Brideshead Revisited: A Twitch Upon the Thread

by Paul Elmen

Dr. Elmen is professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (Episcopal), Evanston, Illinois,

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 26, 1982, p. 630. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Evelyn Waugh thought of his novel not as entertainment but as a camouflaged sermon, a case study of mercy being rejected and then accepted in the end. The real point was "to trace the divine purpose in a pagan world."

The recently completed 11-and-one-half-hour Public Broadcasting System series based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited proved a smash hit. Across the country bridge parties and pancake suppers were rescheduled so as not to compete with Charles Ryder’s memories. Americans beginning to feel Poverty her Pinch have thought it great indoor sport to watch plover eggs being eaten at Oxford, fobs cavorting in world capitals, and dinner being served in one of the great homes of England. But this book is not romantic slosh. We see a family disintegrating, a general strike ravaging the streets of London, the upper classes being cruel and adulterous.

There have been viewers, of course, who switched off the program, deciding that such a dish of snobbery, alcoholism and decadence was too gamey to serve up in the living room. Evelyn Waugh himself thought of his novel not as entertainment but as a camouflaged sermon, a case study of mercy being rejected and then accepted in the end. Its real point, he said, was “to trace the divine purpose in a pagan world.” The book’s subtitle should warn the reader: “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.” Though he would have flinched to hear it, Evelyn Waugh can be thought of as a spoiled priest.

In a letter to A. D. Peters, his literary agent, Waugh said, “I hope the last conversation with Cordelia gives the theological clue. The whole thing is steeped in theology, but I begin to agree that the theologians won’t recognize it.” Nor did non-Catholic reviewers of the book recognize it. Cordelia speaks first of the closing of the chapel at Brideshead after the funeral of her mother. She tells Charles that she watched while a priest went through the prescribed steps in desacralizing a holy place, finishing by emptying the tabernacle and leaving the door ajar. “I suppose none of this makes sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel any more, just an oddly decorated room.”

Then she tells Charles of the one escape possible from a world fallen into the hands of human beings: divine mercy. She reminds him of the evening at Brideshead when her mother read aloud from a detective story written by G. K. Chesterton, and was interrupted by Sebastian making his first drunken appearance. “Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Brideshead Revisited, if the author’s intention matters, is a story of some fishes lost in a great sea until they are finally hauled to safety by a jerk of the pole in the hands of the Fisher King.

That is why the concluding episode, the deathbed conversion of Lord Marchmain, is the denouement pointed to by the perceptive Cordelia. Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die after his Byronic exile in Venice. He is unrepentant for his adulterous life and proposes to leave his estate to the adulterous Julia and Charles. Despite the objections of Charles and the doctor, Julia sends for a priest. Lord March-main at first refuses to see him, thinking he has still some time to live, but when he knows that he is soon to die, he accepts the ministration of the church, receives the absolution, and manages to make a feeble sign of the cross. This act of the will shows that grace has been effectual, and that by a twitch of the line he has died safely in the arms of the church.

Waugh’s friend Ronald Knox did not much care for Brideshead Revisited, but he did like the ending. He admitted to Waugh what he had said to himself: “I wish Evelyn would write about characters whom one would like to meet in life. . . . But once you reach the end, needless to say the whole cast -- even Beryl -- falls into place and the twitch of the happening in the very bowels of Metroland is inconceivably effective.” Waugh wrote back saying, “I am delighted that you have become reconciled to B.R. in the end. It was, of course, all about the death bed. I was present at almost exactly that scene.”

The scene he had in mind is described in detail both in his Letters and in his Diaries. Hubert Duggan, a delicate Regency dandy and fellow pass-grade at Oxford, stepson of Lord Curzon, chancellor of Oxford, had come to his deathbed after a life of dissipation. Despite the objections raised by some of the family, Waugh had brought a priest to his bedside, and had been rewarded when a flicker of Hubert’s eyes showed that he had gratefully received the divine mercy. As at Brideshead, Evelyn reported that “there was a good deal of family embarrassment, with Marcella and Ellen on one side with a disgusting Canadian doctor, and Lady Curzon and I and the angels on the other side.”

