"You may think it charming. I think it's devilish. Do you know he spent the whole of yesterday evening trying to turn me against you, and almost succeeded?"
"Did he? How silly. Aloysius wouldn't approve of that at all, would you, you pompous old bear?" (1.2.78-9)
This is a brilliantly constructed conclusion to the conversation with Anthony. Just as we are inclined to believe Sebastian and write off Anthony’s warning, Sebastian does exactly as Anthony predicted.
"Oh, Mummy likes everything to be a present. She's so sweet," he said, adding one more line to the picture I was forming of her.
Now Sebastian had disappeared into that other life of hi where I was not asked to follow, and I was left, instead, forlorn and regretful. (1.3.4-5)
Charles is left alone because, not having much of a family himself, he can’t understand what Sebastian is dealing with in regards to Lady Marchmain. The same thing happens with religion – the barrier of misunderstanding separates these two friends.
I saw, in my mind's eye, the pale face of Anthony Blanche, peering through the straggling leaves as it had peered through the candle flames at Thame, and heard, above the murmur of traffic, his clear tones […] "You mustn't blame Sebastian if at times he seems a little insipid. […] When I hear him talk I am reminded of that in some ways nauseating picture of 'Bubbles.' […] Boredom […] like a cancer in the breast [...]"
For days after that I thought I hated Sebastian. (1.3.94-5)
Charles recognizes that Anthony is right – Sebastian is in many ways insipid – but he loves him for it anyway. He has no illusions about his friend, but rather accepts him as he is.
"We'll have a heavenly time alone," said Sebastian, and when next morning, while I was shaving, I saw from my bathroom window Julia, with luggage at her back, drive from the forecourt and disappear at the hill's crest, without a backward glance, I felt a sense of liberation and peace such as I was to know years-later when, after a night of unrest, the sirens sounded the All Clear. (1.3.144)
Charles and Sebastian’s friendship can only exist peacefully as long they are isolated from the rest of the world.
"I think you are very fond of Sebastian," she said.
"I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long." (1.4.101)
Cara essentially puts an expiration date on Charles and Sebastian’s friendship – and she’s right. In many ways, their relationship is a very childish one, and cannot possibly be expected to hold up to the trials of adulthood.
It was thus that Lady Marchmain found us when, early in that Michaelmas term, she came for a week to Oxford. She found Sebastian subdued, with all his host of friends reduced to one, myself. She accepted me as Sebastian's friend and sought to make me hers also, and in doing so, unwittingly struck at the roots of our friendship. That is the single reproach I have to set against her abundant kindness to me. (1.5.27)
Cara discusses how Lord Marchmain hated Lady Marchmain and so despised anyone close to her. The same goes for Sebastian, though his hate is less extreme and definitely hidden. He can’t be friends with Charles if Charles is friends with his mother.
I had seen him grow wary at the thought of his family or his religion; now I found I, too, was suspect. He did not fail in love, but he lost his joy of it, for I was no longer part of his solitude. As my intimacy with his family grew I became part of the world which he sought to escape; I became one of the bonds which held him. (1.5.206)
This makes us wonder what drew Sebastian to Charles in the first place – was it just a way of escaping his family by forming a close bond with someone else to replace them?
"Did you have a 'little talk' with Mummy?"
"Have you gone over to her side?"
The day before I would have said: "There aren't two sides"; that day I said, "No, I'm with you, Sebastian contra mundum."
And that was all the conversation we had on the subject, then or ever. (1.5.333-7)
This is the defining moment in Charles’s relationship with Sebastian; contra mundum is the only type of friendship Sebastian is willing to have (or even capable of having).
It was repugnant to me to talk about Sebastian to Mr. Samgrass. (1.6.119)
Once he commits to the friendship, Charles is fiercely loyal to his friend.
Poor simple monk, I thought, poor booby; but he added, "You know why? He has a bottle of cognac in bed with him. It is the second I have found. No sooner do I take one away than he gets another. He is so naughty. It is the Arab boys who fetch it for him. But it is good to see him happy again when he has been so sad." (1.8.133)
Charles recognizes that Sebastian has completely duped the monk, but he doesn’t judge him for it. Those who really love Sebastian – namely Charles and Cordelia – love him unconditionally, including the alcoholism. He’s a whole package deal, and Charles takes him as he is.
"You know, Charles," he said, "it's rather a pleasant change when all your life you've had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself. Only of course it has to be someone pretty hopeless to need looking after by me." (1.8.136)
Who takes care of whom in the Charles/Sebastian relationship?
"He and I were both Catholics, so we used to go to mass together. He used to spend such a time in the confessional, I used to wonder what he had to say, because he never did anything wrong; never quite; at least, he never got punished. Perhaps he was just being charming through the grille." (1.2.38)
Anthony has little or no understanding of Catholicism as Sebastian understands it and as Charles will come to understand it by the end of the novel.
Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in his conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear. We never discussed the matter until on the second Sunday at Brideshead, when Father Phipps had left us and we sat in the colonnade with the papers, he surprised me by saying: "Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic." (1.4.50)
Sebastian struggles with Catholicism because he takes it so seriously. Charles, who finds the whole thing (at this point in his flashback) to be somewhat ridiculous, can’t understand this.
