If there is any literary film adaptation worth adding to one’s library it is the Granada TV version of Brideshead Revisited. It really is the most perfect screen adaptation of any novel ever. The scenes in Venice, Oxford and Brideshead capture the book sublimely, and each character is played to perfection.
Evelyn Waugh referred to Brideshead Revisited as his G.E.M. (Great English Masterpiece). One of the best things about the work is that it portrays very flawed Catholics with total realism, and communicates the providence of God working its way through a family like yeast through the dough. The great house stands as a monument to family and permanence and the story is one of reconciliation and return as a series of prodigals find their way home.
Running counterpoint to the famous theme of God’s providence are the observations Waugh makes about fatherhood and reconciliation. The Flytes have been abandoned in their palatial county home by the scion of the family Lord Marchmain who has left his wife and children to live with his mistress in Venice.
On his deathbed Lord Marchmain justifies his decision, “We were fighting for freedom. I took my freedom. Was that a crime?” In a devastating moment his youngest child Cordelia speaks the truth. “I think it was papa.” Suddenly the story has a greater depth for here is the fool King Lear with his own beloved Cordelia—the child who speaks the truth.
At that point, in the film version, Marchmain (played by Laurence Olivier) 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 puritanical tyrant if Lord Marchmain had taken charge and been the responsible man of the family rather than running away to Venice. If he had taken his responsibilities seriously his sons 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.
Because of Marchmain’s indolent and immature selfishness, the family’s London mansion, Marchmain House is sold to make way for a vulgar block of flats crowned by a penthouse for the nouveau riche sub human Rex Mottram. Furthermore, Rex Mottram eventually takes over Brideshead itself, and when the estate is finally degraded to be used as an army barracks and training ground 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.
His daughters 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 good 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 time drifting—first seeking a religious vocation, then winding up serving abroad.
Marchmain’s mistress Cara says 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 begins to be selfless in a marriage, and it may be the decision which saves all.
Waugh successfully 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 egotistical villany is the “pick of the litter”: Cordelia.
If Lord Marchmain holds in himself all of the Flyte offspring, then Charles Ryder does as well. Sebastian the degenerate is in Charles. Julia the adulterer is in Charles, Bridey the rational, detached observer is in Charles, and in the end Cordelia, the believer is in Charles too.
Charles, coming from his own dysfunctional family, is a tabula rasa—a blank slate; a canvas waiting for the paint and the artist. At Oxford he is the impressionable, naive student waiting for life to happen. What happens to him is the complicated family life of Brideshead. That he becomes an architectural painter—who first makes his name painting Marchmain House—shows that his whole life has become a meditation on the fate of the Flytes.
Brideshead Castle is used as a symbol of heaven. Charles and Sebastian spend a blissful arcadian summer there, and if Brideshead stands for heaven, then also of Mother Church. Perhaps the name “Brideshead” was chosen for the fact that the Church is the Bride of Christ and Christ is her head. Does Nanny Hawkins (who mysteriously never ages) stand for the Mother of God? There she is—always up in the attic close to God—as the one who prays for them and is the perpetual mother of them all.
If this is so, then Charles’ encounter with the Flyte clan is an encounter with the Church—in all its variety. There you find everyone, from the saints: Nanny Hawkins, Father Mackay and Cordelia to the sinners: Sebastian, Julia, Anthony Blanche, Lord Marchmain and Cara; to the self righteous religious ones:Lady Marchmain, Bridey, Mrs. Muspratt, Mr. Samgrass and even the boors and imbeciles: Rex Mottram and Francis Xavier the pig.
That Charles encounters them all is important, but what is most important as we identify with Charles, is that he observes them all and comes to see the truth. Estranged from his own comically cold father, Charles quietly sympathizes with the Flyte children. He sees their loss. He sees that they are estranged from arcadia because of their father’s crime, and with them longs for the reconciliation of father and child and the chance to return to the garden.
That is why at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed Charles can utter his pitiful little prayer to God the Father that he might give Julia a sign of her father’s repentance and reconciliation. When the sign comes all that he has learned is summarized and brought home in one powerful moment. As Lord Marchmain the prodigal is reconciled to the father, so his own children are reconciled and all the wanderers are brought home with that one “twitch of the thread”.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.