Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh

Commentary Part 2

Charles and Blanche part. What action Charles sees in the General Strike is nothing like the romantic picture that he had envisaged. The General Strike ends and, again, he returns to "live in a world of three dimensions". But, as he said when he left Brideshead, "life has few separations as sharp as that" (164). His brief return to the world of romanticism is once again terminated but a thread is left uncut. Julia hears that he is in London and contacts him. Lady Marchmain is dying and she wants to see Sebastian. Charles leaves for Morocco. "Morocco was a new and strange country to me. Driving that day, mile after mile up the smooth, strategic road…new, white settlements and the early crops standing high in vast, open fields…hoardings advertising the staples of France - Dubonnet, Michelin, Magazin du Louvre - I had thought it all very suburban and up-to-date; now, under the stars, in the walled city, whose streets were gently, dusty stairways, and whose walls rose windowless on either side, closed overhead, then opened again to the stars…" (202). He finds himself in Sebastian's "enchanted garden" and says so, "…now, I knew what had drawn Sebastian here and held him so long". Here was a city uncorrupted by the modern age, preserved, a wonderland free from the "harsh, acquisitive world" of Rex, "where the dust lay thick among the smooth paving stones and figures passed silently, robed in white, on soft slippers or hard, bare sole; where the air was scented with cloves and incense and wood-smoke…" (202).

Charles finds Sebastian's house but he is not there, only Kurt. Kurt talks a little about his past, studying history at a German university, "Then one day we said: 'What the hell? There is no work in Germany. Germany is down the drain'… and we went away and walked and walked…" (204). He might be the antithesis of Sebastian in his looks ("wolfish") and his charm may be rather more difficult to detect ("his sibilants came sometimes with a disconcerting whistle, which he covered with a giggle") but he shares the same despair of the modern world, the same romantic quest, the same code of imperatives that had governed Sebastian's life in Oxford ("I must have pillar-box red pyjamas"), "Then we said: 'There is no army in Germany, but we must be tholdiers,' so we joined the Legion". Just as Charles' romantic notions of the military world were shattered during the Great Strike, so too were his, "My friend died of dysentery…When he was dead, I said, 'What the hell?' so I shot my foot…" - his escape, like Sebastian's is at the expense of his health.

Charles discovers, finally, that Sebastian is in hospital. He goes to visit him. "…so patient…never complains…so kind…A real Samaritan", the monk tells him. "Poor simple monk…poor booby", Charles thinks. "Your friend is so much happier today, it is like one transfigured", the monk says. "Poor simple monk…poor booby", Charles thinks again but the monk continues, "You know why? He has a bottle of cognac". Sebastian speaks for himself, "You know, Charles, it's rather a pleasant change when all your life you've had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself" (205-7). Charles does not realise until later that this is the key to understanding Sebastian. He had said it himself, years ago, to Jasper, "that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom" (46). "God forgive me!" he says, realising that the monk was not so naïve. When Sebastian returns home to Kurt, Charles offers to fetch some cigarettes for Kurt. "No, that's my job" says Sebastian. "Yeth, I reckon that's Sebastian's job", Kurt confirms (208). Charles leaves them and returns to London to see Brideshead to discuss the matter of an allowance for Sebastian. He presents the facts and Brideshead decides, "Then he must have the allowance as you suggest. The matter is quite clear" (209). It is clear, black and white like the catechism. As he is leaving, Brideshead nonchalantly suggests that Charles might like to paint Marchmain house, which is to be demolished, to be replaced by a block of flats. It is Charles' first commission and the beginning of his career as an architectural painter.

Cordelia watches him as he paints the drawing-room and, that evening, they go out to dinner. It is a very important passage in the book. Though she is only fifteen, excited by her time that she had been taken out to a restaurant alone, into her "convent chatter" she unwittingly makes a number of very important points that stick in Charles' mind. She tells him that the chapel at Brideshead was closed after her mother's requiem mass. She watched the priest take out the altar stone, empty the tabernacle and holy water stoop, blow out the lamp in the sanctuary, burn the wads of wool holy oil on them and throw the ash outside. "Then suddenly, there wasn't any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room" (212). She tries to explain to Charles how it felt by quoting the chant, "Quomodo sedet sola civitas…". It sticks in Charles' mind, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity", as he looks back over his memories, of the early days of Arcadia, of his relationship with Julia, of the houses that he has painted.

She talks of her family and their religion, of her father, Sebastian and Julia all "gone" from the church but she is confident, "God won't let them go for long, you know". She reminds him of the story that her mother had read to them, "Father Brown said something like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the earth and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread'" (212). Incidentally the story referred to is "The Queer Feet" in The Innocence of Father Brown by G K Chesterton. She talks of Bridey and vocation, "If you haven't a vocation it's no good however much you want [one]; and if you have a vocation, you can't get away from it, however much you hate it".