"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."
"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."
"But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."
"But I do. That's how I believe." (1.4.63-66)
Sebastian is the ultimate aesthete – even his religious beliefs are based on beauty.
"Well," I said, "if you can believe all that and you don't want to be good, where's the difficulty about your religion?"
"If you can't see, you can't." (1.4.69-70)
At what point in the novel does Charles begin to see this?
"Cordelia has promised to pray for me," I said.
"She made a novena for her pig," said Sebastian.
"You know all this is very puzzling to me," I said.
"I think we're causing scandal," said Brideshead.
That night I began to realize how little I really knew of Sebastian, and to understand why he had always sought to keep me apart from the rest of his life. He was like a friend made on board ship, on the high seas; now we had come to his home port. (1.4.156-160)
Charles earlier commented that, when discussing his family, Sebastian would retreat into another world where Charles could not follow. It seems now that religion is largely responsible for this rift between the two young men.
"When people hate with all that energy, it is something in themselves they are hating. Alex is hating all the illusions of boyhood – innocence, God, hope. Poor Lady Marchmain has to bear all that." (1.4.236)
Here Cara is trying to explain why everyone hates Lady Marchmain. Cordelia later continues this discussion when she says that people hate Lady Marchmain as an indirect way of hating God.
Between her tears she talked herself into silence. I could do nothing; I was adrift in a strange sea; my hands on the metal-spun threads of her tunic were cold and stiff, my eyes dry; I was as far from her in spirit, as she clung to me in the darkness, as when years ago I had lit her cigarette on the way from the station; as far as when she was out of mind, in the dry, empty years at the Old Rectory and in the jungle. (2.3.119)
Just as religion was the barrier between Charles and Sebastian, so it is here between him and Julia – not because he resents her for her beliefs, but because he simply cannot understand them.
"There were four of you," I said. "Cara didn't know the first thing it was about, and may or may not have believed it; you knew a bit and didn't believe a word; Cordelia knew about as much and believed it madly; only poor Bridey knew and believed, and I thought he made a pretty poor show when it came to explaining. And people go round saying, 'At least Catholics know what they believe.' We had a fair cross-section to-night–"
"Oh, Charles, don't rant. I shall begin to think you're getting doubts yourself." (2.5.161-2)
Actually, Julia is right – Charles is beginning to doubt his own doubt. We know that he has found God by the end of the novel, so this is the first inkling of his eventual conversion.
"That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. […] But I saw to-day there was one thing unforgivable – like things in the schoolroom, so bad they are unpunishable, that only Mummy could deal with – the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I'm not quite bad enough to do; 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." (2.5.247)
Is this really Julia’s reason for leaving Charles? Or is she justifying? Are the barriers she faces religious, or simply social taboos?
"You must see the garden front and the fountain." He leaned forward and put the car into gear. "It's where my family live." And even then, rapt in the vision, I felt, momentarily, like a wind stirring the tapestry, an ominous chill at the words he used – not "That is my home," but "It's where my family live." (1.1.83)
Sebastian feels distant and separated from Brideshead because he so resents his family. He can never appreciate the estate the way Charles comes to.
"I'm not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They're so madly charming. All my life they've been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they'd make you their friend, not mine, and I won't let them." (1.1.106)
Remember what Anthony later says about charm? Interestingly, Sebastian says his family manipulates with charm, whereas Anthony claims Sebastian does this very same thing.
"Perhaps I am rather curious about people's families – you see, it's not a thing I know about. There is only my father and myself. An aunt kept an eye on me for a time but my father drove her abroad. My mother was killed in the war." (1.1.128)
We expect Charles to be drawn to Lady Marchmain as a replacement for his own mother.
"It's odd because there's really no mystery about him except how he came to be born of such a very sinister family.
"I forget if you know his family. Now there, my dear, is a subject for the poet – for the poet of the future who must be also a psychoanalyst – and perhaps a diabolist, too. I don't suppose he'll ever let you meet them. He's far too clever. They're all charming, of course, and quite, quite gruesome. Do you ever feel is something a teeny bit gruesome about Sebastian? No? Perhaps I imagine it; it's simply that he looks so like the rest of them, sometimes." (1.2.43-4)
Charles, too, will pick up on the physical similarities between the Flytes – in particular Julia and Sebastian. But does this reflect a deeper commonality?
"Well, I'm the worst person to come to for advice. I've never been 'short,' as you so painfully call it. And yet what else could you say? Hard up? Penurious? Distressed? Embarrassed? Stony-broke?" […] I had not seen my father so gleeful since he found two pages of second-century papyrus between the leaves of a Lombardic breviary. […] For the rest of dinner he was silent save for an occasional snuffle of merriment which could not, I thought, be provoked by the work he read. (1.3.23-8)
Charles’s father is the epitome of callous sarcasm, yet he never ends up causing Charles the damage that Sebastian’s seemingly charming family does.
