Study Guide

Brideshead Revisited Society and Class

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Society and Class

"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."

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