Ok, ok, hear me out: the post on the friendship between Sebastian and Charles for LoveBlog was not a review, but a reflection on a particular aspect of the novel. The brief mention in my first quarter round-up of the Catholic Literary Challenge was also barely a review. So, indulge me as I write about one of my favourite novels for the 3rd time, joining my dear friend Rory of According to Rory in looking at a seminal Catholic novel from two opposing points of view: one agnostic and one Catholic. If you haven’t read the book and want to stay spoiler-free, now it’s your chance to bookmark for later and go read something else.
As Rory herself pointed out, that mirrors the two main characters; however, the point of view which narrates the character is that of the agnostic Charles. This, in my opinion, prevents the novel from truly falling into the contrite tone of most Christian literature that has a first person’s view (and having spent a few days in bed with a cold watching the first 10 minutes of Christians films before turning them off I find it a huge turn off). I find that Waugh’s own impression of the novel, as it’s the case for most writers with a vague sense of humility, is far more negative than the work actually is; still, it is a novel that people either love or hate.
What I find the most compelling about it, is the way God’s grace is shown moving in the brokenness of the characters. It is no surprise if you know me that I have a soft spot for Sebastian, who is very like me in so many ways. As such, I would tend to sympathise with his point of view towards his family (I have compared my late grandmother to Lady Marchmain a lot) and have, in a way, an antipathy towards Charles and how he seems to use him as a means to live a dream life that he seems to desire more than he actually likes his friend.
Still, I can see the humanity in all of them, and as a woman of faith myself, I can see where they are all coming from, and how faith looks different in each of them, from the simple faith of the nanny to the hiding place of the matriarch, the legalism of the elder brother, Sebastian’s lifelong longing for more, Rex Mottram’s means to an end and the real deathbed conversion which puzzled Rory, Julia.
Julia is the most enigmatic character, perhaps because the book comes from Charles’ point of view (and men don’t seem too good at understanding women). For one, I will never understand what moved her to get married to Mottram, who even at the most positive he can be seen sounds like a dry marriage. I can see what she sees in Charles, especially after he pursued his career as an artist. In spite of my antipathy for him, he does grow on you as a man, especially if you make the mistake of watching the ITV adaptation and will forever associate his lines with Matthew Goode’s voice. She appears cold and scheming at times, which makes her change of heart about marrying Charles puzzling if you don’t believe that something supernatural was taking place at her father’s deathbed.
As much as I appreciate all of it, this point strikes me the most as a beautiful and subtle exposition of the meaning of the sacraments (the explanations of which takes a few pages I’m not sure Waugh meant as amusing but I have found so). The death of Lord Marchmain is also, as every death always is, a catalyst for reflection on its own, so I can see why Julia, finally coming to terms with whether she wanted to believe there’s a Heaven and a Hell and whether she wanted to reach the former, began to be tired of Charles.
I have read the other of Waugh’s works, but I sit firmly in the camp that considers this a) a classic of all literature and b) his magnum opus, even if the author himself does not. My own style is greatly indebted to him among others, as is my faith. The pace of the novel is adequate, despite the many characters and events and the various interludes that reflect on the human condition, and I find that if I pick it up I cannot put it down.