It was largely by reason of my Aunt Philippa that I now found myself so much a stranger in my father's house. After my mother's death she came to live with my father and me, no doubt, as he said, with the idea of making her home with us. I knew nothing, then, of the nightly agonies at the dinner table. […] Then in my last year at school she left England. "I got her out in the end" he said with derision and triumph of that kindly lady, and he knew that I heard in the words a challenge to myself. (1.3.50)
Mr. Ryder wants nothing but to be left alone. Family is as much of a burden to him as it is to Sebastian.
He kissed Lord Marchmain on the cheek and I, who had not kissed my father since I left the nursery, stood shyly behind him. (1.4.193)
Mr. Ryder and Lord Marchmain are constantly contrasted with each other in the novel, as are their respective relationships with their sons.
Sebastian began to weep. "Why do you take their side against me? I knew you would if I let you meet them. Why do you spy on me?"
He said more than I can bear to remember, even at twenty years' distance. At last I got him to sleep and very sadly went to bed myself. (1.5.276-7)
Charles is again torn between his desire to help the Flytes deal with Sebastian’s alcoholism and his desire to see his friend happy.
She had a copy lying ready on her bureau. I thought at the time, "She planned this parting before ever I came in. Had she rehearsed all the interview? If things had gone differently would she have put the book back in the drawer?" (1.5.321)
Sebastian’s distrust of his mother proves warranted here. It is not until Charles realizes her intentions that he agrees to side with Sebastian, "contra mundum."
"Then you agree to my leaving Oxford?"
"Agree? Agree? My dear boy, you're twenty-two."
"Twenty," I said, "twenty-one in October."
"Is that all? It seems much longer." (1.5.437-40)
Compare Charles’s interaction with his father to Sebastian’s relationship with his family. Charles is left to fend for himself while Sebastian’s family babies him to death – they are likely responsible for his refusal to leave childhood behind.
He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds – for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight. (prologue.95)
It seems that Charles has shut away the past and moved on completely from Brideshead and the Flyte family. Revisiting the estate, then, is more than just a trip down memory lane – he’s forced to deal with the past that he has shut away.
"Just the place to bury a crock of gold," said Sebastian. "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember." (1.1.20)
Indeed, Charles "digs up" this idea again, towards the end of Book One, Chapter Six. He drives away from Brideshead and feels he will return again "as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures." Interesting…
It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one's stature on the edge of the door. I should like to think – indeed I sometimes do think – that I decorated those rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints and that my shelves were filled with seventeenth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered-silk. But this was not the truth. (1.1.28)
Charles admits the embarrassing "truth" here about the artistic preferences of his youth – but can we trust him elsewhere in his narration?
That luncheon party – for party it proved to be – was the beginning of a new epoch in my life, but its details are dimmed for me and confused by so many others, almost identical with it, that succeeded one another that term and the next, like romping cupids in a Renaissance frieze. (1.1.49)
Charles always admits the ambiguity of memory in his narrative. It’s interesting to see which details he so vividly remembers and which are blurry in his mind.
I was unmoved; there was no part of me remotely touched by her distress. It was as I had often imagined being expelled from school. I almost expected to hear her say: "I have already written to inform your unhappy father." But as I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world. (1.6.214)
Does Charles in fact find this buried part of himself when he revisits Brideshead as the Captain of infantry?
So I set out after dinner, with the consular porter going ahead, lantern in hand. Morocco was a new and strange country to me. Driving that day, mile after mile, up the smooth, strategic road, past the vineyards and military posts and the new, white settlements and the early crops already standing high in the vast, open fields, and the hoardings advertising the staples of France – Dubonnet, Michelin, Magasin du Louvre – I had thought it all very suburban and up-to-date; now, under the stars, in the walled city, whose streets were gentle, dusty stairways, and whose walls rose windowless on either side, closed overhead, then opened again to the stars; where the dust lay thick among the smooth paving stones and figures passed silently, robed in white, on soft slippers or hard, bare soles; where the air was scented with cloves and incense and wood smoke – now I knew what had drawn Sebastian here and held him so long. (1.8.88)
Charles concludes that beauty lies in the primitive and ancient, not in the charm of British modernism; this is a prelude to his trip to South America.
My theme is memory that winged host that soared above me one grey morning of war-time.
These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past –, were always with me. (2.1.1-2)
Charles may be a middle-aged captain of infantry now, but he is defined by the events in his past. This may go some way in explaining his new-found optimism at the close of the novel.
It needed this voice from the past to recall me; the indiscriminate chatter of praise all that crowded day had worked on me like a succession of advertisement hoardings on a long road, kilometre after kilometre between the poplars, commanding one to stay at some new hotel, so that when at the end of the drive, stiff and dusty, one arrives at the destination, it seems inevitable to turn into the yard under the name that had first bored, then angered one, and finally become an inseparable part of one's fatigue. (2.2.50)
Charles isolates the past as a completely separate part of his life. The titular "revisit" refers not just to Brideshead, but also to his past, which he explores through his narration.
