Brideshead Revisited

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1923: After an unpleasant chance first encounter, protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder, a student at Hertford College, Oxford University, and Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of an aristocratic family and himself an undergraduate at Christ Church, become friends. Sebastian takes Charles to his family’s palatial home, Brideshead, where Charles eventually meets the rest of Sebastian’s family, including his sister Julia.

During the holiday Charles returns home, where he lives with his widower father. Scenes between Charles and his father Ned (Edward) provide some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel. He is called back to Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury. Sebastian and Charles spend the remainder of the summer together. They form something between a friendship and a romance. Waugh writes that Charles had been “in search of love in those days” when he first met Sebastian, finding “that low door in the wall… which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden”, a metaphor that informs the work on a number of levels.

Sebastian’s family is Catholic, which influences the Marchmains’ lives as well as the content of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles, who had always assumed Christianity to be “without substance or merit”. Lord Marchmain had converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in order to marry his wife but soon escaped both his marriage and religion to Italy. Left alone, Lady Marchmain focused even more on her faith, which is also very much espoused by her eldest son, Bridey, and her youngest daughter, Cordelia. Sebastian, in some ways a troubled young man, seems to find greater solace in alcohol than in religion, and descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where the disease ruins his health. He eventually finds some solace as an under-porter/charity case at a Tunisian monastery.

The plot concludes in the early Spring of 1943 (or possibly 1944 – the date is disputed)[1]. Charles is “homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless”[2]. He is now an army officer after establishing a career as an architectural artist, and finds himself unexpectedly billeted at Brideshead. Charles finds the house damaged by the military occupation but the private chapel, closed after Lady Marchmain’s death in 1926, has been reopened for the soldiers’ worship. It occurs to him that the chapel (and, by extension, the Church’s) builders’ efforts were not in vain, even when their purposes may appear, for a time, to be frustrated[3].

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