The original of this memo is in the Evelyn Waugh Papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, as is Waugh’s handwritten manuscript of Brideshead Revisited.
The theme is theological. It is in no sense abstruse and is based on principles that have for nearly 2,000 years been understood by millions of simple people, and are still so understood. But it is, I think, the first time that an attempt will have been made to introduce them to the screen, and they are antithetical to much of the current philosophy of Hollywood. It is for this reason that I venture to restate them briefly here:
1. The novel deals with what is theologically termed, “the operation of Grace”, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself;
2. Grace is not confined to the happy, prosperous and conventionally virtuous. There is no stereotyped religious habit of life, as may be seen from the vastly dissimilar characters of the canonised saints. God has a separate plan for each individual by which he or she may find salvation. The story of Brideshead Revisited seeks to show the working of several such plans in the lives of a single family;
3. The Roman Catholic Church has the unique power of keeping remote control on human souls which have once been part of her. GK Chesterton has compared this to the fisherman’s line, which allows the fish the illusion of free play in the water, and yet has him by the hook; in his own time the fisherman by a “twitch upon the thread” draws the fish to land.
This metaphor appears twice in the novel and should be retained.
Brideshead is one of the historic English houses, the ancestral home of the Flyte family, of whom the head is the Marquis of Marchmain. Two architectural features are used in the story to typify the conflicting characteristics of the English aristocratic tradition. These are the chapel and the fountain, and I suggest that before I leave Hollywood, I should be allowed to see preliminary sketches of these two features drawn under my supervision.
The chapel in the book is a new one, and Lord Marchmain is represented as a recent and half-hearted convert to Catholicism. For the purpose of the film, the chapel should be old and part of the original castle on the site of which the baroque palace has been built. The Flytes should be represented as one of the English noble families which retained their religion throughout the Reformation period. The chapel should therefore be small and medieval, and should contain the Flyte tombs, which in the novel are described as standing in the parish church.
The fountain represents the worldly 18th-century splendor [sic] of the family. It has been brought from Italy and I see it as a combination of three famous works of Bernini at Rome, photographs of which may be found in any architectural handbook. These are the Trevi and Piazza Navona fountains and the elephant bearing the obelisk in the Piazza Minerva, which the Romans fondly call “the little pig”.
Before the story opens, Lord and Lady Marchmain have separated. The reasons for their quarrel is [sic] never specified, but it is implied that it derives from two sources. First, a personal incompatibility, which in its turn causes the internal conflict in the characters of the two children, Julia and Sebastian, who are the leading actors in the drama. Secondly, from Lord Marchmain’s revulsion and flight from his religion, which he identifies with his wife and home - a revulsion which is overcome only on his deathbed.
The Flyte family is seen through the eyes of Charles Ryder, an atheist, to whom at first their religion is incomprehensible and quite unimportant. It is only bit by bit throughout the action that he realises how closely they are held by it, and the book ends with Charles himself becoming a Catholic.
Charles is an intelligent, artistic and lonely young man whose mother died in his youth, and whose father is an eccentric and sardonically humorous scholar. The Ryders are far from poor, but, by the father’s choice, they lead a life of gloom, and Charles’s first impression of Brideshead is of its splendor [sic] and grace; in fact it is the fountain and all it represents which captivates him.
Lord Sebastian Flyte is the attractive, wayward and helpless younger son whom Charles meets in Oxford, where he, Sebastian, is the idol of the fashionable aesthetic set that was prominent in English university life in the 1920s. Charles’s romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years.
Sebastian has inherited something of his father’s instinct to escape from the bonds of home which, again, in his case represent the bonds of religion. The form which Sebastian’s escape takes is that of drinking, and it is important in the film to convey, as has been attempted in the book, the gradual stages of differentiation between the habits of a group of high-spirited youngsters, all of whom on occasions get drunk in a light-hearted way, and the morbid, despairing, solitary drinking which eventually makes Sebastian an incurable alcoholic…
At Brideshead, Charles meets the other members of Sebastian’s family. Lady Marchmain is a tragic figure, intelligent, attractive and devout, but quite unable to cope with the exceptional problems set her by Julia and Sebastian.
