Brideshead Revisited During Lent

Sorting out our many possessive, grasping loves, and redirecting them towards God is the objective of Lent asceticism. Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is transformed by becoming friends with Sebastian Flyte. His love for Sebastian opens him up to a joy in life he has never known. Although their love is tinged with a possessiveness that eventually kills it, Charles is permanently changed. Their relationship raises a theological question: what is the nature of eros? Is it ultimately selfish and unworthy of a Christian, or is it the very soil without which grace cannot take root? In Charles’s spiritual journey, an answer is proposed through suffering and renunciation. It is through, and not in spite of his eros for Sebastian, and later for Sebastian’s sister Julia, that Charles is led to agape, self-gift, and so ultimately from agnosticism to the Catholic Church.

Charles and Sebastian in Arcadia

By the time Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte meet, they are in their second term at Oxford. Each has already begun his own life. Sebastian’s is flamboyant and eccentric; Charles sees him walking around with his teddy bear, Aloysius, and wearing fake whiskers to restaurants. Charles’s life, on the other hand, consists of meetings with the college intellectuals, often held in his rooms among his “meagre and commonplace” books, cheap art prints, and a painted screen.[1] One of the intellectuals is Collins, a man that Charles describes as going “round the cultural waterwheel” his whole life.[2] Charles later wonders whether he might have ended up going down the same respectable and boring path, had he not met Sebastian. And he notes that, even before the excitement of being on his own with rooms and money had worn off, he “felt at heart that this was not all Oxford had to offer.” However, at “Sebastian’s approach these grey figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish,” replaced by figures full of color.[3]

During one of the gatherings of the college intellectuals, a drunk Sebastian leans through Charles’ groundfloor window and becomes sick. By means of apology, he fills Charles’s room with flowers, and invites him to a luncheon:

I went there full of uncertainty, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins 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.[4]

Charles revels in Sebastian’s beauty, and in his outlandish friends. And when he returns to his rooms, he is changed. “What was wrong? Nothing except the daffodils seemed to be real. Was it the screen? I turned its face to the wall. That was better.”[5] The screen, it seems, through which he had been seeing life, has been removed. Through his friendship with Sebastian, Charles discovers a new world of beauty, love, and wonder.

Book I of Brideshead Revisited is entitled “Et in Arcadia Ego,” meaning “even in paradise, I am present.” “Arcadia” evokes the sense of an Eden rather than a man-made utopia.[6] The phrase refers to a painting by Nicolas Poussin depicting idealized shepherds gathered around a large tomb. The words show up in the story, engraved on the forehead of a human skull that Charles has bought to decorate his room. The friendship between Charles and Sebastian occurs in an “Arcadia,” an idyllic, pre-Christian paradise.[7] They become inseparable. Charles remarks of the summer term spent 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.”[8]

Sebastian and his family are described throughout the book as being “charming.” Innocuous as the word appears at first, its repetition is striking. Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, draws people in with her charm. Charles is captivated by Sebastian, and in fact no one seems capable of resisting his charm.[9] This trait of the Flytes seems to be something almost magical, a means of entrancing. And in this way, it has a sinister character; it is how they possess people. Towards the end of the book, Anthony Blanche tells Charles he had warned him of charm. “I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, that it has killed you.”[10] Anthony, it should be noted, rarely tells the literal truth. However, his lies often convey within them deeper truths about people, and these insights are trustworthy. Possession of people, the love-killing effect of the Flytes’ charm, shows up repeatedly. Anthony describes Lady Marchmain as a vampire, sucking the blood of the “small gang of enslaved and emaciated prisoners” that she keeps “for her exclusive enjoyment.”[11] Sebastian’s sister Julia treats her future husband Rex Mottram “as she seemed to treat all the world, with mild disdain, but with an air of possession.”[12]

Even in the beginning of their love, in Arcadia, Sebastian cannot help but possess Charles. When Charles asks why he does not want him to meet his family, Sebastian answers, “They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend, not mine, and I won’t let them.”[13] As Lady Marchmain attempts to draw Charles in, Sebastian’s possession intensifies until it ultimately destroys their relationship.

Eros in Arcadia

In order to understand what happens in the friendship between Charles and Sebastian, it is necessary to take a moment to discuss the nature of love and possession. This discussion will also shed light on Charles’s relationships in the second half of the book, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism.

