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First and foremost, Julia is beautiful. Everyone defines her this way, from Anthony’s mention of her "flawless Florentine Quattrocento beauty" to Charles’s succinct "unhurried, exquisite, unrepentant" description of her late arrival to a ball. In fact, we make an argument in Charles’s "Character Analysis" that Julia’s looks are the sole reason he falls in love with her. To start with, she so much resembles Sebastian (quite the beauty himself) that you wonder how much of Charles’s attraction is misplaced desire for her brother.
Transference aside, he’s clearly struck by her beauty more than anything else. When he meets her after several years apart aboard the ship on the Atlantic, this is his focus. "She […] was approaching the zenith of her loveliness," he says. Even months after their affair begins, it is still her beauty that holds him captive. It’s not just Charles, either – even Julia’s own father values her so highly because of her looks. When debating the details of his will, Lord Marchmain wonders aloud to whom he will leave Brideshead Castle. "I have rather a fancy the idea of for installing Julia here," he says. "So beautiful this evening, my dear; so beautiful always; much, much more suitable." He essentially decides to leave Brideshead to her solely on the basis of aesthetics.
But even if the men in her life don’t notice, Julia is definitely more than a pretty face. For one, she’s not your typical girl. Charles remarks that women are "a point of interest" to Julia, suggesting that she’s an outsider to her own gender. She’s got her fair share of stereotypically masculine personality traits: aboard the ship in the Atlantic she’s the only women around not in bed sick from the storm. And when she finds out that her brother, Charles, and Boy went to a club of ill-repute together, her only response is: "I do think you might have taken me with you. The ball was positively lethal, and I've always longed to go to the Old Hundredth." Probably not the response they were expecting from a woman.
Unfortunately for Julia, it's not the 21st century. It’s not even 1998. We’re talking about the 1920s and '30s here, which means she has one job in life and one job only: get married. While Julia accepts this role without dispute in the early part of her life, by the time she’s in a loveless marriage and aboard the ship with Charles, she’s wondering if maybe there isn’t more to life than being beautiful and quiet. Or, as Charles imagines her saying, "Surely I was made for some other purpose than this?" Or even, "I am beautiful. I am made for delight. But what do I get out of it? Where is my reward?"
Interestingly enough, Charles finds this malaise, this "haunting, magical sadness" to be "the completion of her beauty." Yet when the two of them begin their affair aboard the ship, he senses that she loses this sadness, that it is "replaced by an incommunicable content and tranquility." Julia finds someone who fulfills her – Charles – and so she stops asking if life has more to offer; she’s already found the love she’s looking for. So of course we have to worry when, later on at Brideshead and after she has wondered if their love will last, Charles looks at Julia and finds that "she ha[s] regained what [he] thought she had lost forever, the magical sadness which had drawn [him] to her, the thwarted look." Notice that this is when Charles envisions the ice fisher about to be destroyed by an avalanche. He can tell that Julia has already decided to break it off and is once again wondering what life holds for her.
Before you start feeling too bad for Julia, let’s talk about her less attractive characteristics. We’ll start with the negative review from Anthony (although, to be fair, pretty much everyone gets a negative review from Anthony): "She's […] smart. […] Nothing greenery-yallery about her. So gay, so correct, so unaffected. Dogs and children love her, other girls love her – my dear, she's a fiend – a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless filler. I wonder if she's incestuous. I doubt it; all she wants is power. There ought to be an Inquisition especially set up to burn her" (1.2.42).
How accurate is this assessment of Julia Flyte? We’re not sure, because we only see her through Charles’s eyes. It seems the worst we can say about her is that she doesn’t love her brother. She treats his alcoholism and depression with mild annoyance, calling him "boring" and making no attempts to aid him or even pretend to be concerned for his welfare. "You must deal with him," she tells Charles. "It’s no business of mine."
It’s odd that Julia is so unresponsive to her brother’s plight, since she actually suffers the same quandary herself: the desire to be happy vs. the need to be holy. The difference is, while Sebastian seems to have a true calling to a life of holy suffering, it seems that Julia does not. She chooses God out of guilt and fear rather than love. But let’s take a look.
First we’ve got Julia’s guilt over "living in sin with Charles" as Brideshead calls it, while she is still married to Brideshead. She rants about the word "sin" for at least two pages, but here’s a choice excerpt:
"Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it's fretful. Always the same, like an idiot child carefully nursed, guarded from the world. 'Poor Julia,' they say, 'she can't go out. She's got to take care of her little sin. A pity it ever lived,' they say, 'but it's so strong. Children like that always are. Julia's so good to her little, mad sin.’"
Is it just us, or is Julia more worried about reputation than God? Now remember that Julia ditched her religion a long time ago, all the way back when she acted as Rex’s mistress before they were married in order to keep him from seeing Brenda Champion. She’s been suppressing her Catholic guilt for a decade or so by the time she decides to break it off with Charles. And her reasons for doing so?
"I saw to-day there was one thing unforgivable […]; to set up a rival good to God's. […] it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won't quite despair of me in the end."
This is important: it’s NOT that Julia is afraid of living in sin with Charles – it’s that she’s afraid of being happy. As Cordelia said earlier, "No one is every holy without suffering," and that seems to be a key point reiterated time and time again in Brideshead Revisited. It seems that her decision seems to stem from fear – probably of damnation – rather than of love for God. Of course, this is only one perspective, and it gets back to the old "Is Brideshead pro or anti Catholic?" question that we addressed in the "Overview." According to Waugh, each character experiences the grace of God in a different way. That would mean that Julia’s reformation here is genuine, that she (and Charles, and Sebastian, and Lord Marchmain) genuinely accept God’s love and chooses a life of Catholicism. From this perspective, Julia isn’t breaking up with Charles out of fear or guilt; she genuinely wants to be holy and suffer.