Lady Julia Flyte, when we first meet her, appears to have the world at her feet. She is preoccupied with her own affairs, primarily with the courtship of Rex Mottram… and has little use for Sebastian’s undistinguished friend. Her response to Sebastian’s progressive series of disgraces is chiefly one of annoyance.
Lady Cordelia Flyte, the youngest daughter, is intended to represent an entirely good and loving girl who finds she has no vocation as a nun, but devotes herself to a life of active good works. This character, if properly treated, should provide an answer to critics who complain that Catholic family life is being represented in an entirely abnormal manner…
The first half of the story is, in essence, the failure of Lady Marchmain. First with Sebastian, whom, with the best intentions in the world, she drives out of England to a life in the underworld. Secondly with Julia, whom she is unable to restrain from a disastrous marriage.
Rex Mottram, whom Julia marries, is intended to represent worldly ambition and success in a disagreeable form. He is the only character who, throughout the book, has no touch with religion. In representing this character it must be born [sic] in mind that although he is vulgar, pushful and unprincipled, he is not so unpresentable as to make fastidious Julia’s acceptance of him quite grotesque. Tycoons of [this] type do not flourish in Europe, and it is important that this part should not be overplayed.
It is essential to the structure of the story that Julia’s marriage to Rex should put her outside the Church. Otherwise Lady Marchmain’s tragic sorrow would appear to be mainly snobbish. In the novel Rex had been married and divorced in Canada, but if it is felt by the producer that this is leading to a too intricate network of marriages and divorces, another device might be employed… It is absolutely essential that Julia, by her marriage, should deliberately put herself in a state of excommunication. Lady Marchmain dies with a sense of complete failure, and with her ends the first half of the story.
The second half begins some years later. It is called in the novel “A Twitch Upon the String”, and it shows how the Grace of God turns everything in the end to good, though not to conventional prosperity. Sebastian finds a home in a monastery abroad. He is still periodically incapacitated by drink, and it is of course impossible for him to take monastic vows, but he becomes one of those people, not uncommon in monastic communities, half in and half out of the world, leading a genuinely mystical life among people who love and understand him.
The principal theme of the second half is the redemption of Julia, the final spur to which is her father’s deathbed reconciliation with the Church, which, if properly played, should be a finely dramatic scene.
Charles has now become a successful painter, largely through the help of a socially established wife. Whether this wife appears in the film or not does not seem to me essential, but there must be an impediment to the marriage of Julia and Charles. Otherwise since Julia’s marriage to Rex has never been ecclesiastically valid, there is no reason why she should not marry Charles and provide a banal Hollywood ending. I regard it as essential that after having led a life of sin Julia should not be immediately rewarded with conventional happiness. She has a great debt to pay and we are left with her paying it.
Charles meets Julia on board ship returning to England from America, and although they have never been close to one another, and there has been no suggestion of a love affair between them, it should be delicately suggested that both of them were conscious that they were in some way fated to be of vital importance in one another’s life [sic]. It is not the “plan” that they should be lovers, in fact the importance of which they are conscious is really that each is to bring the other to the Church; but defiantly they do become lovers.
A period follows of their love at Brideshead. On the face of it everything should have been lyrically happy. They propose to divorce their separate mates and marry; Lord Marchmain proposes to settle the property on them instead of the childless Brideshead [Sebastian], but there is a shadow across their lives, which deepens. It is Julia’s conscience, intermittently at work, combined with the fact that it is now 1938, and the world in which they live is doomed. It should be easier in the film than in the novel to suggest this mounting malaise. A moment comes when Lord [Marchmain] employs the conventional term “living in sin”, which suddenly strikes Julia’s conscience… The climax is the return of Lord Marchmain as a dying man, and I think the whole of this episode should be filmed almost directly from the novel, including the controversy about the admittance of a priest with the last sacraments.
It is important that the priest should be as unlike as possible to any priest hitherto represented in Hollywood. He must be a practical, single man. Doing his job in a humdrum way… I regard it as important that in some way it should be made plain that Charles is reconciled to Julia’s renunciation. He has realised that the way they were going was not the way ordained for them, and that the physical dissolution of the house of Brideshead has in fact been a spiritual regeneration.
· Evelyn Waugh February 18 1947