I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which […] told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city. (1.1.50)
Charles’s fascination with Sebastian is akin to the childlike wonder of the unknown.
He was magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind. (1.1.53)
Charles hints at the fragility and transience of Sebastian’s beauty.
In the event, that Easter vacation formed a short stretch of level road in the precipitous descent of which Jasper warned me. Descent or ascent? It seems to me that I grew younger daily with each adult habit that I acquired. I had lived a lonely childhood […]. Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence. (1.2.18)
This is what draws Charles to Sebastian: his beauty, yes, but also his youthfulness.
At times we all seemed children beside him – at most times, but not always, for there was a bluster and zest in Anthony which the rest of us had shed somewhere in our more leisured adolescence, on the playing field or in the school-room; his vices flourished less in the pursuit of pleasure than in the wish to shock. […] He was competitive in the bet-you-can't-do-this style of the private school. […] He was cruel, too, in the wanton, insect-maiming manner of the very young and 'fearless, like a little boy, charging, head down, small fists whirling, at the school prefects. (1.2.26)
It’d interesting that Charles describes Anthony as childish, when he is in fact the one to impart the most important information to Charles regarding Sebastian and Charles’s own artistry. Looks like another example of the inverse relationship between wisdom and age in Brideshead Revisited.
How ungenerously in later life we disclaim the virtuous moods of our youth, living in retrospect long, summer days of unreflecting dissipation, Dresden figures of pastoral gaiety! Our wisdom, we prefer to think, is all of our own gathering, while, if the truth be told, it is, most of it, the last coin of a legacy that dwindles with time. There is no candour in a story of early manhood which leaves out of account the home-sickness for nursery morality, the regrets and resolutions of amendment, the black hours which, like zero on the roulette table, turn up with roughly calculable regularity. (1.3.6)
All of Brideshead is imbued with this sense of nostalgia for youth. Passages like this one define the novel’s tone.
The languor of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life; […] but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse – that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it. […] I, at any rate, believed myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead. (1.4.1)
For Charles, the act of revisiting Brideshead is very much the act of revisiting his youth. The novel isn’t just about this estate, but what the estate represents in Charles’s past.
"Sebastian is in love with his own childhood. That will make him very unhappy. His Teddy-bear, his Nanny […] and he is nineteen years old."(1.4.238)
Oh, that Cara. Always the fountain of wisdom. She’s struck at another important point in Brideshead Revisited – Sebastian’s obsession with his youth. However, note that while Cara condemns this quality, it is also what draws Charles to Sebastian.
"Oh, Charles, what has happened since last term? I feel so old."
"I feel middle-aged. That is infinitely worse; I believe we have had all the fun we can expect here."
We sat silent in the firelight as darkness fell.
"Anthony Blanche has gone down." (1.5.9-12)
What is the difference between being middle-aged and being old, according to Charles? Remember that he stated in the prologue that he is a "middle-aged captain of infantry" and in the epilogue refers to himself as "homeless, child-less, middle-aged, loveless."
I had left behind me – what? Youth? Adolescence? Romance? The conjuring stuff of these things, "the Young Magician's Compendium," that neat cabinet where the ebony wand had its place beside the delusive billiard balls, the penny that folded double and the feather flowers that could be drawn into a hollow candle.
"I have left behind illusion," I said to myself. "Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions – with the aid of my five senses."
I have since learned that there is no such world; but then, as the car turned out of sight of the house, I thought it took no finding, but lay all about me at the end of the avenue. (1.6.218-20)
More evidence for our theory that Brideshead represents youth to Charles. When he leaves the estate, he enters adulthood.
"But yesterday I got a regular eye-opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what's been taught and what's been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn't know existed." (1.7.112)
This is true; for all Charles and Sebastian’s education at Oxford, they know very little about themselves or what they want.
It was really Johnjohn who made him see reason about that girl; seriously, you know, he's frightfully sharp. He must have heard Mother and me talking, because next time Boy came he said: 'Uncle Boy shan't marry horrid girl and leave Johnjohn,' and that was the very day – he settled for two thousand pounds out of court." (2.2.72)
Youth is very much tied to wisdom in Brideshead Revisited. Cordelia, too, was a fountain of insight as a child.
"I've never known a divorce do anyone any good."
"That's your affair and Julia's."
"Oh, Julia's set on it. What I hoped was, you might be able to talk her round. I've tried to keep out of the way as much as I could; if I've been around too much, just tell me, I shan't mind. But there's too much going on altogether at the moment, what with Bridey wanting me to clear out of the house; it's disturbing, and I've got a lot on my mind."
"If Julia insists on a divorce, I suppose she must have it," he said. "But she couldn't have chosen a worse time. Tell her to hang on a bit, Charles, there's a good fellow." (2.4.16-9)
Charles’s entire group of peers all act like children, even once they are grown. They all marry and divorce as though they are changing outfits.