The love between Charles and Sebastian begins as eros. I mean here not just that it is romantic. Rather, I mean that it is a love that desires to possess the beloved.[14] Catholic and Protestant understandings of eros, need-love, and its relationship to agape, gift-love, diverge sharply, and since Brideshead deals with Catholicism in a Protestant (or post-Protestant) culture, the question of how these two loves relate in the story is an essential one. Josef Pieper discusses the difference between the traditionally Catholic and Protestant understandings of eros and agape in Faith, Hope, Love. The Protestant view, articulated first by Luther and developed by Anders Nygren, holds that eros, being self-centered, is unworthy of the Christian. Agape, an entirely selfless and unmotivated love, is the only sort of love that a Christian should have. Most crucially for Pieper, according to Nygren “no way, not that of sublimation either, leads from eros to agape.”[15]

Nygren believes that the project of the Reformation was the destruction of the opposing view, called the “caritas synthesis.” The caritas synthesis is the traditionally Catholic understanding, deriving from pre-Christian Platonic philosophy. It holds that love is ultimately unified; eros leads to agape. Man, because he is a creature, “is by nature a totally needful being; he is himself ‘one vast need,’ a thirst that must be quenched, ‘the hungry being pure and simple.’”[16] Eros, therefore, being need-love, is the love natural to man. And because human need is ultimately infinite, eros draws the Christian towards that which alone can satisfy.[17] This is the view Luther and Nygren oppose. “‘Luther smashed to pieces’ that false synthesis; he ‘regarded it as his principal task to annihilate the classical Catholic view of love built up essentially on the eros factor.’ . . . ‘On the one hand—in Catholicism—desirous love is the bond that holds everything together . . . On the other hand—in Luther—we are dealing with the religion and the ethos of agape.’”[18]

For Pieper, Luther and Nygren’s formulation simply cannot stand, and he makes a convincing argument for why. In his explanation, he asks a question that is crucial for our understanding of eros as it functions in Brideshead:

[In] all this talk about love in general and eros in particular a conception of the nature of man is implicit, of what we might call man’s “pre-Christian” nature, as given to him when he was created. Is it really something “strange” really “divorced” from Christianity? Or is it possibly the very ground without which the Christian element, the supernatural, grace (or whatever else we may wish to call this new dimension) could not take root and thrive?[19]

Pope Benedict XVI takes up the relationship between eros and agape in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est:

Yet eros and agape—ascending and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending . . . in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.[20]

Eros, slowly transformed by the love of the beloved, becomes agape, without ceasing to be eros. But if this transformation does not take place, if eros becomes instead selfish and self-seeking, love is killed.

This paradox of possession is present whenever possession occurs in a relationship. We find that, the more we try to cling to and possess the other, the more they seem to slip through our fingers. So possessiveness always leads to sadness. The unredeemed eros in Brideshead takes this form. This is why, as Anthony Blanche claims, charm (the means of possession) kills love. A love that merely possesses the other is a love that kills. Et in Arcadia Ego; even in paradise, death is present. Sebastian feels Charles slipping through his fingers, and grasps at him more and more erratically. Slowly, their friendship is poisoned until there is little left.

Thwarted Passion

Much later in the novel, Charles encounters Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s sister, on an ocean liner bound from New York to England. He finds himself inexplicably drawn to this woman who had barely interested him years before. Although both are married, they begin an affair. The language he uses to discuss their relationship is striking:

So at sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover. It was not time for sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime-flower . . . [Now], while the waves still broke and thundered on the prow, the act of possession was a symbol, a rite of ancient origin and solemn meaning.[21]

Charles and Julia desire to possess one another fully, to become one with each other. They seek divorces from their respective spouses, so that they can marry. But Julia, a lapsed Catholic who still believes on some level, is uneasy. “The nearer our marriage got,” Charles recalls,

The more wistfully, I noticed, Julia spoke of it; war was growing nearer, too—we neither of us doubted that—but Julia’s tender, remote, it sometimes seemed desperate longing did not come from any uncertainty outside herself; it suddenly darkened too, into brief accesses of hate when she seemed to throw herself against the restraints of her love for me like a caged animal against the bars.[22]

Julia’s younger sister Cordelia tells Charles that, when she met him and Julia as a couple, the phrase that came to mind was “thwarted passion,” passion that seems never to attain what it desires. Why is their passion thwarted? It is not simply because Julia is a Catholic and so cannot marry Charles; her marriage to the divorced Rex is already not recognized by her Church. Rather, it is because their possession of one another is not enough. Their eros must be purified in order to attain its true telos. Julia in particular seems thwarted, sad, because she realizes that this purification will not be easy, that it will require a sacrifice she is not yet willing to make.