Finally, she talks of her late mother, "I sometimes think when people wanted to hate God they hated mummy…Well, you see she was saintly, but she wasn't a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can't really hate God either, When they want to hate him and his saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it's God and hate that. I suppose you think that's all bosh" (213). "I heard almost the same thing once before - from some one very different", Charles replies, remembering his conversation with Cara in Venice: "He hates her (Lady Marchmain); but you have no conception how he hates her…Sebastian hates her too…they are full of hate - hate of themselves…When people hate with all that energy, it is something in themselves they are hating (99f.)". Charles remembers this but the inspiration that he experienced painting Marchmain house that afternoon has overwhelmed him, "I had felt my brush take life that afternoon; I had had my finger in the succulent pie of creation. I was a man of the Renaissance that evening -". The romantic in him had once again been awoken, " of Browning's renaissance. I, who had walked the streets of Rome in Genoa velvet and had seen stars through Gallileo's tube…". There is no part for God, his grace or his will, in this fantasy, in the pie of creation that he has got hold of, "…spurned the friars, with their dusty tomes and sunken, jealous eyes and their crabbed hair- splitting speech" (213).


The third book is set ten years later than his dinner with Cordelia. Charles' career as an architectural artist takes off and he is very successful. He publishes three folios, Ryder's Country Seats, Ryder's English Homes, Ryder's Village and Provincial Architecture. Though, as he says, "I seldom failed to please, for there was no conflict between myself and my patrons; we both wanted the same thing" (216), he refers to this period later as the "dead" (243). He and his patrons were living in a changing world and adapting to it. Their houses were being pulled down, he was painting them as a record of the lost past. "But, as the years passed, I began to mourn the loss of something I had known in the drawing-room of Marchmain house and once or twice since, the intensity and singleness and the belief that it was not all done by hand - in a word, the inspiration" (216). He had been living in the "world of three dimensions", his five senses serving him well. He married Celia, sister of 'Boy' Mulcaster and they had two children. He had gone abroad, to Latin America, an escape "In quest of this fading light…two year's refreshment among alien styles" (216). On his return, he is not enthusiastic: "It's just another jungle closing in", he says (221). Then he meets Julia. This book charts the consummation of their relationship, a latent love that had murmured unheard since their first meeting, "as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers, I caught a thin bat's squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me" (74).

They are on the same boat back to England from America. As Charles wanders around the ship, surveying the lavish décor, he is reminded of Cordelia's quote, "Quomodo sedet sola civitas", "Here I am, back from the jungle where wealth has no splendour and power has no dignity" (225) and it is among this splendourless wealth that he bumps into Julia. "…she spoke as though it were a matter of weeks rather than of years; as though, too, before out parting we had been firm friends…dead contrary to the common experience of such encounters…Here, she and I, who were never friends before, met on terms of long and unbroken intimacy" (226). Their conversation is no outpouring, no tearful confessions of love, but rather the normal humdrum biographical update between people that have not seen each other a long time. They remark that the other has changed: Charles has become, "so lean and grim; not at all the pretty boy Sebastian brought home with him. Harder, too" (227); "And you're softer", Charles says, "Sadder too". "Oh yes, much sadder", she replies (228).

On the boat, Julia and Charles are able to spend a lot of time alone together because a storm brews up and the majority of passengers are confined to their beds with seasickness. During an amusing but painful meal at the Captain's table, an "Episcopalian Bishop" sitting next to Charles turns to him and says "The speech of the coming century is in thoughts not in words. Do you not agree, Mr. Ryder?" (235). Though Charles's reply, "Yes, Yes" is merely a polite agreement, his first conversation with Julia left a lot thought that was unsaid. During supper with the Bishop and company, Charles is reminded of King Lear. The storm breaks and soon only Julia, Charles and his wife are left seating there. "Telepathically", Julia says, "Like King Lear" (236). There is a similar unspoken understanding a little later and Charles confirms, "I knew what she meant… 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…I knew; even that day when I still stood on the extreme verge of love, I knew what she meant" (241). And so, at the height of the storm, Charles and Julia become lovers. Charles finds a new "enchanted garden": "Now on the rough water there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure" (248).

