Study Guide

Brideshead Revisited Family

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"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.

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