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The Search for Sacred Space in Brideshead Revisited

Categories Sea, Space

Essay, Pages 11 (2538 words)

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Essay, Pages 11 (2538 words)

Waugh was an all around conservative; he was religiously, politically, and even artistically rigid. Thus, the discipline which he exercised in his personal life extended to his artistic vocation. His novels are composed with keen attention to structure and the architectonics of narrative. Brideshead Revisited have at their centers literal structures around which the plot, characters, and themes of the novel revolve. Waugh imbues homes with protective and transformative properties that act for and upon their inhabitants.

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However, houses in Waugh are arguably more volatile and fugacious than the relatively stable environments.

In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh reiterates the tensions that arise when houses of worship are re-appropriated for secular use. Like Hetton, Brideshead is not simply a refuge; it is a space that is comforting and threatening, sacred and profane. Furthermore, as in Forster’s novel, the sacred effects of Brideshead are best understood through the lens of the novel’s structural organization. In Howards End, the peace and stability of the Wilcox’s manor is emphasized by the contrasting, destabilized plot.

Waugh also relies on the language of plot in Brideshead Revisited to highlight the sacred effects of the Marchmain home. Although the novel is divided into four separate parts (a prologue, books one and two, and an epilogue), Waugh provides the reader with another, more implicit structural lens through which to view the novel. Charles Ryder’s time at Brideshead can also be divided into four corresponding parts: his time spent at Brideshead with Sebastian, when he lives there with Julia, keeping to the sickbed of Lord Marchmain, and his return to the castle during his encampment.

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At each of these points in the novel, Brideshead appears to Charles in a different form. And yet the house not only appears different to Charles-it is dynamic space. The house transforms according to, not only who Charles is surrounded by, but by the ever changing condition of his mental, emotional, and spiritual state.

Therefore, I argue that over the course of the novel, Brideshead has four specific incarnations. The idea of a sacred space taking on different incarnations is an appropriate one given the fact that Waugh imbues the domestic space with spiritual properties. Although the incarnation usually refers to the embodiment of God in the person of Christ, it can also refer to “a body, person, or form in which a soul, spirit, or deity is incarnated” (OED online, “incarnation”). Here, it would be best to point out that the incarnations of spiritual power that take place in Brideshead castle are the manipulations of the author himself. Jeanne Kilde, in her recent work Sacred Power, Sacred Space, reinforces that the “line between ‘real’ presence and metaphorical presence” is thin (Kilde, 6).

However, a parallel relationship exists between substantive spaces and metaphorical spaces. She argues that just as Catholics believe the “real presence” of Christ transforms the signifiers of bread and wine in the Eucharist, so sacred spaces are “imbue[d] with sacred importance” by the ways in which “people organize…and behave” within them (7). In short: “space is sacralized by human” decision (7). It is this process that is at work in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh imbues or assigns Brideshead with sacred importance. Thus, the house is a spiritually dynamic locus that is capable of effecting its characters to varying degrees.

In the novel, Charles Ryder experiences the first incarnation of Brideshead when he visits the house with Sebastian. It is while staying with the youngest member of the Marchmain family that Charles begins to feel the tensions between the sacred and profane aspects of his own soul. Over the course of the novel, the division between the secular and the spiritual becomes more deeply entrenched as Charles struggles to reconcile himself with a faith he neither wants nor believes. However, at the outset of the novel, this inner conflict is more subtle. Accordingly, Brideshead in its initial incarnation acts as a mirror for Charles’s devotion to aesthetics and materialism while foreshadowing his future spiritual crisis.

The first time Charles sees the house, he likens it to an arcadia. The architecture of Brideshead is aesthetically pleasing and the grounds which surround it not only reflect its beauty but are also protective of it. The “soft hills” appear to be “guarding and binding” the house; they are like a “secret landscape” whose sole purpose is to preserve the structure (Brideshead Revisited, 35). For Charles, Brideshead is not only a restive place, it is a formative one as well. He has ambitions to be a painter, and his obsession with beauty is only reinforced and heightened by the Marchmain’s house. He confesses that “[i]t was an aesthetic education to live within those walls,” and that he would “sit, hour after hour” admiring the beauty of his structural surroundings (80). Charles revels in the material world and Brideshead provides him with the secular desires of “sensuality, solitude, self-indulgence, immaturity, and heterodoxy” (Heath, 5). Sitting by the fountain and “rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, [he] felt a whole new system of nerves alive within [him], as though the water…was indeed a life giving stream” (BR, 82).

