Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Reading While Parental

MrsDarwin and I were talking about Brideshead Revisited this morning.  It's one of our favorite novels.  Indeed, a copy of Brideshead was one of the first gifts that I gave MrsD back when were were college freshman.  

Now our eldest child is a college freshman, and we find ourselves in the position of trying guide adult and near-adult children on issues ranging from time management and study skills to romantic relationships and life plans.

I remember my Dad telling me that Brideshead as a deeply middle-aged book, and that perhaps I should not read it till I was older.  Nothing, of course, could make me more eager to read it, and so I read it and loved it in late high school.  I re-read it several times during college (I remember, in those early, slightly lonely days of freshman year when I didn't yet have enough friends or homework to take up all my time, sitting around the air-conditioned student center and reading Donna Tartt's Secret History, then Brideshead Revisited, and then Secret History again.

The reason I was sitting around binging on these novels as a college freshman was the tantalizing sense of a whole world unfolding through college learning and friendships both offered -- never mind the fact that both also focused on dark consequences unfolding from the overindulgence of those college temptations.  Tragic consequences and grand gestures definitely drew me in as themes when I was in my late teens and early twenties.

That element of Brideshead still appeals to me, thought I think it's come home to me much more over the years the extent to which Charles and Sebastian's idyllic college days are an illusion covering pain and emptiness.  But what we were discussing this morning was Lady Marchmain, Sebastian's mother, and a character who as a young reader seemed so obviously and totally misguided as to seem almost unbelievable.  

I have to say, as a parent with children who are now the age of Charles and Sebastian when we first meet them, Lady Marchmain's actions now seem a lot more explicable.  Not that she's right.  Indeed, in addition to her efforts to rein in Sebastian making his disfunctions worse, Waugh rightly sets her up for some savage satire of overly comfortable Christianity.  Her “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion,” monologue is perhaps one of the best send-ups of an attempt to use Chestertonian-style contradiction to justify doing whatever you like that I've ever read.  

But she seems a lot more true to life now.  I can readily understand feeling like you have all the answers to your children's problems if they would just listen.  When Sebastian is clearly in with a bad set at college (how else can one describe a social set that spans from Anthony Blance to Boy Malcaster?) she tries to get him to hang out with the Catholic student group.  When he's constantly cutting class and not doing school work, she tries to get him to become friends with the eagerly friendly don Mr. Samgrass.  When she sees that Charles is close to Sebastian, she tries to draw him into the family and get him to lead Sebastian towards better habits.  

None of these things work, and in many cases they make things worse, but they're the sort of things you can definitely imagine some nice mom in the parish doing.

Why is she so repeatedly unsuccessful in raising her children in the faith that means so much to her?

The bad example of her marriage is definitely a key aspect.  The children have been raised among the long distance tug of war between their separated parents, and that definitely undercuts Lady Marchmain's attempts to pass on her Catholic faith and the comfortable Edwardian lifestyle she sees as fitting so well with it.

That comfort with the union of faith and culture from her own youth is another of the problems.  She and her fondly remembered brother seem to have fit their faith and the template for worldly success together pretty well.  But Lady Marchmain seems to have little idea of how antithetical the world of high society debutantes she launches Julia into is to the life she hopes Julia will live, until the point where Julia is already far estranged from her faith and seeing Rex as the solution to her social status problems.  

Of course, all this involves doing a great deal of reading between the lines.  When we first meet Charles and Sebastian, Lady Marchmain is part of the inexplicable older generation.  And when we see Charles again in his 30s, Lady Marchmain is seen more through the lens of her effect on her children than as a fully rounded character.  

Waugh himself, when writing Brideshead, was 41, married, and had several children.  But he's inhabiting a younger set of characters and as the novel opens, "my theme is memory."  But this interplay between generations seems fascinating to me as I think about stories from my current vantage point.  I'm trying to think if there are any novels which do a particularly good job of  that mixture of insight and helplessness that afflicts the parent of a new adult.

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