It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one's stature on the edge of the door. I should like to think – indeed I sometimes do think – that I decorated those rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints and that my shelves were filled with seventeenth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered-silk. But this was not the truth. On my first afternoon I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provencal landscape, which I had bought inexpensively when the Omega workshops were sold up. I displayed […] most painful to recall, a porcelain figure of Polly Peachum […]. My books were meagre and commonplace […] and my earliest friends fitted well into this background. (1.1.28)
This is the starting point for the aesthetic education that Charles will undergo throughout the course of Brideshead Revisited. He describes here his taste in art in his early days at Oxford – it reflects what at the time was modern art. Of course, later in the novel, Charles agrees with Cordelia that "modern art is all bosh." Much of his growth and artistic development comes from his relationship with Sebastian and the time he spends at Brideshead.
[… ] and my earliest friends fitted well into this background; they were Collins, a Wykehamist, an embryo don, a man of solid reading and childlike humour, and a small circle of college intellectuals, who maintained a middle course of culture between the flamboyant "aesthetes" and the proletarian scholars who scrambled fiercely for facts in the lodging houses of the Iffley -Road and Wellington Square. […] but even in the earliest days […] I felt at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer. (1.1.28)
Charles is looking for someone like Sebastian even before he meets him. This explains why he so eagerly delves into close friendship with the eccentric man.
Collins had exposed the fallacy of modern aesthetics to me: "...The whole argument from Significant Form stands or falls by volume. If you allow Cezanne to represent a third dimension on his two-dimensional canvas, then you must allow Landseer his gleam of loyalty in the spaniel's eye"– but it was not until Sebastian, idly turning the page of Clive Bell's Art, read: "Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture? Yes. I do," that my eyes were opened. (1.1.29)
Thus begins Charles’s aesthetic education at the hands of his friend Sebastian.
I knew Sebastian by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour which seemed to know no bounds. (1.1.30)
Sebastian is very much defined by his beauty. It is a constant reminder that his importance to Charles is his ability to guide him artistically.
I took my gown and left him to his task. I still frequented the lecture room in those days, and it was after eleven when I returned to college. I found my room full of flowers; what looked like, and, in fact, was, the entire day's stock of a market-stall stood in every conceivable vessel in every part of the room. (1.1.43)
Again, look at the objects which Sebastian uses – flowers. He is always associated with nature and beauty.
"Oh, Charles, what a lot you have to learn! There's a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed. I don't know where I should be without the Botanical Gardens."
When at length I returned to my rooms and found them exactly as I had left them that morning, I detected a jejune air that had not irked me before. What was wrong? Nothing except the golden daffodils seemed to be real. Was it the screen? I turned it face to the wall. That was better. (1.1.74-5)
Charles starts developing his artistic taste as soon as he starts hanging out with Sebastian.
"You see, my dear Charles, you are that very rare thing, An Artist. […] I have seen those little drawings you keep hidden away in your room. They are exquisite. And you, dear Charles, if you will understand me, are not exquisite; but not at all. Artists are not exquisite. I am; Sebastian, in a kind of way, is exquisite; but the Artist is an eternal type, solid, purposeful, observant – and, beneath it all, p-p-passionate, eh, Charles?" (1.2.39)
As Anthony points out, Charles is not beautiful himself. But his role as an artist is to seek out and capture beauty. This simple passage goes a long way in explaining Charles’s friendship with Sebastian, his fascination with the Brideshead estate, his eventual affair with Julia, and his career as an architectural painter.
"Oh, Charles, don't be such a tourist. What does it matter when it was built, if it's pretty?"
It was an aesthetic education to live within those walls. (1.4.10,13)
To live within those walls, yes, but also to live with Sebastian, the ultimate teacher.
"Of course, you are right really," he said. "You take art as a means not as an end. That is strict theology, but it's unusual to find an agnostic believing it." (1.4.155)
AHA! Here’s our big hint to a very important point in Brideshead Revisited: aesthetics are Charles’s religion. Read "Character Analysis" for more.
It had been the custom that on every visit to Brideshead I painted a medallion on the walls of the garden-room. The custom suited me well, for it gave me a good reason to detach myself from the rest of the party; when the house was full the garden-room became a rival to the nursery, where from time to time people took refuge to complain about the others; thus without effort I kept in touch with the gossip of the place. (1.6.125)
Every aspect of painting suits Charles’s persona: the isolation, the observing, the knowing without having to engage socially.
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James's Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as at Paillard's with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope. (1.6.284)
Charles finds beauty in the very thing destroying Sebastian: alcohol.
"You see Charles lives for one thing – Beauty. I think he got bored with finding it ready-made in England; he had to go and create it for himself. He wanted new worlds to conquer." (2.2.24)
And now that he’s tired of finding it in South America, he’s made the very beautiful Julia his next conquest.
The most influential critic, who in the past had dismissed me with a few wounding commendations, peered out at me from between his slouch hat and woolen muffler, gripped my arm, and said: "I knew you had it. I saw it there. I've been waiting for it." […] "Ryder's is the last name would have occurred to me. They're so virile, so passionate."
