Brideshead’s “divine grace”

Brideshead RevisitedI’ve just finished reading Brideshead Revisited (hot on the heels of Decline and Fall). Great book – much better than the (excellent, but snail-paced) TV adaptation – but it’s interesting to see how the publishers now find it necessary to market it to a contemporary audience. The blurb on the back of the Penguin Classics edition quotes a Times review as follows:

“Lush and evocative … the one Waugh which best expresses at once the profundity of change and the indomitable endurance of the human spirit.

I beg your pardon? Putting the best construction on it, I think the reviewer may have been getting it confused with The Little Engine Who Could. As for Brideshead, it’s hard to imagine a book which is less about the “indomitable endurance of the human spirit”.

Waugh himself describes his (“perhaps presumptuously large”) theme as follows:

the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters

That’s the whole point. These are characters whose lives spend most of the book falling to pieces (in diverse but closely connected ways), whose spirits prove far from indomitable, but on whom “the operation of divine grace” turns out to have been at work all along.

And the crucial line is probably Charles Ryder’s prayer – all but the last gasp of his dying agnosticism, as it turns out – at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed:

I prayed more simply: “God forgive him his sins” and “Please God, make him accept your forgiveness”.

That’s exactly what the book is about: it’s about God smashing people’s attempts to rely on their “indomitable human spirits”, and instead making them “accept [his] forgiveness”. It shows how far any awareness of divine grace has receded from our society that even a book like Brideshead finds itself shoehorned into the dominant narrative of human self-actualisation.

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