Yet Charles’s faith in the transcendent and transformational beauty of Brideshead is problematized by the same physical attributes he so loves. Jeffery Heath notes that the fountain, while it is a focal point of the estate, is described by Waugh with “veiled hostility” (Heath,168). Although it is beautiful, the fountain is also an emblem of paganism and falsehood. The same “stream” which Charles sees as life giving is a “counterfeited spring” (BR 82, 81). The menagerie of stone animals are described as “vomiting” the water from their mouths (81). Furthermore, the center piece of the fountain is “an Egyptian obelisk of red sand-stone” (81). A traditional architectural structure, the obelisk is defined as “a monumental, four-sided stone shaft…mostly covered in hieroglyphics [that was] originally erected as [a] cult symbol to the sun god” (Harris, 382). This secular image is a prominent feature of the Brideshead estate, and the obelisk serves to highlight the worldly temptations that Charles and all the inhabitants of the house encounter.

The spatial relationship of the fountain and obelisk to the rest of the house only reinforces the tensions that exist at Brideshead between the sacred and the profane. When Charles ascends with Sebastian to Nanny Hawkins’s nursery, he can see the layout of the grounds for the first time. Topographically, the house is situated between the protective hills and a lake. However, these pastoral ramparts are interrupted by the additional architectural structures of the fountain and its obelisk and the “temple”. The temple, as Charles refers to it, is actually the chapel that was built for Lady Marchmain so that she can house a daily Catholic mass without leaving the confines of Brideshead. This sacred space is situated opposite the fraudulent fountain creating a spatial relationship that illustrates the conflicting faiths of the house’s inhabitants.

Like Charles, Sebastian clings to the hedonistic pleasures of life; he is a consummate aesthete as well as an alcoholic. And yet, unlike Charles, Sebastian is keenly aware of his internal depravity. After pointing out the chapel to Charles, Sebastian immediately requests that they leave the estate and return to Oxford. On the return drive, he attempts to explain his eagerness to leave, saying: “I’m afraid I wasn’t very nice this afternoon. Brideshead often has that effect on me” (39). Sebastian’s words reveal that he feels the tensions between the sacred and profane that exist, not only within the walls of Brideshead, but also within his own soul. For this reason, Sebastian tries to disassociate himself from the place; Charles recounts that while he is “rapt in the vision [of the house], [he] felt momentarily…an ominous chill at the words [Sebastian] used-not ‘That is my home,’ but ‘It’s where my family live'” (35).

Sebastian sees what Charles in time will come to grasp: Brideshead is not a static, utopian space. It is a dynamic structure that threatens to expose human weakness. Indeed, Waugh titles the first book of the novel “Et In Arcadia Ego” to emphasize this very point. “Et In Arcadia Ego” translated means “Even in Arcadia I exist” and refers to two Nicolas Poussin paintings of the same name. The paintings are two similar depictions of shepherds examining the titular inscription around a tomb. Although there is debate among scholars as to the exact meaning of the inscription given the context of the painting, both interpretations are appropriate for Waugh’s purposes. The first, more commonly held understanding of the phrase is that the words, “Even in Arcadia I exist” are spoken by death and communicate man’s inability to escape the confines of mortal flesh. The contrasting meaning suggests that the words were spoken in the past tense by the individual now interred in the tomb. However, this also suggests that, although the person may have enjoyed peace and plenty while on the earth, he is nevertheless a victim of his own mortality. In either case, the reference serves to underscore the thematic trajectory of the novel; Charles, like the other residents of Brideshead, are forced by their surroundings to confront their mortality and by extension, their expectations and chances for a spiritual afterlife.

However, it is essential that Brideshead be a space that is simultaneously sacred and profane; only then can it indulge the secular aspects of Charles’ character while pushing him towards the opposite pole of the spiritual. Furthermore, by placing his characters in such a structure, Waugh is cleverly presenting “Ryder’s ‘profane’ memories in a ‘sacred’ frame” (Heath, 161). Although Waugh’s novel is catalogued and referred to by scholars simply as Brideshead Revisited, it is actually called Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder; its real title reveals the major themes of the text.