I remembered the exhibition, too, for another reason; it was the week I detected my wife in adultery. (2.2.26-9)
It’s interesting that Charles achieves this artistic breakthrough around the same time he begins his affair with Julia. The aesthetic and the passionate are once again brought together. Of course, both Charles’s supposed achievement and his love with Julia end up "thwarted" in the end.
"I went to your first exhibition," said Anthony; "I found it – charming. There was an interior of Marchmain House, very English, very correct, but quite delicious. 'Charles has done something,' I said; 'not all he will do, not all he can do, but something.'
"Even then, my dear, I wondered a little. It seemed to me that there was something a little gentlemanly about your painting. You must remember I am not English; I cannot understand this keen zest to be well-bred. English snobbery is more macabre to me even than English morals. However, I said, 'Charles has done something delicious. What will he do next?'" (2.2.60-1)
Art and aristocracy don’t mix – this is what Anthony is getting at when he said earlier that charm would strangle Charles’s artistry.
"No. I like and think good the end to which wine is sometimes the means – the promotion of sympathy between man and man. But in my own case it does not achieve that end, so I neither like it nor think it good for me." (1.4.133)
Brideshead once again exposes his inability to communicate effectively with others.
"Sebastian drinks too much."
"I suppose we both do."
"With you it does not matter. I have watched you together. With Sebastian it is different. He will be a drunkard if someone does not come to stop him. I have known so many. Alex was nearly a drunkard when he met me; it is in the blood. I see it in the way Sebastian drinks. It is not your way." (1.4.239-41)
Cara isn’t just saying that Sebastian drinks differently than Charles – she’s also telling Charles that he is nothing like his friend. Sebastian’s qualities – his eccentricities, his aesthetic awareness – these are unattainable attributes for Charles.
There were two girls there, contemporaries of Julia's; they all seemed involved in the management of the ball. Mulcaster knew them of old and they, without much relish I thought, knew him. Mrs. Champion talked to Rex. Sebastian and I found ourselves drinking alone together as we always did. (1.5.58)
Sebastian and Charles base their friendship on two things: drinking, and isolation from the rest of the world.
I had no mind then for anything except Sebastian, and I saw him already as being threatened, though I did not yet know how black was the threat. His constant, despairing prayer was to be let alone. By the blue waters and rustling palm of his own mind he was happy and harmless as a Polynesian; only when the big ship dropped anchor beyond the coral reef, and the cutter beached in the lagoon, and, up the golden slope that had never known the print of a boot there trod the grim invasion of trader, administrator, missionary and tourist – only then was it time to disinter the archaic weapons of the tribe and sound the drums in the hills; or, more easily, to turn from the sunlit door and lie alone in the darkness, where the impotent, painted deities paraded the walls in vain, and cough his heart out among the rum bottles. (1.5.205)
OK, we admit it: we just put this quote here so you would all read this gorgeous metaphor again. Sigh.
It was during this term that I began to realize that Sebastian was a drunkard in quite a different sense from myself. I got drunk often, but through an excess of high spirits, in the love of the moment, and the wish to prolong and enhance it; Sebastian drank to escape. As we together grew older and more serious I drank less, he more. I found that sometimes after I had gone back to my college, he sat up late and alone, soaking. (1.5.211)
This is precisely what Cara predicted earlier in the novel. Charles and Sebastian’s key differences are marked by the latter’s alcoholism, and their friendship is threatened by it.
Julia used to say, "Poor Sebastian. It's something chemical in him."
That was the cant phrase of the time, derived from heaven knows what misconception of popular science. "There's something chemical between them" was used to explain the overmastering hate or love of any two people. It was the old concept of determinism in a new form. I do not believe there was anything chemical in my friend. (1.5.211-3)
Charles doesn’t want to blame biology for Sebastian’s alcoholism. He (correctly?) identifies Sebastian’s family and religion as the source of his problem.
The Easter party at Brideshead was a bitter time, culminating in a small but unforgettably painful incident. Sebastian got very drunk before dinner in his mother's house, and thus marked the beginning of a new epoch in his melancholy record of deterioration, the first step in the flight from his family which brought him to ruin. (1.5.214)
Charles reveals information about Sebastian’s alcoholism as he slowly becomes aware of its causes. He earlier said that Sebastian drank to escape – now he has clarified his point further: Sebastian drinks to escape his family.
"No," said Brideshead, "I don't suppose you could. I once saw my father drunk, in this room. I wasn't more than about ten at the time. You can't stop people if they want to get drunk. My mother couldn't stop my father, you know." (1.5.268)
We can interpret the common thread here as Lady Marchmain, not as genetic predisposition to alcoholism.
"It's no good, Charles," she said. "All you can mean is that you have not as much influence or knowledge of him as I thought. It is no good either of us trying to believe him. I've known drunkards before. One of the most terrible things about them is their deceit. Love of truth is the first thing that goes." (1.5.375)
Lady Marchmain doesn’t seem to have much knowledge of Sebastian herself. He was always much more interested in beauty and happiness than he was in truth.
"Dear boy," said Lady Marchmain. "How nice to see you looking so well again. Your day in the open has done you good. The drinks are on the table; do help yourself."
