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The first time Charles went to Brideshead was twenty years before, in June, with Sebastian. Flashback, here we come.
It’s Eights Week – a major rowing event – at Oxford, so the campus is packed with crew-loving guests. Among them are women, a.k.a. bait for the college men.
Charles wants none of it. Rather than entertain the ladies, he’s going out.
Before he does, he discusses the impending evening ball with his servant, Lunt.
By the way, this is 1923. Charles was good enough to mention as much a few paragraphs into this grand recollection.
Anyway, Lord Sebastian soon arrives, dressed elegantly and remarking on the uproarious state of Charles’s college, which is simply "pullulating with women." He’s brought a car borrowed from a friend named Hardcastle, a bottle of wine, and a basket of strawberries. He and Charles soon take off with the intent of visiting Sebastian’s "Hawkins." (You find out who this is soon.)
In the car we meet Sebastian’s teddy bear. (No, we’re not joking. Yes, he’s a grown man with a teddy bear. Just roll with it.) Aloysius sits between them; Sebastian instructs Charles to make sure the bear doesn’t get sick as they drive.
As they drive along pleasantly, Sebastian touches on Hardcastle, the owner of the car, who it seems is quite a partier/late-sleeper. He also mentions his own father, whom he calls "a social leper."
At about eleven Sebastian pulls over to a picturesque side-of-the-road spot, and the young men lie around eating the strawberries, smoking, and drinking the wine. (Life is so hard.)
Sebastian says that he would like to bury a crock of gold – here and everywhere else he’s ever been happy – so he can return to it someday when he’s "old and miserable," dig it up, and remember how things used to be.
This day, explains Charles, was during his third term at Oxford, but he doesn’t think of his Oxford life as having started until the day he first met Sebastian.
It all stemmed from Charles having a first-floor room. At the very beginning of his time at Oxford, Sebastian’s older cousin, Jasper, comes to give him a little chat.
Having been at Oxford himself for some time, Jasper feels qualified in lecturing from an older, wiser, and annoying standpoint.
Since Charles’s father tends to avoid any serious chats with his son, Ryder has until now been spared this sort of agony. The most Mr. Ryder said to his son is that he was allowing him 550 pounds a year as an allowance, only because the Warden recommended no more than 300 and twice as much as that would have been "deliberately impolite."
But back to Jasper. In his lecture, he covers every possible Oxford base: how to dress, what lectures to attend, which clubs to join now and which to join next year, how to make his reputation, which places to avoid, which people to avoid (especially religious folk), and adds that Charles will likely spend his second year getting rid of the "undesirable" friends he will make in his first.
Jasper also advises that Charles change his rooms immediately, rooms which are beautiful and Charles happens to love. First floor rooms are a bad idea, he says, since people will start dropping in left and right – especially those undesirable people.
Charles says that he never followed any of this advice, at least not consciously. He kept his first-floor rooms and decorated them with Van Gogh prints and the like. He formed a circle of friends, among them a man named Collins, who "maintained a middle course of culture between the flamboyant ‘aesthetes’ and the proletarian scholars who scrambled fiercely for facts." Yet, despite excellent rooms and a solid circle of friends, Charles felt Oxford had more to offer.
Then there was Sebastian, who made everyone else fade into the background. Collins was once explaining to Charles the problem with modern aesthetics, but his eyes were not open to art until Sebastian declared that he feels the same emotion for a butterfly that he does for a cathedral.
Sebastian was one of those guys that everyone knew. Not as a personal friend, that is, but they knew who he was. He was just that beautiful, Charles says, and just that eccentric. The first time Charles saw him, he was carrying…his large teddy bear. Charles was getting a haircut at the time and so received a description from the barber, who reported that Sebastian was the son of The Marquis of Marchmain and had an older brother, the Earl of Brideshead, who has finished his time at Oxford. Also, the teddy bear’s name is Aloysius.
Ryder was at first rather judgmental, thinking Sebastian an odd duck. Not that we can blame him.
Anyway, the night they met, it was under less than ideal circumstances. It was early March, around midnight. Charles was entertaining some guests and had opened his first-floor windows for air. Sebastian, extraordinarily drunk, was wandering by with some of his own friends. He staggered over to Charles’s room, leaned in the window, and threw-up into Ryder’s room. His friends apologized on his behalf before carting him off to bed.
The next morning, Charles comes back from class to find his room full of flowers "in every conceivable vessel in every part of the room." His servant Lunt informs him that Sebastian left a note, as well, in which he apologizes and declares that his bear isn’t even speaking to him. He also invites Charles to join him for lunch, without leaving an address, since everyone knows who he is and where he lives.
That luncheon turned out to be a new beginning for Charles, though the details are now confused in his mind with other almost identical get-togethers that would follow. He arrived at the lunch "in search of love" and "full of curiosity," looking for the entrance to what he imagines as some sort of secret garden at Oxford.
Sebastian was alone in his room when Charles arrived, eating plover’s eggs and looking beautiful. His room was full of a fascinating hodge-podge of objects.
The lunching party begins to assemble, which includes a few freshmen and one Anthony Blanche, a ridiculous character who, as scholars say, embodies every gay stereotype of Waugh’s era. He also speaks with an affected stutter. Charles calls him the ultimate aesthete, "ageless as a lizard, foreign as a Martian." Charles enjoys Anthony immensely.
After they lunch together, Anthony goes out on Sebastian’s balcony and recites passages from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, sobbing them out across the campus below. Anthony is equally enthusiastic about Sebastian having "discovered" Charles.
As the lunch party breaks up, Charles and Sebastian are once again left alone. Sebastian declares that he must go to the Botanical Gardens, and Charles accompanies him to see the ivy.
When he gets back to his rooms, they suddenly seem superficial to Charles. He dislikes most the painted screen, which he turns to face the wall.
And now we return to Charles and Sebastian, during Eights Week at Oxford, lying under the tree, eating strawberries, and drinking wine.
After the snack by the side of the road, the boys drive on and find themselves at Brideshead, which Sebastian describes not as his home but as the place where his family lives. They’re away at the moment, but Sebastian wants Charles to meet his Nanny – Nanny Hawkins.
They meet; she’s an older, serene woman who informs them that Julia, Sebastian’s sister, is at Brideshead for the day and should be returning from lunch shortly. As she and Sebastian go on chatting, Charles takes his time observing the domed room and its décor.
Sebastian is in a hurry to get himself and Charles away before Julia returns. His family is so charming, he explains, that they’ll meet Charles and take him away, make him their friend instead of Sebastian’s.
Charles submits, but is eager to see more of the spectacular house and grounds. Sebastian takes him to see the chapel, "a monument of art nouveau." When they enter, Sebastian crosses himself and genuflects (kneels on one knee), which Charles does in suit. But Sebastian is cross, and says he need not copy him just for good manners.
He shows Charles around, explaining that the chapel was a wedding present from his father to his mother.
On the way out of Brideshead in their car, the young men pass a chauffeured Rolls-Royce which Sebastian declares is Julia returning home. They got out just in time, he says.
During the drive back, Sebastian apologizes for being snippy – Brideshead has that effect on him.
(Charles explains, in his narration, that Sebastian always works in imperatives. Everything he does he has to do, like going to see Nanny or visiting the botanical gardens.)
The men discuss families: Sebastian doesn’t like his; Charles doesn’t have much of one (just him and his father, as his mother was killed during World War I).
Looking back on that day now, Charles is amazed that so small of an event – his first visit to Brideshead – is recounted now "with tears by a middle-aged captain of infantry."