Charles Ryder’s Emotional Development in Brideshead Revisited

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For Waugh, Catholicism and emotion are intrinsically intertwined, their congruity perhaps best reflected in the Baroque art which they inspire- it is passionate and intense, often depicting biblical scenes at their climax to ensure maximum emotional impact. It therefore makes sense that Charles’s religious journey moves simultaneously alongside his emotional one, in fact his emotional development almost hinges on his religious evolution. Waugh conveys this journey through Charles’s response to aesthetics, with his reaction to four spaces – his Oxford rooms, the Brideshead Chapel, the parlour within a pre-Raphaelite painting and the Brideshead fountain – acting as reflections or, more accurately, as the benchmarks, of his emotional and therefore spiritual development.

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Charles Ryder sets off on his journey as an agnostic with a clinical eye for modernism, arriving at Oxford laden with contemporary prints and posters for his room:

“On my first afternoon I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provençal landscape, which I had bought inexpensively when the Omega workshops were sold up. I displayed also a poster by McKnight Kauffer and Rhyme Sheets from the Poetry Bookshop, and, most painful to recall, a porcelain figure of Polly Peachum which stood between black tapers on the chimney-piece.” (27)

This aesthetic salmagundi is neither original or, much like his emotional state, fully developed. A circular mix of commercialism, Bloomsbury and post impressionism, Charles is clearly a modern man. Much like his listless circle of friends, Charles is adrift on a ‘middle course of culture’—tepid, desultory, and trendily conformist. Using what can only be clunkily described as an ‘aesthetic code’, Waugh spells out Charles’s agnosticism in agonising detail. Sunflowers is pictorial short hand for the 1920 Manet and Post-Impressionists exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, the first major introduction of Van Gogh the impetus for Virginia Woolf’s oft-quoted remark that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed.’ The impact of the exhibition rippled through the shocked consciousness of the art world –the direction of aesthetic appreciation had been altered radically. The presence of this print in Charles’s room signifies his modern and fashionable aesthetic tastes whilst also linking to Roger Fry, the milestone exhibit’s organizer, who was also responsible for Charles’s decorative screen. Fry’s critical writings, early championing of Paul Cézanne, professorship at the Slade School of Art, central role in the Bloomsbury group, and output of paintings and designs translated into an outsized influence on the British art scene during the first third of the twentieth century. With Clive Bell, Fry helped to define and develop a critical discourse around modern painting in Britain. The next object, a poster by Edward McKnight Kauf Ter – just one of many he designed for the London Underground to advertise destinations – is followed by rhyme sheets and a kitsch Polly Peachum figure. The issue that we are meant to find with these objects is more than their questionable taste, it is their limited signification.

The images and objects each reflect a certain ubiquity; all (save Fry’s screen) are reproductions, rather than original creations. They represent and catalogue the modern aesthetic of 1922; they do not embody the tradition that Waugh covets and mourns, instead acting as a beacon of Charles’s emotional and aesthetic immaturity. This is perhaps most blatant by the aesthetic loop caused by the books and images in Charles’s room, a loop beginning and ending with Rodger Fry. Van Gogh’s work hung in London in 1910 largely thanks to Fry, whose Omega Workshops (the origin of the screen) exhibited McKnight Kauffer’s work. Kauffer illustrated some Rhyme Sheets, as did Claude Lovât Fraser, who made a name for himself with the stage designs for the 1921 production of The Beggar’s Opera, in which Polly Peachum is a character. The Poetry Bookshop, producer of the Rhyme Sheets, also published the Georgian Poets. This volume sits cheek-by-jowl on the shelf with Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, close friend of and fellow Bloomsbury denizen with Fry—and with Fry’s own Vision and Design…and thus, the circuit returns to the Van Gogh print.

Fry’s aesthetics champion emotional indifference, therefore it can be concluded that Waugh’s subversive depiction of the item’s endless circularity is a criticism of modern English art’s loss of a greater centre of meaning. In Waugh’s eye’s, Charles’s will complete his emotional and spiritual development when he can appreciate art emotionally instead of with a clinical eye for pure aesthetics and inventory. Sebastian plays a major role in encouraging this change in Charles’s aesthetic sensibilities, beginning with an extravagance of flowers, ‘the entire day’s stock of a market stall’ sent as an apology for his intoxicated misbehaviour. Sebastian invites him to lunch at his rooms, decorated with ‘a strange jumble of objects’—wax fruit and drawings by Daumier, each potentially beautiful and sacred—in contrast to Charles’s carefully curated cultural display, void of religion and individuality. Later that afternoon, he insists on going to the Oxford Botanic Garden, where his new friend has never been. Surprised, Sebastian exclaims, ‘O Charles, what a lot you have to learn!…I don’t know where I should be without the botanical gardens’. After this first enthralling afternoon, Charles returns to his own space and: ‘detected a jejune air that had not irked me before.’ He asks, ‘What was wrong? Nothing except the golden daffodils seemed to be real.’ Charles continues, ‘Was it the screen? I turned it face to the wall. That was better.’

In the next paragraph: ‘It was the end of the screen. Lunt [Charles’s servant] never liked it, and after a few days he took it away, to an obscure refuge he had under the stairs, full of mops and buckets’. Shortly, Charles, low on funds, sells the screen to Collins. By turning the screen around Charles’s broke Fry’s aesthetic loop of clinical observation – a moment similar in theme to that of a child taking it’s first steps, its mother – in this case represented by Sebastian, Charles’s aesthetic teacher – with her arms outstretched calling out words of encouragement. In fact, Charles states that while: ‘the fallacy of modern aesthetics’ had been explained to him intellectually by the ’embryo don’ Collins, ‘it was not until Sebastian, idly turning the page of Clive Bell’s Art, read: ‘Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?’ Yes, / do’ that my eyes were opened’

Bell’s rhetorical question (to which the correct answer would be ‘No’), appears in the context of his point that ‘Surely, it is not what I call an aesthetic emotion that most of us, feel, generally, for natural beauty…Why these beautiful things do not move us as works of art move is another, and not an aesthetic, question.’ Beautiful in its simplicity, Sebastian’s repudiation of Bell’s distinctly unemotional take on art strikes another blow against Charles’s misplaced faith in art.

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