There was nothing unusual in her speech but the fact of her saying it. Six months ago it would not have been said.
"Thanks," said Sebastian. "I will." (1.6.188-90)
Lady Marchmain has given up on controlling Sebastian’s drinking – but why? What pushed her over the edge this time?
Next morning I said to Sebastian: "Tell me honestly, do you want me to stay on here?"
"No, Charles, I don't believe I do."
"I'm no help?"
"No help." (1.6.202-5)
Charles is no help…with what? Sebastian’s family? His alcoholism? Religion? Depression? What is he referring to here?
"He came to Le Touquet at Easter and, in some extraordinary way, I seemed to have asked him to stay. Well, my mother is used to me, but my poor stepfather found Mulcaster very hard to understand. You see my stepfather is a d-d-dago and therefore has a very high opinion of the English aristocracy. He couldn't quite fit Mulcaster into his idea of a lord, and really I couldn't explain him; he lost some infinitesimal sum at cards, and as a result expected me to pay for all his treats." (1.2.30)
Mulcaster proves that aristocratic blood does not a gentleman make.
"That, my dear, seemed to put a little life into them, and up the stairs they came, clattering. About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats – a sort of livery. 'My dears,' I said to them, 'you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.'" (1.2.31)
Brideshead Revisited often makes fun of this sort of useless aristocratic tradition.
"I became very rich. It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in pagan Rome was necessarily something cruel; it's not any more." (1.5.202)
Lady Marchmain struggles with her faith the same way that her children do. She may give the impression of perfect holiness, but Charles sees that she, too, doubts her ability to be a good Catholic. Even still, she uses her religion as a way to justify her own material wealth.
When I first met her, when she met me in the station yard and drove me home through the twilight that high summer of 1923, she was just eighteen and fresh from her first London season.
Some said it was the most brilliant season since the war, that things were getting into their stride again. Julia, by right, was at the centre of it. […] the ball given for Julia […] was by all accounts a splendid spectacle. Sebastian went down for it and half-heartedly suggested my coming with him; I refused and came to regret my refusal, for it was the last ball of its kind given there; the last of a splendid series. (1.7.3-5)
Many critics have commented on Brideshead’s seeming nostalgia for aristocracy. Charles recognizes that the days of opulence and classism are coming to a close, and he fittingly places Julia right in the center of it. She is the symbol of beauty from a former time – not unlike the idea of her as a quattrocento beauty.
She outshone by far all the girls of her age, but she knew that, in that little world within a world which she inhabited, there were certain grave disabilities from which she suffered. […] There was the scandal of her father; they had all loved him in the past, the women along the wall, and they most of them loved her mother, yet there was that slight, inherited stain upon her brightness that seemed deepened by something in her own way of life – waywardness and willfulness, a less disciplined habit than most of her contemporaries' – that unfitted her for the highest honours; but for that, who knows? (1.7.13)
Remember Charles and Cordelia’s discussion of the word "thwarted"? This is what Julia is – all unfulfilled potential. Interestingly enough, Charles finds her all the more beautiful for this reason.
As it seemed to her, the thing was a dead loss. If she apostatized now, having been brought up in the Church, she would go to hell, while the Protestant girls of her acquaintance, schooled in happy ignorance, could marry eldest sons, live at peace with their world, and get to heaven before her. There could be no eldest son for her, and younger sons were indelicate things, necessary, but not to be much spoken of. […] There were of course the Catholics themselves, but these came seldom into the little world Julia had made for herself; those who did were her mother's kinsmen, who, to her, seemed grim and eccentric. Of the dozen or so wealthy and noble Catholic families, none at that time had an heir of the right age. Foreigners – there were many among her mother's family – were tricky about money, odd in their ways, and a sure mark of failure in the English girl who wed them. What was there left? (1.7.16)
Religion and class concerns run Julia’s life and restricts her choices, the same as it does for Sebastian.
Here I am, I thought, back from the jungle, back from the ruins. Here, where wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity. Quomodo sedet sola civitas (for I had heard that great lament, which Cordelia once quoted to me in the drawing-room of Marchmain House, sung by a half-caste choif in Guatemala, nearly a year ago). (2.1.101)
Charles has come back to England to discover the "charm" which Anthony claimed so devastated him and his art.
In token of her appreciation the chief purser had been asked to our party and he, in token of his appreciation, had sent before him the life-size effigy of a swan, moulded in ice and filled with caviar. This chilly piece of magnificence now dominated the room, standing on a table in the centre, thawing gently, dripping at the beak into its silver dish. The flowers of the morning delivery hid as much as possible of the panelling (for this room was a miniature of the monstrous hall above). (2.1.137)
Just like Rex’s diamond-encrusted tortoise, the ice swan filled with caviar is the perfect picture of vulgar extravagance. To Charles, who has just returned from the jungles of South America, this must seem a particularly despicable display of wealth.
"‘He is quite sane and quite in earnest. He wanted to go to the bush, as far away as he could get, among the simplest people, to the cannibals. The Superior said: 'We have no cannibals in our missions.' He said, well, pygmies would do, or just a primitive village somewhere on a river; or lepers – lepers would do best of anything.’" (2.4.75)
Sebastian’s desires are similar to Charles’s reasons for heading to South America: he wants to escape "British charm."
Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, […] in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; […] we had been through it together, the army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. […] She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly. (prologue.5)
Charles once called Sebastian the "forerunner" to his love for Julia, and wondered if everyone he loved successively was just a forerunner to something else. It looks like the army came after Julia; does the end of the novel leave any hope for a new love for Charles?
I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom. But I felt no need for these sophistries as I sat before my cousin […]. So I told him what was not in fact the truth, that I usually had a glass of champagne about that time, and asked him to join me. (1.2.21)
I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom. But I felt no need for these sophistries as I sat before my cousin […]. So I told him what was not in fact the truth, that I usually had a glass of champagne about that time, and asked him to join me. (1.2.21)
She so much resembled Sebastian that, sitting beside her in the gathering dusk, I was confused by the double illusion of familiarity and strangeness. Thus, looking through strong lenses one may watch a man approaching from afar, study every detail of his face and clothes, believe one has only to put out a hand to touch him, marvel that he does not hear one, and look up as one moves, and then seeing him with the naked eye suddenly remember that one is to him a distant speck, doubtfully human. I knew her and she did not know me. (1.3.116)
Charles’s love for Julia is only a misplaced desire for her brother Sebastian. He’s only attracted to her for her physical resemblance to him.
"It is a kind of love that comes to children before they know its meaning. In England it comes when you are almost men; I think I like that. It is better to have that kind of love for another boy than for a girl. Alex you see had it for a girl, for his wife." (1.4.229)
Is Cara correct in comparing Lord Marchmain’s love for his wife with Charles’s love for Sebastian? Does Charles ever come to despise Sebastian the way Lord Marchmain does his wife? Or is he spared this emotion because Sebastian is another man?
She had made a preposterous little picture of the kind of man who would do […] and she was in search of him when she met me at the railway station. I was not her man. She told me as much, without a word, when she took the cigarette from my lips. (1.7.18)
Julia isn’t capable of loving Charles when she first meets him because she hasn’t grown up yet. It’s not until she realizes how silly her preconceptions about love and marriage are, and how absurd her prerequisites for a husband, that she becomes an adult.
All this I learned about Julia, bit by bit, from the stories she told, from guesswork, knowing her, from what her friends said, from the odd expressions she now and then let slip, from occasional dreamy monologues of reminiscences; I learned it as one does learn the former – as it seems at the time, the preparatory – life of a woman one loves, so that one thinks of oneself as part of it, directing it by devious ways, towards oneself. (1.7.19)
Notice how Charles hints at his eventual love affair with Julia before we are told of it explicitly.
From being agreeable, he became indispensable to her; from having been proud of him in public she became a little ashamed, but by that time, between Christmas and Easter, he had become indispensable. And then, without in the least expecting it, she suddenly found herself in love. (1.7.28)
Julia’s love with Rex stems from convenience, whereas for love for Charles is one of deep emotional need.
"You didn't wonder if I should have fallen in love with someone else in the meantime?"
"No. Have you?"
"You know I haven't. Have you?"
"No. I'm not in love." (2.1.51-4)
Talk about a loaded conversation. Charles doesn’t mean that he hasn’t fallen in love with anyone else; he means that he isn’t in love at all – even with his wife.
"I'm glad about the roses," said Julia. "Frankly, they were a shock. They made me think we were starting the day on quite the wrong footing."
I knew what she meant, and in that moment felt as though I had shaken off some of the dust and grit of ten dry years; then and always, however she spoke to me – in half sentences, single words, stock phrases of contemporary jargon, in scarcely perceptible movements of eyes or lips or hands – however inexpressible her thought, however quick and far it had glanced from the matter in hand, however deep it had plunged, as it often did, straight from the surface to the depths, I knew; even that day when I still stood on the extreme verge of love, I knew what she meant. (2.1.290-1)
Love in Brideshead Revisited is all about the ability to communicate. Charles and Sebastian shared this, and now he and Julia have the same bond.
Perhaps […] all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.
I had not forgotten Sebastian. He was with me daily in Julia; or rather it was Julia I had known in him, in those distant, Arcadian days. (2.4.67-8)
If what Charles says is true – if people like Sebastian and Julia are merely temporary vessels for some sort of lifelong emotion – does that undermine or devalue his relationships with them?
"You and Julia . . ."she said. And then, as we moved on towards the house, "When you met me last night did you think, 'Poor Cordelia, such an engaging child, grown up a plain and pious spinster, full of good works'? Did you think 'thwarted'?"
It was no time for prevarication. "Yes," I said, "I did; I don't now, so much."
"It's funny," she said, "that's exactly the word I thought of for you and Julia. When we were up in the nursery with Nanny. Thwarted passion,' I thought." (2.4.97-100)
Compare this to Anthony’s description of Charles’s paintings from South America – he seems to think that Charles’s talent has been "thwarted," too. Looks like more of that connection between love and art.