When they return, Charles holds an exhibition for his paintings. They are well received, "If you had asked me to guess, Ryder's is the last name that would have occurred to me. They're so virile and passionate" (255). His wife works relentlessly, flitting from one guest to another, dealing out little gems like, "Charles lives for one thing - Beauty. I think he got bored finding it ready-made in England; he had to go and create it for himself…" (254). Her account of the "human story" of Charles' journey is wonderfully wrong - and right - "Charles "Stately Homes" Ryder steps off the map. That the snakes and vampires of the jungle have nothing on Mayfair is the opinion of socialite artist Ryder, who has abandoned the houses of the great for the ruins of equatorial Africa…" (254). More interesting is the criticism receives from Anthony Blanche. Of his earlier work, he tells Charles, "'Charles has done something,' I said, 'not all he will do, not all he can do, but something'". Of his most recent paintings, he says, "It was charm, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers" (260). He thus charts Charles seduction, a seduction that he had warned Charles against when they were at Oxford. "I was right years ago…when I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. Charm is the great English blight…It spots and kills everything it touches". Sebastian himself had said of his mother, "Poor Mummy. She was a femme fatale, wasn't she? She killed at a touch" (206). Anthony Blanche continues, "It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you" (260).

Celia soon discovers Charles's infidelity. He stays with Julia at Brideshead, their peace only interrupted by Rex and his "Brideshead set" and a few periods of separation due to illness or Charles' family duties. Chapter 3 begins, "Do you remember…" (263). "So much to remember," she says. "How many days have there been since then, when we haven't seen each other; a hundred, do you think?" she continues, "How many more? Another hundred?" (264). On this rare and very significant occasion, their thoughts fail to keep pace. "A lifetime" Charles replies. This is the turning point. Though there is no lack of love between them, there is a greater love, that of God that will keep them apart. When Cordelia speaks to Charles later in the book, she describes Charles and Julia's romance as "thwarted passion" (295). She, like Sebastian, is but a forerunner, a forerunner for Charles' ultimate and only love: God.

This emerges slowly. There is no rending of curtains yet. They continue in their romantic world, plan to get married and set about divorcing their respective spouses. The first intimation of God's entry and division of their world come from Brideshead. In his characteristically tactless manner he refers their relationship as "living in sin" (272). She leaves the room, crying, and Charles reprimands Brideshead for being so offensive. Brideshead replies simply, clear-cut, "I was merely stating a fact that was well known to her".

She does know it and that is the root of the problem. It is not just Brideshead's understanding of the facts, it is hers' too. "He's quite right…bought…for a penny at the church door. You can get anything for there for a penny, in black and white, and nobody to see that you pay…Put a penny in the box, or not, just as you like; take your tract. There you've got it in black and white…one little, flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime…sin. A word from so long ago, from Nanny Hawkins…Mummy carrying my sin with her to church…Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it…No way back; the gates barred; the angels and saints posted along the wall…" (272ff.). As suddenly as she began, she stops and returns to congratulate Brideshead on his engagement. When Charles shows her Holman Hunt's picture, 'The Awakened Conscience', she laughs, saying "You're perfectly right. That's exactly how it felt" (274).

Charles does not understand. He tries to comfort her during her outburst on mortal sin but she has entered a world that is as strange to him as the world that Rex inhabits, "I was adrift in a strange sea…I was as far from her in spirit…as when years ago I had lit her cigarette on the way from the station" (276). He tries to explain this outburst in psychological terms of preconditioning and guilt. "you do know at heart that it's all bosh, don't you" he asks and she replies "How I wish it was!" (276). He is no closer to a real understanding than when he had asked Sebastian the same question and received the same reply, "Is it all nonsense? I wish it were" (84). Charles does not understand Julia's conscience or faith, nor is she at ease with either. She reacts violently, when he talks in abstract terms, of "Estrangement and misunderstanding" in act two: "Why must you see everything second-hand? Why must my conscience be a pre-Raphaelite picture?…I hate it" (277), she says, swiping at his face with a thin branch. Julia is tries to draft a compromise between her will - to marry Charles - and God's, just as she had done when she wished to marry Rex (182). She argues that she has gone too far, "All I can hope to do is to put my life in order in a human way, before all human order comes to an end. That's why I want to marry you" (276).

Cordelia returns. She brings news of Sebastian - that he has returned to Catholicism, that Kurt had recovered and returned to Germany but had been sent to a concentration camp where he had hanged himself. She says of Sebastian, "He was a very holy old man and recognized it in others". "Holiness", Charles asks. "Oh yes, Charles, that's what you've got to understand about Sebastian" (291). She recognizess that Charles romance with her sister is "thwarted" and he begins to recognize it also. An image comes to him of an avalanche building up in the midst of which sits a hut, "everything dry and ship-shape and warm inside". The pressure of the avalanche slowly mounts until finally it gives way. The hut is broken up, splintered and disappears, "rolling with the avalanche into the ravine" (296).

