The message of Brideshead Revisited is that people who don’t believe in God are superficial. Charles Ryder, the narrator of this novel, exemplifies this principle. He is all about art and the pleasures of the palate. That is to say, his interests are in the realm of the appearances. He leads a sensuous existence. He becomes fascinated with the Flyte family. They are a bunch of Catholics, though of various sorts, from the devout to the lapsed. But in any event, believing in God as they do, their lives have depth and significance. Almost unconsciously, Ryder is drawn to the Flytes for that reason.
If Ryder were just a man who enjoyed the arts and liked to dine on good food and drink, it would not be so bad. But he lays it on so thick, with language so flowery and ornate, that one cannot help but think that he takes himself way too seriously. For example, when he encounters Lady Julia Flyte after not having seen her for some time, he says:
She was not yet thirty, but was approaching the zenith of her loveliness, all her rich promise abundantly fulfilled. She had lost that fashionable, spidery look; the head that I used to think quattrocento, which had sat a little oddly on her, was now part of herself and not at all Florentine; not connected in any way with painting or the arts or with anything except herself, so that it would be idle to itemize and dissect her beauty, which was her own essence, and could only be known in her and by her authority and in the love I was soon to have for her. Time had wrought another change, too; not for her the sly, complacent smile of la Gioconda; the years had been more than ‘the sound of lyres and flutes’, and had saddened her.
I don’t know about you, but if I found myself sitting at a table with someone who talked that way, I would plead a headache and bolt for the exit. Her head was no longer quattrocento indeed! And did you catch the bit about la Gioconda? He’s not satisfied with comparing her to the Mona Lisa, which would be absurd enough for anyone but Nat King Cole. He has to refer to that painting by its Italian name, just to put us ignorant philistines in our place, who had to Google the name to find that out.
Of course, Ryder talks this way because the author, Evelyn Waugh, put those words into his mouth. Perhaps this was Waugh’s way of ridiculing people like Ryder who don’t believe in God, showing them to be affected as a way of compensating for a life that is hollow and without significance. But then, since Ryder’s narration takes place after his conversion to Catholicism, it appears that if someone is insufferably pretentious to begin with, his believing in God isn’t going to make much difference.
As far as the adaptations go, there is a change that I found interesting. When Ryder is dining with the Flyte family in the novel, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic. The 1981 mini-series follows the novel in this. But the movie version produced in 2008 reverses the dialogue, so that when Sebastian says that Ryder is an atheist, “Bridey” (Lord Brideshead) says, “An agnostic, surely,” to which Ryder emphatically denies being an agnostic and asserts that he is indeed an atheist.
I suspect that the reason for this reversal of terms is due to the change in connotation of the word “agnostic” between 1945 and 2008. At the time the novel was written, the word “agnostic” was sufficiently scandalous and shocking for a character like Ryder. By the late 1960s, it had lost its edge. It suggested someone who was wishy-washy, someone who didn’t want to appear naively religious, but was still hoping for some kind of afterlife all the same. By the turn of the twenty-first century, this shift in meaning had become even more pronounced. Only by changing Ryder into an atheist could his conversion to Catholicism actually seem to amount to something.