The second incarnation of Brideshead appears years later when Charles moves into the house to live with Julia. Having lost contact with Sebastian and the Marchmain family, a chance encounter re-unites Charles with Julia, and they begin an affair despite the fact that they are both already married. Charles confesses to Julia that, although he was in love with Sebastian in his youth, his feelings for her are even more overwhelming. He thinks back on Sebastian as a kind of “forerunner” of the emotional experiences he will have with Julia (BR, 257). Indeed, Charles experiences with Julia are much more passionate and dramatic, yet they are also more tumultuous and unsettling. It is his relationship with Julia that pushes him to the brink of his religious doubt and frustration.

Accordingly, the Brideshead that Charles experiences while living with Julia is a heightened reflection of the Brideshead Charles discovered with Sebastian. Again, the house appears to Charles as a battle-ground between the sacred and the profane, only this time the profane is more potent and sinister than before, and the sacred seems beyond reach. Charles and Julia have been living in sin away from their spouses at Brideshead for almost two years. Although the house protects them and their infidelity, it also unrelentingly points out the gross extent to which they are indulging in un-repentance.

The scene opens with the two lovers lounging on the terrace “in the tranquil, lime-scented evening” (276). Charles notes that, in the failing light of day, the “world [was] transformed” as “the blossom in the limes…carried its fragrance…to merge with the sweet breath of box and the drying stone” (277). The olfactory imagery is overwhelmingly eroticized and indulgent, qualities which imitate Charles and Julia’s relationship. The Arcadian image is further undermined when Charles reveals that they are experiencing these sensations “in the shadow of the obelisk” (277). The same pagan structure that appeared in the initial incarnation of Brideshead has now subsumed Charles; it is in the shelter of the pagan monument, rather than the shelter of the Catholic chapel, that he finds shelter.

The scene between Charles and Julia at the fountain is a climactic moment in which Julia is confronted with her sin and takes her first steps towards repentance. For Charles, this change of heart is problematic, not only because he is in jeopardy of losing the woman he loves, but also because he cannot join her in her journey toward confession and absolution. Lit by the dim light from the terrace, Charles sees that the fountain, which was once a refuge for them both, has become a prison for Julia. He confesses that “the fountain which in that house seemed always to draw us to itself for comfort and refreshment” is now Julia’s “darkest refuge” (286). For her, the fountain is revealed as the false, pagan structure that it really is: a death-dealing rather than life giving stream. As Julia attempts to explain her spiritual struggle to Charles, she reveals that neither the “shelter of [a] cave or of the castle walls” of Brideshead can protect her from her sins (288).

The melodramatic mood of Julia’s confession and the sinister appearance of Brideshead finally break through all of Charles’s illusions. For the first time, he is able to see the battle between the sacred and profane that is constantly waging around him. He admits this to Julia, saying that their experiences are like characters in a three act play. The setting of the play is “a baroque fountain in a nobleman’s garden” and the first act is entitled “Sunset” referring two their time spent on the terrace under the heady scent of the lime grove (291). The second act, Charles says, is “Dusk” which marks the beginning of “estrangement and misunderstanding” between the two leads and refers to the dinner in the painted parlour (291). The final act, at the foot of the fountain, is “Moonlight” and signifies an attempt at “reconciliation” (291). And yet, reconciliation between Charles and Julia will prove impossible; Julia has begun to move back towards her faith while Charles refuses to partake of it.

Indeed, Charles’s resistance to the spiritual effects of Brideshead comes to a head as he experiences the third incarnation of the house. When Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die, Charles stays with him at his deathbed. During this section of the novel, the narrative focuses on Lord Marchmain’s need for redemption and his struggle to reconcile himself to the Catholic faith. As a professed atheist, his doubts parallel those of Charles. As Lord Marchmain struggles, the house attempts to convince him of his need for salvation. Ultimately, the false refuge of the Chinese drawing-room propels Lord Marchmain towards spiritual regeneration.

Thus, the contrasting images of the destroyed Brideshead and the perennial chapel reinforce Waugh’s belief that human sinfulness and frailty are revealed through the collapse of traditional structures. Although domestic spaces are sacred spaces which promote the tenants of faith, the household of faith is the only true refuge.

Works Cited

  • Heath, Jeffrey M. The Picturesque Prison: Evelyn Waugh and His Writing. Kingston:
  • McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1982. P.
  • Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian
  • Architecture and Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. P.
  • Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. New York: Back Bay Books, 1999. P.
  • “incarnation.” 2a. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 May. 2009.

Cite this essay

The Search for Sacred Space in Brideshead Revisited. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-search-for-sacred-space-in-brideshead-revisited-essay

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