Next to return is Lord Marchmain, now an old man and a dying man. He has returned to die and asks for the huge ornamental 'Queen's bed' to be assembled in the Chinese drawing room. Cara had once told Charles that Lord Marchmain was in love with his own childhood and now, Charles asks himself, "Had it come to him at that moment, an awakened memory of childhood, a dream in the nursery - 'When I'm grown up I'll sleep in the Queen's bed in the Chinese drawing-room' - the apotheosis of adult grandeur?" (301). As he lies, slowly dying, other childhood memories come back along with a catalogue of family history. He talks of the titles held by his family, "We were knights then, barons since Agincourt, the larger honours came with the Georges. They came the last and they'll go the first. When you are all dead, Julia's son will be called by the name his fathers bore before the fat days…" (317). Charles fails once again to understand: 'He's got a wonderful will to live, hasn't he?' he says. "Would you put it like that?" asks the doctor, "I should say he has a great fear of death" (316). Charles does not see beyond the delicate mask, the elegy, "From dust we came and to dust we shall return".

Lord Marchmain talks also of escape and freedom. He feels increasingly trapped, like the oxygen in its bottle. Cara told Charles in Venice that Lord Marchmain loves her because she protects him from Lady Marchmain; that his hate for Lady Marchmain is, in fact a hate of himself (99f.). Cordelia told Charles that people hated Lady Marchmain when they wanted to hate God (213). As death approaches, Lord Marchmain can no longer escape to the Cara's protective bosom. He, alone, has to face up to God, to his sin. "Next to death, perhaps because they are like death, he feared dark and loneliness…he liked to have us in his room and the lights burnt all night" (316). As he struggles, those around him struggle for him, Brideshead fiercely determined that he should receive the last rites, Charles vehemently determined that he shouldn't. His vehemence suggests, perhaps, an underlying insecurity, a growing doubt that it is all "bosh", a growing faith. Julia is unsure but she is angered by Charles' objections. Eventually, she calls a priest who asks Lord Marchmain to give some outward sign that he is repentant. "I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign…I prayed more simply; 'God forgive him his sins…Please God, make him accept you forgiveness.'…Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition" (322). Charles finally understands. "…a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom" (322). His love of Julia has led him to a love of God. Like Sebastian, Julia was a forerunner for a deeper love.

Lord Marchmain dies and with him Charles and Julia's romance. She explains to him, "I've always been bad…But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him…I saw today there was one thing unforgivable…that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's" (324). She doesn't expect him to understand but he does. The avalanche that has been building up within him has given way. The log cabin, Charles's warm world insulated from God's will, has been swept away, "the last echoes died on the white slopes; the new mound glittered and lay still in the silent valley".


Charles lays his memories to rest and the story comes up-to-date. Charles 'revisit' to Brideshead is in the present, not the past. Charles sees it in the harsh light of the modern world. The beautiful grounds are seen as having "great potentialities for an assault course and a mortar range" (325), the solid buildings show signs of modern vandalism, "Look where one careless devil went smack through the box hedge and carried away all that balustrade". The fountain, as Lord Marchmain had predicted on his death-bed, is dry, and its basin has become a rubbish dumb. Nanny Hawkins is still there but greatly aged. Among these ruins of what was once his Arcadia, Charles turns to Hooper and tells him, "I never built anything, and I forfeited the right to watch my son grow up. I'm homeless childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper" (330). Of course, Hooper doesn't understand.

Charles goes to the chapel, the last place that he has to revisit, the last place that he reached and the most enduring: "The chapel showed no ill-effects of its long neglect; the art nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar. I said a prayer, an ancient newly-learned form of words" (330). As he walks towards the camp, the cookhouse bugles heralding the immediate concerns of the present, he thinks, "The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend…generation after generation, they enriched and extended it…until, in sudden frost, came the age of Hooper; the place was desolate and the work all brought nothing; Quomodo sedet sola civitas. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

"And yet…and yet that is not the last word…Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played;…a small red flame…" (330). Brideshead might seem a sad story but, despite their sadness, the "tragedians" have all found faith, the little red flame burns. As Lady Marchmain says much earlier in the book, of another story, "I suppose, really, it's meant to be an encouraging story" (160). She is mocking Rex but if she had considered the story in the same terms as Rex, she would realise that he is genuinely being positive. Similarly, if we consider Brideshead on the same terms as Waugh - in Catholic terms - it is not tragic but positive: "'You're looking unusually cheery today,' said the second-in-command."