Agent Angie on Relationship Therapy, Courtesy of Evelyn Waugh

Faitful to her book club duties, Agent Angie provides astute observations on Brideshead Revisited.

The relationship in Brideshead Revisited, between the narrator Charles Ryder and the Flyte family is of interest to me. I’m about halfway through, and after reading how the Flytes romance Ryder and take him in, before setting out to use him for their own selfish purposes, I find myself disturbed by the level of dysfunction that exists, and greatly respect Evelyn Waugh for his talent at portraying the destruction of codependancy on relationships.

Lady Marchmain’s destructive, Catholic guilt tripping has a profound effect on the text. She holds Charles responsible for her son Sebastian’s well-being. At first Charles submits to the weight the Flytes place on his shoulders, allowing himself to be pulled in two directions by Lady Marchmain’s pressure to keep Sebastian out of trouble and Sebastion’s fear of begin eclipsed by his family. It would be impossible for Charles to fulfill both roles of informant to Lady Marchmain and true friend to Sebastian. After Sebastian begs for Charles’s money for liquor, and Lady Marchmain’s discovery of Charles’s betrayal, she says:

I don’t understand it. […] I simply don’t understand how anyone could be so callously wicked […]. I’m not going to reproach you. […] God knows it’s not for me to reproach anyone. Any failure in my children is my failure. But […] I don’t understand how you can have been so nice in so many ways, and then do something so wantonly cruel.

I doubt I need to pick apart the method to Lady Marchmain’s guilt-ridden madness and her efforts to exercise them upon Charles for you all. What is interesting to me is the moment in which Charles’s response to her shifts from compliance to rebellion and complete lack of concern. Charles can only participate in this emotional abuse for so long before he attempts to extricate himself from the relationship:

I was unmoved; there was no part of me remotely touched by her distress. […] But as I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, […] ‘I shall never go back,’ I said to myself.

Charles’s knowledge that he’s left some part of himself behind is a foreshadowing of the corruption of his concern for others. The impossible position that Lady Marchmain forces him into motivates him to turn aside the part of him that cared about Sebastian and the rest of the Flyte family. In order to survive the guilt that was being put on his shoulders he had to care more for himself and stop caring for them.

A few pages on is Charles’s dinner with Rex Mottram in Paris, which validates the perception of foreshadowing. Charles feels so inconvenienced and frustrated at the prospect of dinner with Rex and the inevitable conversation about the Flytes, that he proceeds to use Rex for his money, thus making the situation more palatable to himself:

If I had to spend an evening with [Rex], it should, at any rate, be in my own way. I remember the dinner well–soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in a white wine sauce, a caneton a la presse, a lemon souffle. At the last minute, fearing that the whole things was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bere of 1904.

Charles’s description of the extravagant meal, purchased on Rex’s pocketbook, and his sense of entitlement to the meal, is indicative of his retreat to the self with less concern for the Flytes. Throughout the conversation between Rex and Charles, Waugh interrupts dialogue with Charles’s further descriptions of the meal and his and Rex’s appreciation of it. This narrative technique cements Charles’s new-found selfishness and propensity to use others.

Waugh’s explication of this type of relationship elevates Brideshead Revisited to a novel not merely of manners and post-WWI British society and snobbery, but to a psychological one; embroiled in thoughtful and constructive studies of non-familial relationships that, I imagine, most can relate to. The novel inspires me to be more aware of not expecting too much of others, and not allowing others to expect unfair things of me. As Waugh points out, these kinds of expectations ruin relationships.

-Angie Venezia

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