cheese compared to that. (By the way, notice how  Bridey realizes that Sebastian deserves an allowance, an issue I mentioned earlier. Lady Marchmain would never have allowed such a thing because it was the source of her power to manipulate poor Sebastian.)

But it's the highlighted bit that I think we need to remember. Find something in someone else that is like ourselves and hate that. Keeping in mind what I say about the similarities between Boy and Sebastian above we might keep that in mind.

Simple boobies who love God by loving people
Alternatively, we might find something in someone else that we can love and thereby find reason to see that God loves us. In response to Cordelia's attempt to explain why people hated Lady Marchmain above, Charles says,
'I have heard almost the same thing once before—from someone very different.'
Cordelia doesn't pick up on the hint and ask, "Who was that?" but we should. It was Cara describing how Lord Marchmain feels about Lady Marchmain:
And all for Lady Marchmain. He will not touch a hand that has touched hers. ... He is mad.  And how has she deserved this hate? She has done nothing except to be loved by someone who was not grown up. I have never met Lady Marchmain; I have seen her once only; but if you live with a man you come to know the other woman he has loved. I know Lady Marchmain very well. She is a good and simple woman who has been loved in the wrong way.
Cara's name is "Cara" after all.

And I'll wrap up with one other good and simple person from this chapter. The monk who takes care of Sebastian at the infirmary:
And he is so kind. There is a poor German boy with a foot that will not heal and secondary syphilis, who comes here for treatment. Lord Flyte found him in Tangier and took him in and gave him a home. A real Samaritan.'

'Poor simple monk,' I thought, 'poor booby.' God forgive me.
Yes, I'm on about the sex and love again because that is what Charles pities the monk for not seeing: the real nature of the relationship between Sebastian and Kurt. But loving the right way, which is Waugh's concern, over and over again, is not primarily about the things we are not supposed to be doing—the stuff high in the catalogue of grave sins—but with the way we are supposed to love; he is concerned with trying to find something in someone else that we can love and thereby find reason to see that God loves us.

The poor booby of a monk passes the test and so does Sebastian the Epicurean.

In no other novel does Waugh lay out his understanding of faith, hope and love quite so fully. Every other thing he wrote has him hiding behind what is dark and what is absurd. Nowhere else do we get to see Waugh quite as naked as we do in Brideshead Revisited.


Tenebrae means darkness. It is the name of a service held on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. They still did it pretty much everywhere when I was a kid. Nowadays you really have to look to find a good Tenabrae service.

Anyway, all the candles in the church are extinguished during Tenebrae and, when the church is completely dark, the priests on the altar shuffle their feet on the ground and shake their missals to make us think of the chaos of a world without God. For Catholics, a world without God could only be a world where everything is governed by fluke. And even if it might seem like there are reasons to be moral in such a world it could only be a fluke, a momentary contingency, that there would be a moral aspect of life. Ultimately, it wouldn't make any difference whether life was fair or unfair.

In the beginning was the Word! The word = Logos, that is to say the fact that our life makes sense depends on Jesus existing. And Catholics like me believe that it makes no difference one way or another whether you believe in him on this point: no Jesus, no sense. During Tenebrae we imagine a world in which the word did not come. At the end of the Holy Thursday mass there is no conclusion. People just walk away. The mass is not completed until Easter. It's all one mass with this giant ellipsis in the middle. You might say that from the moment we leave the Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday is a gap in which Richard Dawkins gets to be right.

Anyway, Cordelia mentions a chant from Tenebrae, Quomodo sedet sola civitas. This is interesting for all sorts of reasons. One is that this is one of very few instances, if not the only one, in which music comes off well in Waugh. I have often wondered if Waugh wasn't tone deaf. He refused an invitation from Stravinsky by saying that music meant nothing to him.

It's also relevant because the words give extra depth of what Brideshead Deserted means. (I've cited from Tanakh Translation here.)
Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princes among states
Is become a thrall.
Bitterly she weeps in the night,
Her cheek wet with tears.
There is none there to comfort her
Of all her friends.
All her allies have betrayed her;
They have become like foes.
Judah has gone into exile
Because of misery and harsh oppression;
When she settled among the nations,
she found no rest;
All her pursuers overtook her
in the narrow places.
This is sung with an antiphon:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God.
That "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" can acquire incredible weight when chanted.

The basic text here comes from Lamentations, and the lamenting is actually just warming up here. It keeps getting worse for Jerusalem after this. But we don't have to read it because Anthony Blanche gives us a summary version when talking about Theresa Marchmain's illness:
The Marchioness has been a positive pest ever since I came to London, trying to make me get in touch with them. What a time that poor woman is having! It only shows there's some justice in life.
Okay here is the stunning part: it is very much a, if not the, key message of the Bible that the horrible fate that befalls Jerusalem is entirely deserved. That this suffering is form of love to bring us back to God. In other words, Anthony is right: what happens to Theresa Marchmain here does show us that there is some justice in life. And the question we are left with is whether we want to believe in the punishment only or whether we also want to believe in the possibility of redemption.

The suffering is the easy part. Just step out the door. Even the Buddha could see that part. But an actual, positive redemption—as opposed to the denial of our individuality, like the Buddha proposes—that is harder to believe in.

And, hey, you don't have to if you don't want to.

Anyway, I'm sure you want to hear the chant in question. Here it is:

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