Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh

Commentary Part 1


Charles Ryder is a Captain in the army. His brigade move and Charles wakes up to find himself at Brideshead, "a name so familiar…a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight" (21). Brideshead is a house that he knew well and the rest of the book deals with his memories of it and its inhabitants.


Charles goes to Oxford. At first, he spends time in the company of very dry academics which he refers to as "these grey figures" (39). It is by curious chance that he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte, son of Lord Marchmain. They do not exchange words. Sebastian vomits into his room through an open window. Despite this inauspicious introduction, their friendship blossoms. They have a very strong common desire. Charles says, "…but I was in search of love in those days" (32). It is a platonic love, romanticism, not the homosexual desire of Anthony Blanche. Cara, Lord Marchmain's mistress describes it later as "these romantic friendships of the English and Germans…a kind of love that comes to children before they know it's meaning" (98).

In their first year at Oxford, they find such love and indulge "the languor of youth" (77). They enjoy a riotous and romantic life of carefree frivolity - walking among the Botanical gardens, eating plovers eggs and drinking fine wines; adorning their rooms with beautiful paintings, trinkets and furniture; drinking Sauternes, eating Strawberries and smoking Turkish cigarettes "on a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms" (26). Charles' cousin, Jasper provides the parodied voice of reality, reason and responsibility. But Charles is living in a romantic world devoid of these 'three R's'. In his room sits a skull on a bed of roses with the words "Et in Arcadia ego" inscribed on its forehead. Jasper's words are a parody of the world that he has escaped. His world seems at the time more real, "I could match my cousin Jasper's game-cock maturity with a sturdier fowl. I could tell him that all the wickedness of that time was like the spirit they mix with Douro…I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom…" (46).

He suffers another 'reality check' when he returns home for the long vacation having spent his allowance. He is alone with his father, without the means to escape. He receives a letter from Sebastian, who reminds him of the world that he inhabits at Oxford. He reads the letter, written on "heavy late-Victorian mourning paper, black-coroneted and black-bordered" (70) and the contrast is painfully as he looks out of the window onto his world of normality, "the grimy gardens and irregular backs of Bayswater…the jumble of soil-pipes and fire-escapes and protuberant little conservatories" (70). He rips the letter up and throws it away. He develops a resentful hate of Sebastian but it is short-lived for Sebastian rescues him, inviting him to stay at his family house, Brideshead Castle. There, Charles can return to the romantic world that he seeks. They travel together to Venice to visit Lord Marchmain, where Charles "drowns in honey" among the canals and buildings.

This life, divorced from the humdrum cares of reality cannot be sustained. They return to Oxford in the autumn for their second year and things are different, "There was a change in both of us. We had lost that sense of discovery that had infused the anarchy of our first year" (102). They become withdrawn and cease to mix with other students. The change in Charles, however, is constructive. He adapts to the changing scene and finds ways to cope with reality. He becomes more studious and, in particular, starts attending classes at the Ruskin school of Art. Sebastian, however, does not adapt, "With Sebastian it was different. His year of anarchy had filled a deep, interior need of his, the escape from reality, and as he found himself hemmed in, where he once felt himself free, he became at times listless and morose, even with me" (103). The difference lies in what they are searching for and what they have lost. Charles is searching for a romantic Arcadia, the "enchanted garden" that lies behind "the low door in the wall" (32). Sebastian is, as Cara says, "in love with his own childhood" (100).

Charles meets Lady Marchmain and is invited to spend the Christmas vacation at Brideshead. It is no repetition of the happy summer that Charles and Sebastian spent there alone. It is clear that Sebastian has a problem with his family, his mother in particular. They eventually retreat to Charles' home in London. When they return to Oxford for the Easter term, there is still no rediscovery of the charmed life they had led in the first year, "…we took up again the life that seemed to be shrinking in the cold air". The life that they had led is, as Charles says, "irrecoverably lost" (77), an Arcadia "irrecoverable as Lyonesse" (23). "The sadness that had been strong in Sebastian the term before gave place to a kind of sullenness even towards me…When he was gay now it was usually because he was drunk…" (124). Sebastian is becoming an alcoholic and, during Charles' visit to Brideshead during the Easter vacation, he can no longer conceal it. Lady Marchmain's approach to Sebastian's problem is to try and control him. It is precisely this control from which Sebastian is trying to escape. Lady Marchmain attempts to use Charles to control him, "an attempt had been made to suborn me…" (133) but he realises that control is completely the wrong approach and he refuses to become her agent, "No, I'm with you, 'Sebastian contra mundum'" (135).

The summer term brings no warmth for Sebastian, "…the shadows were closing around Sebastian…there was midwinter in Sebastian's heart" (135). Lady Marchmain sees that she has failed with Charles and tries other ways to assert some sort of control over Sebastian. Drink remain his only means of escape. When the Junior Dean finds him, hopelessly drunk, the ultimatum arrives: if Sebastian wishes to stay at Oxford, he must go and live with Monsignor Bell, an 'agent' of Lady Marchmain. Sebastian wishes to escape from his mother's control, particularly the religious obligations that she foists upon him, so this is clearly not an option. In a final act of defiance, Charles and Sebastian get very drunk together, 'contra mundum' and Sebastian is taken away from Oxford. He is sent abroad on a 'grand tour' under the supervision of Mr. Samgrass, an Oxford academic and friend of Lady Marchmain. Charles' only friend has left. By the time he returns home at the end of the term, he has decided to leave also.


