Book Simple: How the World Will Change
Nostalgia is dangerous. Our memories burnish the sunshine of ages past into fool’s gold. It struck me, coming across a Wall Street Journal article discussing the unusual sales of costume wigs to Tea Party aficionados, how especially ridiculous is this apparent yearning for a historical time period in which there was no indoor plumbing, women couldn’t vote and the majority of black people in the United States were enslaved. What country imagines itself better off in its infancy than with an infrastructure — of educational institutions, police and fire fighters, efficient roads and the rule of law, all paid for with taxes, by the way — fully developed? It’s heartbreaking, really, how venal people can be.
The novel opens with one of my favorite transitions in literature. Disillusioned Captain Charles Ryder, our narrator, embroiled in the bureaucracy of his British platoon, arrives to a posting at a private house. Off-handedly, he asks the second-in-command the name of the town, “and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in [his] ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed…he had spoken a name that was so familiar to [Ryder], a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”
That name is Brideshead, the family home of the Marchmains. Charles met Sebastian Marchmain when they were students at Oxford, many years before. Sebastian is the younger son of an aristocratic English Catholic family, eccentric, beautiful and utterly enthralling. Befriending Sebastian launches Charles into a mystifying world of glamour; from the first day of their acquaintance, Charles returns to his rooms to discover in them “a jejune air that had not irked [him] before.”
Sebastian takes Charles home to Brideshead, rescuing him from the dry, mischievous disapproval of his long-widowed father and the harping conventionality of his cousin Jasper. During his visit there, Charles believes himself near heaven. “It is thus I like to remember Sebastian, as he was that summer, when we wandered alone together through that enchanted palace” recalls our now-middle-aged narrator. “This was my conversion to the Baroque. …I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones, was indeed a life-giving spring.”
But there is no paradise on earth; Charles meets the rest of the Marchmain family and becomes enraptured with them as well, which spoils him for Sebastian. “All my life they’ve been taking things away from me,” Sebastian explains early on in the friendship. “If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine.” The choice is clearly one or the other, as Charles explains: “As my intimacy with his family grew, I became part of the world which he sought to escape; I became one of the bonds which held him.” What seems to Charles a paradise appears to Sebastian a prison. Lady Marchmain’s manipulations draw Charles in and shut Sebastian out, just as she has banished the Byronic Lord Marchmain. Sebastian drinks to escape, first merrily, then excessively, then secretly, until his alcoholism nearly destroys him.
Even the beautiful nostalgia present in Brideshead Revisited is considered mildly regrettable by its author. “I piled it on, rather, with passionate sincerity,” Waugh writes in his preface to the novel. “It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries of the sixteenth century. …Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain.”
I think perhaps that is the happiest lesson to learn from the novel, how unexpected is the future. At Brideshead, the young students insist they will never fight in a war, but Charles revisits the house in a regiment. Both Sebastian and Lord Marchmain decry Catholicism, but both return to the Church in despair. It is not so simple to predict how the world will change. It’s not much of a political platform, but nonetheless it is the truth.