by Evelyn Waugh
Anthony Blanche is one of the most colorful characters you’ll meet in Shmoop Literature. "A nomad of no nationality," "the aesthete par excellence," and a "fine piece of cookery," Anthony practically leaps off the pages of Brideshead Revisited with "colorful robes" and exaggerated, affected stutter. We can’t really do much better than Charles’s description of him "waxing in wickedness like a Hogarthian page boy," or disguising himself as a girl on account of a bet, dining with Proust, practicing black art in Cefalu, getting "cured of drug-taking in California and of an Oedipus complex in Vienna." Most telling is this line: "His vices flourished less in the pursuit of pleasure than in the wish to shock."
Indeed. In addition to being colorful and hilarious, Anthony is also flamboyantly and stereotypically gay. He threatens to "stick [Sebastian] full of barbed arrows like a p-p-pin-cushion" and says to Mulcaster, "Who knows better than you by taste for queer fish?" He will later tell Sebastian, "If you want to be intoxicated there are so many much more delicious things [than alcohol]" while bringing him to who is most likely a male prostitute (though we could be way off here – who knows). He tells a group of mocking students that he would "like nothing better than the manhandled by you meaty boys." Sebastian later refers to him as "Charlus," a gay character from one of Proust’s novels. Aside from innuendo, we have clear statements of his sexuality. "I may be inverted but I am not insatiable," he tells a group of young boys at his door. ("Inverted" was the not-so-politically correct term at the time for being gay.) Charles also refers to Sebastian as "my pansy friend" later in the novel.
Aside from the comedy, Anthony, much like Cara and Cordelia, is around in Brideshead Revisited to give Charles – and therefore the reader – information second hand. His relationship with Charles revolves around three key encounters, all of which consist of Anthony talking. A lot. First is the famous dinner out at Oxford, when Anthony puts in his two cents (make that two dollars) about the Flyte family. From his scathing critique of Julia as "a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer" to his unexpected description of Sebastian as "insipid," Anthony has opinions on everything and everyone. His lengthy discourse with Charles serves as our introduction to the Flytes, and raises the stakes on the discoveries to follow. When Sebastian later dismisses these comments as gossip and lies, Charles writes them off. But Waugh makes sure we’re still left wondering: Sebastian quickly changes the subject to that of his teddy-bear, just as Anthony suggested he would. Sounds like Blanche knows what he’s talking about…
And indeed, many of Anthony’s comments about the Flytes do turn out to be true. Julia is admittedly a semi-heathen like her brother, the history regarding Lord and Lady Marchmain’s marriage is later confirmed, and Charles concludes that Lady Marchmain is as manipulative as everyone says. But what about Sebastian? Does Anthony’s description hold true? Let’s take a closer look at what he claims about our favorite teddy-bear-toting student:
"Tell me candidly, have you ever heard Sebastian say anything you have remembered for five minutes? You know, when I hear him talk, I am reminded of that in some ways nauseating picture of 'Bubbles.' […] When dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsuds drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then – "phut! – vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing."
OK…so Anthony has a point. Sebastian isn’t exactly profound, and he tends spend most of his time talking about the temper of his stuffed bear. But what’s wrong with simply being light-hearted? Plenty, according to Anthony. He believes that Sebastian poses a particular threat to Charles, and more specifically to Charles’s artistic abilities.
In Charles’s "Character Analysis" we talk a lot about Charles’s aesthetic education and the progress he makes, artistically, throughout the course of the novel. Anthony and his comments on "English charm" are a big part of this education. He touches on the subject briefly during this first big speech at Oxford, but it’s not until his final scene in the novel – out with Charles after the big exhibition – that the point really hits home for Charles (and for the reader, of course). Take a look:
"I was right years ago – more years, I am happy to say, than either of us shows – when I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you."
While everyone else is going gaga over Charles’s new, feral paintings, Anthony is unconvinced that Charles has managed to escape British charm and become a true artist. He says of the artwork: "It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers." Charm has strangled (or even "thwarted," an important word in Brideshead Revisited) Charles’s artistic potential.
And of course, Anthony blames Sebastian for siccing this charm on Charles. Over and over again the word is used to describe Sebastian and his "Bubbles"-like manner of speaking. In just his first conversation with Charles, Anthony says that "Sebastian has charm […], such charm," suggests that in a church confessional he was "just being charming through the grille," reiterates that "he has such charm" and that "[he’s] so charming, so amusing," claims that "those who are charming [like Sebastian] don’t need brains," calls him "a little bundle of charm," concludes that in fact all the Flytes are "charming, of course," and finishes by saying "there was really very little left for poor Sebastian to do except be sweet and charming." He says the only reason Sebastian still visits is father is "because he’s so charming," and advises that Charles not blame Sebastian for being "insipid," "simple," and… "charming."
OK. We think we’ve made our point. But now you can understand that when Anthony says "It is not an experience I would recommend for An Artist at the tenderest stage of his growth, to be strangled with charm" that what he’s really warning Charles against isn’t just good manners; he’s warning him against Sebastian. And he might be right to do so. Consider the fact that Charles is a Captain in the army telling his story and seems to have abandoned art altogether. In fact, Charles straight out agrees with Anthony’s interpretation of his paintings as "British charm playing tigers." "You’re quite right," he says to Anthony, and that’s the last we hear from him in the subject of art. When Lord Marchmain asks him at the end of the novel whether he will become an Artist, his response is simple, "No. As a matter of fact I am negotiating now for a commission in the Special Reserve." And that’s that.