Charles goes to Paris to study art. He returns at Christmas and, again, visits Brideshead. Sebastian and Mr. Samgrass have returned and Mr. Samgrass is at great pains to give a seamless and diverting account of their foreign travels. It transpires, however, that Sebastian had escaped from his clutches and had spent his time drinking with Anthony Blanche, a contemporary of his at Oxford. He has not been cured of his dipsomania; his desire to escape has not been quelled. Returning from his freedom abroad, it is all the stronger. Lady Marchmain imposes strict measures: Sebastian's drinks are carefully rationed at home and he is given no money so he cannot buy his own. Nevertheless, he manages to evade her control. Charles gives him money for he realises that Lady Marchmain's attempts to control Sebastian are the cause, not the cure for Sebastian's behaviour.

Charles understands that he can no longer be part of the Arcadian world that Sebastian seeks. When Charles first visits Brideshead, Sebastian says, "I'm not going to have you get mixed up with my family…If they once got hold of you with their charm, they'd make you their friend not mine and I won't let them" (38). But it is unavoidable. "She [Lady Marchmain] 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" (105). He has been corrupted. He has entered the world from which Sebastian is trying to escape. When Cara talks of their "romantic friendship", she says, "I think they are good if they don't go on too long" (98). Now, Charles asks 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.'" (162)

Their "romantic friendship" of less than two years is over. Charles leaves, "A door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford; open it now and I should find no enchanted garden…I had left behind me - what? Youth? Adolescence? Romance? …I have left behind illusion" (163f.). Charles consigns himself to the "real world": "Hence forth I live in a world of three dimensions - with the aid of my five senses" (164).

Charles gone, Sebastian is left drinking himself out of his mother's clutches with the help of his little sister, Cordelia, who smuggles whisky for him. Sebastian's other sister, Julia, has a boyfriend called Rex Mottram, an ambitious and confident man. He argues that the only cure for Sebastian is to go to Borethus at Zurich, "Borethus is the man. He works miracles every day at that sanatorium of his" (159). Rex's understanding of Sebastian's problems is completely mistaken. His understanding is formed by the precepts of the world in which he lives, a very different world to the Marchmains. Lady Marchmain understands her son better than that - she understands at least his background - and is rightly sceptical of Rex's proposal. Eventually though, she despairs and takes Rex's advice. Sebastian is sent to Borethus at Zurich with Rex as his guardian. But Rex, for all his big talk, fails. On their way to Zurich, Sebastian slips away as he snoozes, unsuspecting, his head resting peacefully on the table of a Parisian restaurant.

Charles returns to find Rex waiting in his apartment. "Have you got him?", Rex asks (165), and thus the world of Brideshead that Charles had resolutely put behind him returns to haunt him. What follows is an amusing and interesting scene between Charles and Rex that highlights the different worlds in which they live. As Lady 'Ma' Marchmain had said to Rex, "We live in different atmospheres" (169). As they talk and eat, it is clear that Rex and Charles live for different things, they breathe different air. "Those were the kinds of thing he heard, mortal illness and debt," Charles thinks, "I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind had learned another wisdom than his…but sentences came breaking in on my happiness, recalling me to the harsh, acquisitive world which Rex inhabited" (169). Later Julia speaks about Rex, "He wasn't a complete human being at all…he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of man pretending he was whole" (193). Charles' dinner with Rex begins with the question, "Any sign of Sebastian?" (166). It ends with Rex talking about Julia, "his voice…like a dog's barking miles away on a still night", Rex "at peace with his world", Charles "at peace in another world than his" (171). And so, the book moves from Charles' relationship with Sebastian to Charles' relationship with Julia.

Chapter 2 relates what Charles learned of Julia and her relationship and marriage to Rex. Written in retrospect, ("it was ten years later that she said this to me in a storm in the Atlantic" (193)), he describes the young Julia, her romantic notions of marriage and her relationship with Rex. Particularly amusing is the account of Rex's conversion to Catholicism (184-7) which shows the lack of depth in his character. It is also very important as one of the contrasting examples of attitudes towards religion and the nature of faith. Every major character is or becomes a Catholic and this is the most important theme of the book. The nature of Rex's faith, if you can call it faith, is relatively easy to understand - it is merely a means to an end, the end being marriage to Julia with a fashionable service, conducted by cardinals, etc. - but this passage also sheds light on Julia's faith. Her faith is much more complicated, an odd compromise between God's will and hers.

Charles returns to the proper chronology of his memories. He leaves Paris for London in the spring of 1926, the time of the General Strike. He meets up with Anthony Blanche and Boy Mulcaster, both old friends of his from his Oxford days. He explains that he has returned "from overseas, rallying to old country in need" (198). He is again among his friends from Arcadia, his mind, again reeling with romantic notions of duty and patriotism. "…I, at any rate, had formed in my mind a clear, composite picture of 'Revolution'- the red flag on the post office, the overturned tram…" (194) and inevitably, he and Blanche talk of Sebastian. Blanche tells him that Sebastian had stayed with him in Marseilles after he left the snoozing Rex, "such a sot…Sip, sip, sip like a dowager all day long. And so sly…" (195f.). From there Sebastian had gone to Tangier and "there, my dear, Sebastian took up with his new friend" (196). Blanche describes Sebastian's new friend, Kurt, "like a footman in Warning Shadows - a great clod of a German who'd been in the foreign legion… Sebastian found him, starving as a tout to one of the houses in the Kasbah, and brought him to stay with us. It was too macabre…" (196f.).