From the Editor: Here is a special piece on the role of Oxford in one of our preeminent Catholic author’s novels. Hopefully, this will whet your appetite, a praegustatio one might say, for the talk Fr Joe will give to the Newman on 2 June 2022 entitled, ‘Via Litteraria: Evangelizing Culture Through Literature’. Enjoy!
A subtle reward of reading fiction is when a book touches what is true. It is a truth of human nature that outlasts the fashion of decades. A glimpse into a character’s despair, or resentment, or arrogance which reveals the reader’s own. Or the truth of place and the joy of recognizing it.
I once bought a 576-page Jonathan Franzen novel, Freedom, simply because it was set in the neighborhood around my novitiate community in St Paul, Minnesota. The joys of recognition came often: “I remember that restaurant…” “Yes, the traffic light at Lexington and Summit is poorly timed – how did Franzen know?” Freedom turned out to be pretty dreadful, but the recognition of place kept me reading.
Unlike St Paul, Oxford is the setting of dozens of novels, television series, and period films. I think Oxford works because our creamy gray churches and unadorned lanes have looked the same ab aetate Victoriana, if not earlier. It is home to chaplains and curates wearing dog collars or habits, cassocks or cravats. These curious creatures move gracefully past pootling tourists, bookish academics, and students in sub-fuscs.
A century ago Evelyn Waugh lived in Oxford; ‘studying in Oxford’ might be an overstatement. I never tire of thumbing through Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s homage to a place which enfolds so many worlds within it.
Early in the novel, our hungover narrator Charles Ryder emerges on a Sabbath, taking in lives not his:
“I walked down the empty Broad to breakfast, as I often did on Sundays, at a tea-shop opposite Balliol. The air was full of bells from the surrounding spires and the sun, casting long shadows across the open spaces, dispelled the fears of night… None but churchgoers seemed abroad this morning; undergraduates and graduates and wives and tradespeople, walking with that unmistakable English church-going pace which eschewed both haste and idle sauntering…on the way to St Barnabas, St Columba, St Aloysius, St Mary’s, Pusey House, Blackfriars, and heaven knows where besides.”
After breakfast, Charles shuffles down Cornmarket, past Carfax and the mayor, en route to Sebastian at Christ Church:
“In St Aldates I passed a crocodile of choir boys, in starched collars and peculiar caps, on their way to Tom Gate and the Cathedral. So through a world of piety I made my way to Sebastian.”
I smile with delight, as these places remain largely unchanged since Waugh himself came down St Aldates as a student, years before his conversion to Catholicism. Later he would return, turning down Brewer Street past the crocodile nest itself, to visit the priest friends he made at Campion Hall.
Back in the novel, Sebastian is not to be found in his rooms in Christ Church: Charles is dismayed, for surely no pote à boire of his would fritter away his Sunday morning in a church. Charles jealously awaits his return. Sebastian explains,
‘I’ve been to mass at the Old Palace. I haven’t been all this term, and Monsignor Bell asked me to dinner twice last week, and I know what that means. Mummy’s been writing to him.’
Later, after several terms of Sebastian’s dissipation, his mother Lady Marchmain pays a visit to him, and to Charles:
“Monsignor Bell tells me [Sebastian] never mixes with the other Catholics, never goes to the Newman, very rarely goes to mass even. Heaven forbid that he should only know Catholics, but he most know some!”
One cannot help but set the book down and ponder familiar types: a clingy friendship, a triangulating parent, a wayward youth trying to make up for months of missed Masses and desultory living. And the frisson of recognition: the Old Palace! The Newman [Society]! These are not, I dare say, details incidental to the story. Like so many students over the centuries who have lived in this place, Sebastian Flyte is learning that Saturday nights spent bathing in port (and Port Meadow) wash away the best laid plans of morning Mass. And though Charles would rather Sebastian drop the pretence of belief, he remains fascinated by his friend’s commitment:
“Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his teddy-bear. We never discussed the matter until on the second Sunday at Brideshead…he surprised me by saying, ‘Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic.’
‘Does it make much difference to you?’
‘Of course. All the time.’
‘Well I can’t say I’ve noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don’t see much more virtuous than me.’
‘I’m very, very much wickeder,’ said Sebastian indignantly…
‘I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense.’
‘Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.’”
A subtle exchange discloses worlds: a young Catholic man facing his demons, and his unbelieving friend looking in without understanding, until a hint at the novel’s end. [No spoilers here.] Waugh tells truths, but he tells them slant. The real truth-tellers, we discover, are the dissolute Anthony Blanche and Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara. As my friend Professor Peter Davidson points out, they are ‘Mediterranean casual RCs, but faithful and far-seeing under all the nonsense.’
The truth that Brideshead touches on is that human nature only ever plays out in concrete places and time, among the people we bump into and come to know. So too with a timeless faith: our faith can only console us – or challenge us – in the concrete circumstances of life. How else, where else, would we recognize God’s grace, calling us back with but a twitch upon the thread?
I suspect Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited for the proud young minds who bump their way through early adulthood in timeless university towns like Oxford. No doubt Waugh thought of his younger self on a cool Sunday morning, watching churchgoers move at a pace that eschewed both haste and idle sauntering.
The Rev. Joseph Simmons, SJ is a Catholic priest of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus in the United States. Fr Joe is finishing his doctorate in theology and literature at Campion Hall, Oxford.
 I say ‘largely’, since Cornmarket didn’t always feature Burger King opposite the Salty Pigeon…