Of the several monks who taught us English, Father Allen was the easiest to relate to. Father P. was obviously gay—we used different terms in those days—which created a certain unease among boys during adolescence. As for Father G., though he was just a few years older than we were, his penchant for irony eluded us. Was he laughing with us or at us? It was hard to tell. By comparison, Allen was down-to-earth. Short and slender with curly black hair, probably in his mid-thirties when we were passing through St. Bede in the early 1960s, he was a guy’s priest. I liked him a lot.
I retain few specific memories of those days, now more than a half-century in the past. But I recall Father Allen’s announcing in class one day that Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945, was the greatest English-language novel ever written. Allen was not given to grand literary judgments. Nor was Brideshead or anything else by Waugh featured in the curriculum of our small Benedictine high school in the middle of the prairie.
The recommendation caught my attention. Too lazy to do homework, I had begun to read widely, if indiscriminately. Literature, I fancied, offered a pathway to the worldly sophistication that at age sixteen I coveted. So, I decided to try Brideshead. If Allen was right, here was a shortcut to enlightenment.
The result was disappointment. In the grip of a severe Anglophilia, I found Waugh’s savage takedown of British upper-class life utterly discomfiting. Waugh’s principal characters were lost souls. Members of his supporting cast were either preposterously obtuse or shallow, self-indulgent, and habitually drunk. At an age when I wanted to fit myself into whatever I might be reading—preferably in a heroic role—Waugh offered me no one to identify with.
Sixty years later, I decided on a whim to give Brideshead a second chance. Father Allen’s grandiose verdict still strikes me as a stretch. Tagging any novel as “best ever” is akin to identifying the “best ever” left-handed pitcher or carrot cake recipe: necessarily arbitrary.
That said, the novel Waugh dashed off in a matter of months during a break from wartime service unquestionably qualifies as a masterpiece. For perplexed Americans today—especially for perplexed believers—here is a book that invites careful reflection. Nearly eighty years after it first appeared in print, Waugh’s unsparing depiction of a society in an advanced state of decay to which its elites are willfully oblivious (or in which they are unconsciously complicit) captures a major element of our own dilemma. In Brideshead, Waugh previews the nihilism that inundates present-day American life.
His narrative revolves around a family of aristocratic English Catholics. As measured by wealth and social prominence, the Marchmains enjoy considerable privileges. Even so, their religious identity marks them as outsiders, obliging them to live “sequestered lives.” Taking seriously Catholic claims to truth, as members of the Marchmain family are prone to do sporadically, subverts a social order in which religious rituals are permitted only to the extent that they are treated as ornamental.
As is typical with Waugh, milieu matters as much as or more than plot. The book’s title refers to the family’s magnificent country estate, which for Waugh signifies permanence and lasting value. Inhabited by generations of Marchmains, the residence conveys “the august, masculine atmosphere of a better age” that now survives only in memory.
The novel is set in the period between the two world wars. In Waugh’s depiction, the bloodletting of 1914–1918, during which Lady Marchmain’s three brothers were killed, signaled not the rescue of Western civilization but its collapse. Two decades later, the war’s sequel is completing this process, with civilization itself “submerged now and obliterated” so quickly had the waters of modernity “come flooding in.”
When he wrote Brideshead, Allied victory over Nazi Germany was by no means assured. Yet Waugh both anticipated and rejected the broadly accepted interpretation of that struggle as a contest pitting good against evil. Even the most favorable outcome, he foresaw, would redound not to the proponents of truth and beauty but to “the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet hand-shake, [and] his grinning dentures”—in short, to all that is cheap, tawdry, and devoid of lasting value.
In a novel dominated by colorfully unequivocal non-believers and a stubborn remnant of the faithful, Charles Ryder, who narrates the tale, is in a third camp. He is agnostic. His encounter with the Marchmains, which spans two decades, centers on a specific theme: the lingering possibility of divine reconciliation even in a secular age.
As an aimless Oxford undergraduate in the early 1920s, Charles befriends—or rather is seduced by—Sebastian, the family’s charismatic but doomed younger son. A decade later, abandoning his own wife and children, he embarks upon an adulterous affair with Julia, the beautiful but restless older Marchmain daughter.
Why Sebastian and Julia single out Charles for special attention is not easily discerned. Not unlike Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, he is something of an enigma. An artist of modest gifts who eventually achieves commercial success (but little critical acclaim) by painting the great homes that dot the English countryside, Charles is less participant in the story than sympathetic witness. Through him, however, the reader comes to understand the torments besetting the various Marchmains and the “small red flame” of faith that keeps them ineluctably—in some cases unwillingly—tied to Rome.
“To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.” So a young Charles ruminates early in the book. Over the course of the novel, in which he ultimately forfeits Sebastian’s love and then Julia’s, he arrives at a different and less reassuring conclusion. Human love, he comes to understand, offers only “hints and symbols” of something deeper, more demanding, and more elusive.
Seeking that higher love, Charles discovers, is not for the faint of heart. To pursue it is to mount “a hill of many invisible crests,” a journey sustained by hopes of “snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.” However resolute the pursuer, the divine shadow remains beyond reach.
A stubborn reactionary, Waugh delighted in flaunting his prejudices. These included the casual anti-Semitism common to members of the upper class in his day and a rather more strident dislike of America. Both attitudes can be glimpsed in Brideshead. Given the acute political sensitivities of our own day, these may be reason enough for some readers to dismiss the book altogether.
To do so would be a great mistake. At a time when a frivolous counterculture does little more than camouflage an overarching cultural conformity, Waugh offers a bracing alternative. “Our wisdom, we prefer to think, is all of our own gathering,” he observes in an aside, before adding that most of what passes for wisdom is simply “the last coin of a legacy that dwindles with time.” Amid World War II, Waugh concluded that the last vestiges of that legacy were on the verge of disappearing—hence his disdain for wartime pieties and his unfashionable insistence on retrieving from the past values that might preclude the final triumph of barbarism.
Were he alive today, Waugh’s judgment would likely be even more scathing. He would assess what passes for wisdom, especially on matters relating to the exercise of freedom, as a recipe for moral anarchy. “When the water-holes were dry,” he writes in Brideshead, “people sought to drink at the mirage.” So they do in present-day America, especially on anything that touches on the subject of freedom, which has become a synonym for self-indulgence. The sources to which past generations looked for sustenance have just about run dry, with neither Twitter nor TikTok nor Tucker Carlson capable of filling the void.
In the book’s concluding chapter, Lord Marchmain, the aged paterfamilias, returns to Brideshead from Venice, where he has been living in self-imposed exile with his longtime mistress. On his deathbed, he reflects on his own service in the Great War: “They said we were fighting for freedom.” Instead, he concludes, “I committed a crime in the name of freedom.” None of those gathered at his bedside dare to contradict him, even if the nature of his crime remains unclear. Was it participating in the folly that spelled the end of European civilization? Or was it his own subsequent decision to desert his family?
In twenty-first-century America, the crimes committed in the name of freedom and the subsequent perversion of freedom itself remain largely unexplored. For anyone interested in undertaking such an exploration—and perhaps in replenishing old watering holes—Brideshead Revisited offers a place to start.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Image by Peter Symonds via Creative Commons. Image cropped.