On the surface, Brideshead is a simple story of friendship gone awry. Charles Ryder, while an undergraduate at Oxford, meets and becomes friends with Lord Sebastian Flyte, second son of Lord Marchmain. Brideshead is Sebastian’s family seat, inhabited by his mother, elder brother, and sister. Lord Marchmain, who converted to Catholicism in order to marry Sebastian’s mother, has renounced both his church and his marriage, and moved to Venice to be with his mistress. So abandoned, Lady Marchmain finds ever deeper solace in her faith.
A late convert to Catholicism himself, it isn’t surprising Waugh explored the religion in his work. A rash marriage at 24 was to cause him a great deal of trouble following his conversion. His first wife admitted to an affair after only a year, and Waugh filed for divorce two months later, after a failed attempt at reconciliation. Four years later, however, now staunchly Catholic and wanting to wed again, Waugh initiated proceedings to have his first marriage completely annulled. It took three years for Rome to give approval, although Waugh was by that point already engaged. He married his second wife the following spring, and their first child was born eleven months later, in 1938.The complications thrown up by past divorces when wishing to marry Catholic plague the Flyte family as they plagued Waugh himself. Lord Marchmain had converted to Catholicism for his wife, and when Sebastian’s sister, Julia, takes a husband, he intended to convert as well, until it transpires he’s already divorced. Instead, Julia marries Rex in an Anglican ceremony, to her mother’s great distress. Charles’s marriage is also a disaster, although not because of religion, but because of the other great distress in Waugh’s own life: his wife is unfaithful. When Rex turns out not to be everything Julia wished he was, she embarks on a passionate affair with Charles, and the two plan to divorce their spouses in order to marry (although obviously not as Catholics).
The central relationship is, however, that between Charles and Sebastian. Charles had been “in search of love in those days” at Oxford, and the pair quickly become close. Sebastian was handsome and intelligent, and Charles is charmed by his insistence on taking his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere he goes. Sebastian introduces Charles to an entirely different set of people: aristocratic, witty, and overtly queer.
Charles and Sebastian grow closer while at Oxford, and spend a long summer holiday together at Brideshead, engaging in “naughtiness” of the sort “high on the catalogue of grave sins”. Unlike when narrating some of Sebastian’s friends — most notably Anthony Blanche — Waugh is coy when it comes to discussing the exact nature of their relationship. At the very least, it was an intense romantic friendship which reached its zenith during that long and idyllic summer; it could easily have been something more.After that summer, however, things begin to fall apart. Always willing to find a reason to drink, Sebastian descends into alcoholism, withdrawing from Charles and his family alike. He enters self-imposed exile in Morocco — a significant location, given its reputation as a popular site for queer sex tourism at this period — and when Charles tracks him down he finds him living on charity in a Tunisian monastery.
As the certainty of a second world war looms, Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead, terminally ill and determined to die in his ancestral home. Unhappy with both his son’s choices, he names Julia his heir, reaffirms his belief in Catholicism, receives the sacraments, and dies. For a moment, it looks like Charles will become the new owner of Brideshead once his marriage to Julia goes ahead, but moved by her father’s deathbed return to faith, Julia decides she cannot enter into a marriage with Charles which would be forbidden by the church. She breaks their engagement, and Charles loses contact with the Flyte family.
The narrative picks up again in the present day (1943). Charles — “homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless” — has enlisted as an officer and finds himself billeted to Brideshead (during both World Wars, many of England’s stately homes were put to use as officer housing, temporary hospitals, or recuperation homes). As he wanders around the house he once knew so well, now damaged and stripped out, he relives the time he spent there, pleased to discover that the chapel, shut up after the old Lord’s death, has been reopened and there are soldiers praying.
Born on this day: Luke Clippinger (44, American), politician; Chad Beguelin (46, American), playwright; JD Doyle (68, American), radio producer; Louis Edmonds (1923-2001, American), actor; Esther Eng (1914-1970, American), director; Michelle Ferris (39, Australian), Olympic cyclist; Simon Hobart (1964-2005, English), nightclub entrepreneur; Mark Leno (64, American), politician; and Yves Navarre (1940-1994, French), writer.