by Evelyn Waugh
Lady Cordelia Flyte
If you’ve read any of our other "Character Analyses," you know by now that Cordelia is one wise old bird – especially considering that she’s a child for the majority of Brideshead Revisited. Cordelia seems to answer all our big analytical questions: Why is Sebastian unhappy? What will happen to him in the end? What’s the deal with Brideshead? Why do people hate Lady Marchmain? Amazingly, Cordelia addresses all of these questions – and she always does so while stuffing her face with eggs or meringue or appetizers at the Ritz. The point is that she’s not pondering the fate or psychology of her siblings; she just happens to notice with her childlike curiosity the answers to questions plaguing the adults around her.
And thank goodness, because we’d be stuck on those study questions without her. In addition to being The Wisest Kid Ever, Cordelia is also the most loving and innocent of all the Flyte children. She’s the only one of Sebastian’s siblings who actually loves him, the same way that Charles does. Brideshead and Julia treat his alcoholism with mild annoyance, but Cordelia, unable to bear the sight of his suffering, sneaks him booze – just like Charles does. When she tells Charles to give Sebastian "her special love," she’s likely referring to the fact that her love is genuine and therefore unique among her family members. She will later tell Charles that Julia "never loved [Sebastian] as [she and Charles] do," and also that she herself "loved [Sebastian] more than anyone." Her unconditional and lasting loyalty is so strong that it leaves even Charles feeling guilty at having abandoned his friend. "The word reproached me," he says; "there was no past tense in Cordelia’s verb ‘to love.’" It makes sense, then, that Cordelia is the character given the privilege of describing her brother's death – see Sebastian’s "Character Analysis" for more.
But enough about Sebastian; what happens to Cordelia herself? She grows from a spirited, youthful, exuberant, troublemaking child into a…well, Charles isn’t exactly sure what she grows into. When he first sees her as an adult, he says, "It hurt to think of Cordelia growing up quite plain; to think of all that burning love spending itself […]. I thought her an ugly woman. […] When she said, ‘It's wonderful to be home,’ it sounded to my ears like the grunt of an animal returning to its basket." Ouch! But it’s only pages later that he changes his mind: "As we sat there talking, and I saw Cordelia's fond eyes on all of us, I began to realize that she, too, had a beauty of her own." And yet, a mere couple of pages after that, Charles admits to Cordelia that he thinks of her as "thwarted."
So beautiful or not (and this determination probably has something to do with Charles’s shifting definition of "beauty"), it’s clear that Cordelia is yet another of the Flyte children caught in the tension between the secular world of happiness and the holy world of suffering. As a child, Cordelia hopes aloud that she has a vocation. "It means you can be a nun," she explains to our favorite agnostic. "If you haven't a vocation it's no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can't get away from it, however much you hate it." We realize, then, by the end of the novel, that Cordelia doesn’t have a vocation after all. She’s figured this out, and explains to Charles that "there are [...] people who can't quite fit in either to the world or the monastic rule. I suppose I'm something of the sort myself." Cordelia, then, is thwarted in more ways than one. Her holiness has been squandered as she has not fully devoted her life to God, yet her enthusiasm and charming trouble-making (as seen in her skillful imitations and practical jokes at Rex’s expense) have been similarly wasted – she has, as Julia puts it, "grown up quite plain."