Fall 1983

The Death of Charm and the Advent of Grace: Waugh's Brideshead Revisited

Thomas Prufer
Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived. Catholics believe that all creation is good and that evil is the wrong use of good and that without Grace we use it wrong most of the time. It's almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction. We almost have to approach it negatively.1

Brideshead Revisited has been criticized for being lush, ornamental and sentimental in style, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, for theological harshness. It could be said that the book oscillates between a surface romanticism and an intrusive eschatology or even that it falls apart into these two extremes. Has the earlier Waugh, taut and funny, given way to a combination of gluttony and bigotry?

My concern is to make the case that this criticism is a distortion. It misses the heart of Waugh's achievement: to have made a work in which the integrities of both art and faith are respected in their interaction. Indeed, they are respected precisely because of their interaction. The richness of the style and the stringency of the theology interact and thus intensify each other.


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1. Flannery O'Connor, in a letter of 10 March 1956.