In the search for something beyond: Religion from the lens of Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited is possibly one of the most beautiful pieces of work out there, rich with lessons and themes of all kinds: from marriage to family to friendship, but of most importance to this paper, religion. The theme presents itself early in the miniseries, with Charles’ first meeting of the Flyte family, and recurs all through the series.

The miniseries presents the subject of religion in such a moving way, and more so, in a way that almost everyone can relate – whatever their stand on religion may be. Be it the sceptical Charles, or the intolerant and indoctrinated Lady Marchmain, or the devoutly loyal and virtuous Cordelia, or perhaps the hopeless romantic Julia, who constantly grapples between the love of this world and the love of the world beyond, or at the very extreme, the hedonist Sebastian, who drowns in the pleasures of this world but remains unhappy, looking for happiness in all the wrong places. The storyline beautifully paints a world of characters, that develop to show how religion can be interpreted by different people in the world, or more so, how it could affect them. In doing so, it draws lessons and teachings for everyone on religion.

The second episode of the series is one laden with several questions and teachings on religion. A conversation between Sebastian and Charles especially, introduces probably the first insight into why Sebastian becomes so unhappy in the later years after. Sebastian says two things that pick my attention: ‘Oh God make me good, but not yet’ which brings to mind the watered down practice of religion in the present day. A lot of ‘believers’ will profess religion as a safety blanket, even while not being necessarily practising of the doctrines and/or teachings. Such was the case with Sebastian, who in the same conversation with Charles admits that he is a believer, but who in the entire progression of the miniseries, is not by any means a staunch practising Catholic.

However, much insight is given into Sebastian’s latter unhappiness when he tells Charles as a reply to his scepticism, that Catholicism/Christianity is a beautiful idea to believe in, hence his belief in it. Sebastian, though/despite being a hedonist, is constantly torn between his desire to delve into worldly pleasures like alcohol and being holy. This is eventually one of the major factors that lead to his depression and eventual alienation from his family – who are deeply rooted in Catholicism and constantly remind him that he is not. He is constantly haunted by his love and attachment to his childhood and subsequent refusal to grow out of it, by holiness, by his failure to his family which he seems to equate with failing God, ultimately not truly fitting perfectly in a secular world or religious one.

It is Sebastian who first makes me question whether religion is truly synonymous with happiness. Theistic religions especially, begin at a point that the centre of the religion- the theistic symbol or god, has the power- usually having paid an ultimate and definitely unrepayable sacrifice for the follower. This kind of relationship can trigger one of two reactions, or both at the same time. A profound appreciation for this sacrifice, and/or a profound feeling of guilt- especially when the follower feels he falls short of the grace deserving such sacrifice. This is a theme that comes out even more clearly much later in the miniseries, when Julia amid remorseful tears after Bridey rebukes her for ‘living in sin’, reveals to Charles how guilty she feels that while Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice on the cross, she lives in a way not to bring glory to this sacrifice. This profound feeling of guilt or shame may sometimes act as an anchor, or catalyst to spiral into depression, eliciting feelings of unhappiness, rather than happiness from religion. But is happiness a guaranteed result from religion? Did Christ himself not talk of a better world for the unhappy in the beatitudes and even show a dispreference for the rich and wealthy in society?

Julia. A character that would speak to anyone even slightly religious. For we all grapple with the difficult line between what is right and what feels right. I find myself deeply sympathising with Julia at the time of her marriage to Rex, and all the difficulties that came from the discovery that Rex was formerly divorced- a practice not condoned by Catholic doctrines. At this point, I found myself asking the question of how important doctrines and rituals are, if they serve to alienate and disillusion some people from the whole concept of inclusiveness in the religion? If the intention is right, and the love is shared, why should one continue to suffer the punishment of being alone or worse off, being confined to an unhappy relationship? Strict observance of these rituals in the present day sometimes leaves religious principles of love, peace and inclusion falling through the cracks while religion continues to be more institutionalized and hypocritical.

It is Lady Marchmain that I find personifies this hypocritical role. With her strict rigidity and profound aversion and intolerance of anything slightly out of her view of religion, she misses the mark of just what a relationship with a higher deity should be- one of free will. She gives little agency to her children over their lives, particularly Sebastian, who she watches like a hawk and even asks Mr. Sam Grass to supervise and try turn around his ways to godly ways. Lady Marchmain however, forgets that at the very centre of a human person is a nexus of the intellect and will as the human soul, and that one may only genuinely follow a religion if it is a true desire of his will.

Through Lady Marchmain’s scenes, I find myself questioning the correlation of religion with virtue, and whether these two are truly synonymous. I however arrive at the fact that they are not, and that a deeply religious person, pious in every way, could very well be vicious. The opposite could be true as well. Cordelia however, I find, personifies the combination of piety with virtue. A fount of wisdom even in her young age, Cordelia also remains the most loving and most innocent of all the Flyte children, with a deep understanding of all her family members. However, her cheerful nature even in her strong beliefs in God evident throughout her childhood wanes in her adulthood. And while she seems not necessarily unhappy in adulthood, a glow about her seems gone, as Charles and Julia say ‘in her plainness’, which makes me ponder on whether this could signify the journey in a religious path- showing just how much momentum is required to continue being fulfilled and satisfied in piety and a world essentially of self-sacrifice and holiness; even while the other extreme is likely to bring unhappiness, as we saw with Sebastian.

Perhaps the most moving part of the whole story however, comes at the end, and with a deep teaching as well. Lord Marchmain, who was always averse to Catholicism and religion, at the last moment before his death accepts his last sacrament of absolution, moving even the most skeptical Charles to prayer. And it comes to be, that even in the world we live in, human beings always have a desire to be part of something greater. Greater than the world we live in, greater than ourselves.

It was not lost on me that at the last moments of Lord Marchmain’s life, there arose a dispute between his doctor and the Catholic priest on whether to administer the last rites to Lord Marchmain- which I found a clever imagery of human beings’ constant struggle in trying to rationalize religion, or in the fight between simple logic and religion- which to many, seems like a function of the supernatural- particularly theistic religions. But even in rationalizing it, all human beings may one day find understanding and agreement that there exists a desire deep inside us to know more, and that the desire is fueled by the fact that there exists something greater and more superior worth knowing.

Angela Mukora (21)