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.