Every so often you read a book or watch a film that you need to put down or look away from because it cuts too close to the bone.
So it was for me the other night when my husband and I finally finished watching the 1981 British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, an 11 episode meditation on privilege, family, religion and sexuality, all set in England between the Wars.
Most people – even those who haven’t read the book or seen the series – use “Brideshead” as shorthand for the flamboyant excesses of the British aristocracy on its last legs. And make no mistake, there’s no shortage of champagne flutes, dinner jackets and preposterously polite banter. In short, it’s the kind of thing that Americans tend to lap up. (See: Upstairs, Downstairs, Gosford Park and most recently, Downton Abbey.)
The actors are to die for. The series launched Jeremy Irons’ career and also features outstanding performances by Diana Quick, Anthony Andrews, Lawrence Olivier and more. Plus, any film that dwells on extensive bouts of family conflict, alcoholism and unspoken homo-eroticism? I’m there.
So that was all well and good. But as the series wore on, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t just another voyeuristic journey into the heart of Oxbridge-bred England. Rather, it was essentially a protracted tale of one family’s inexorable, inter-generational and self-destructive struggle with Catholicism.
I’ve written before about my own personal struggles with my family’s faith. How my husband and I have tried, through the years, to reconcile my religious Catholic upbringing with his cultural Jewish identity. And how that has led me to become, begrudgingly, over time, a sort of reluctant secularist.
What Brideshead Revisited added to that equation was the pain and guilt that goes along with that decision. I wanted desperately, as I watched, to identify with Charles Ryder, the protagonist of the story. He is the stoic, eternally rational hero who can’t quite fathom why this otherwise well-educated and cultured family in which he has become enmeshed – The Flytes – is so hopelessly caught up in their Roman Catholic faith.
Instead, I ended up identifying with Julia, his beloved, who tries her very best to leave her religion (and thus, to some extent, her family) by embracing Charles (and divorce and modernity) and the skepticism it implies. In the end, however, it’s too much for her and she can’t quite bring herself to do it. It breaks her heart, but she chooses the Church over her true love. It is her destiny.
I won’t do that. I left the church long ago and save a few masses here and there and the occasional compunction to pray on airplanes, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Catholicism. Or any other religion, for that matter. Even Judaism.
But I experience that as a loss. And it’s a painful one.
And that’s why I envy all the atheists I know, who make up about 90% of the people around me, including my husband. They don’t share this anguish. It doesn’t keep them awake at night.
I would love to have that peace of mind.
But I don’t.
And that, my friends, is one price of adulthood. At least mine.
Image: IMG_2994 by Franie Frou Frou via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.