In a letter to Lady Mary Lygon, Waugh speaks of his central conviction: “I believe that everyone in his (or her) life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It’s there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there’s a particular time -- sometimes, like Hubert, on his deathbed -- when all resistance is down and Grace can come flooding in.”

Samuel Johnson would have approved. In the Life he reproves the skeptical Boswell and warns him about judging: We are not, he says, “to judge determinately of the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually.” In support he quotes a verse from William Camden’s Remains (1623), which speaks of a dissolute man who was killed when he fell from his horse:

My friend, judge not me,

Thou seest I judge not thee;

Betwixt the stirrop and the ground,

Mercy I askt, mercy I found.


Camden said he had borrowed the idea from St. Augustine, who had written, “The mercy of God [may be found] between the bridge and the stream.”

Some of Waugh’s readers did not share his enthusiasm for deathbed conversions. His antipopish Protestant friend Henry Yorke, author of the novel Living, thought the conversion scene a mistake. “The end,” he wrote to Waugh, “was not for me. As you can imagine my heart was in my mouth all through the deathbed scene, hoping against hope that the old man would not give way, that is, take the course he eventually did.” A worldling friend, Edmund Wilson, who had once hailed Waugh as the hope of the English novel, was disgusted: “The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not -- painful to say -- meant quite seriously.”

The subject of deathbed conversions was hotly debated in 17th century England. Everyone conceded that it was possible. The story Jesus told of the workers who arrived late in the vineyard and yet received the same pay as others could be adduced as scriptural authority. And there was, of course, a clinching argument. Only one human being had ever received Christ’s astonishing promise: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” He was a dying thief on a cross.

The possibility of last-minute forgiveness was beyond dispute, but the Anglicans, anxious to establish an identity independent of Rome, insisted that a prescriptive understanding of moral obligation was essential to the experience of repentance, which the gospel makes conditional for the gift of grace. Deathbed repentance was dubious, and was really more like what the moral theologians called attrition -- imperfect repentance. Dying people could be more afraid of judgment than they were filled with love of God. The act of acceptance -- making the sign of the cross or blinking one’s eyelids -- was surely not the same as repentance, and administering the sacrament after death, of course, asked for no act of will at all, and was scarcely defendable even if one made the curious concession to time that the body must not be cold.

But the most serious criticism of the Carolines was that extreme unction minimized the need to live morally. They would not have been surprised to read that Sebastian would continue his drunkenness as an underporter in a Tunisian monastery, knowing that at his end a priest would be at hand to offer absolution. And Julia would continue her sinful ways with the same consoling belief. H. R. McAdoo, archbishop of Dublin, sums up the dissenting opinion: “The core of this apple of doctrinal discord is simply that if a man may defer his repentance until he finds himself in danger of death, the necessity for leading a good life disappears.”

The irony of this situation would not have been lost on Waugh: after the dust clears, the Reformed theologians are pleading stoutly for works, and the Roman theologians are arguing just as energetically for sola Christi. The Catholic layperson ignores the debate, knowing that extreme unction is of great comfort to the dying person as well as to those left behind. The theologians know that the doctrine protects the timeless power of God, who can express his love without asking a by-your-leave of any mortal. According to a leading Roman Catholic theologian, Charles Curran, ever since Vatican II the emphasis in his church has been on the use of unction for illness, though the last desperate remedy of unction in extremis has not been abandoned.

In any case, it seems fitting to report that on Easter morning 1966, Evelyn Waugh collapsed and died after attending solemn high mass (in Latin, of course) at his parish church in Somerset. He will be remembered for his holy laughter, and for those beguiling stories which hold out hope even for sophisticated sinners. In his novel Helena he has the saintly mother of Constantine pray “for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be forgotten when the simple come into their kingdom.”