The Bride of Christ

The dynamic of eros, possession, and agape that takes place in the relationship between the characters in Waugh’s book also occurs on a symbolic level. Here I will explore the symbolism of Brideshead Castle and Good Friday. Understanding their Lent symbolism will provide insights into Charles’s spiritual journey and eventual conversion.

Brideshead Castle

Near the beginning of their friendship, Sebastian takes Charles to Brideshead Castle. Sebastian is the second son of Lord and Lady Marchmain, an estranged couple that remains married because Lady Marchmain refuses, as a Catholic, to seek a divorce. Lord Marchmain lives in Venice with his mistress Cara, while Lady Marchmain and the children live in England at Brideshead. The house derives its name from the fact that it sits at the head of a stream called the Bride.[23] It is called a castle because in an earlier time there had been a castle a mile away. “Then in Inigo Jones’s time,” Sebastian explains, “we took a fancy to the valley and pulled the castle down, carted the stones up here and built a new house.”[24]

Evelyn Waugh, a convert to Catholicism himself, positions Brideshead as an image of the Church, the “bride of Christ.” Like the new house, the Church was not constructed from scratch, but built out of the stones of paganism and Judaism. The house is described as having been built over many years, in stages, preserving in time the best architecture of each generation. This mirrors the notion of the development of the Catholic Church through the centuries, taking in the best philosophies of every time and place, and adapting them to her own use. As Luigi Giussani writes in Why the Church?,

Catholicism declares its simple correspondence with all that comprises man’s destiny . . . Anyone who reads the history of the Church with an open heart cannot but note how the Christian experience has been unceasing in its assimilation and concentration on the value of all things that show an authentic human richness.[25]

Meeting Sebastian and going to Brideshead are the agnostic Charles’s first encounters with the Catholic Church. He notes how the topic of Catholicism was never far off when speaking to the Flytes. Lady Marchmain says that they need to convert him. But Charles shows little interest in Catholicism, often instead being baffled or repulsed by it. Sebastian’s faith confuses him the most, appearing infantile in its simplicity, ardently and often regretfully believed, and having no perceptible influence on his behavior.[26]

At the center of the whole estate there lies a terrace and fountain, which Charles describes as the “final consummation of the house’s plan.”[27] Sebastian suggests that Charles, a budding artist, draw the fountain. “As I . . . sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.”[28] This “fountain of life” draws Charles and others back to itself repeatedly throughout the book.

Good Friday

Evelyn Waugh chooses as the setting of his story a spousal image of the Church: the Bride of Christ. This suggests that in Brideshead the Passion is central, for that is the moment in which the spousal union between Christ and his Church is consummated. The crucifixion as the act of total self-sacrifice of the lover for his beloved, eros perfected in agape, is the source from which the life-giving water pours. The theme of Good Friday shows up repeatedly in the novel, most notably surrounding the end of Charles and Sebastian’s friendship and the death of Lord Marchmain.

Over the two years of Charles and Sebastian’s friendship, they slowly leave Arcadia. The things that gave them joy seem changed somehow. Sebastian abandons Aloysius, his teddy bear. They both drink heavily, but Sebastian falls into alcoholism. It becomes clear, especially to Charles, that Sebastian drinks to escape. He tries to shut everyone out of his life, starting with his family, and ending with Charles. Through many holidays at Brideshead, Sebastian’s condition worsens, as do both his and Charles’s relationship with Lady Marchmain. Eventually, Charles quits Brideshead, leaves Oxford, and moves to France to study art, and Sebastian disappears to North Africa. When Lady Marchmain dies, the chapel at Brideshead is closed. “[The priest] emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty,” Cordelia tells Charles, “as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday . . . I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.”[29]

Cordelia asks Charles if he has ever been to Tenebrae, which he has not. “Well, if you had you’d know what the Jews felt about their temple. Quomodo sedet sola civitas . . . it’s a beautiful chant.”[30] At the first lesson of Tenebrae on Holy Thursday, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are chanted. “How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! how is the mistress of the Gentiles become as a widow: the princes of provinces made tributary! . . . her children are led into captivity: before the face of the oppressor . . . her princes are become like rams that find no pastures.”[31]

The emptiness of the tabernacle mirrors that of Brideshead as a whole. The building is the same, but the presence that gave it life is missing; it is just an odd and out-of-place building. Like Jerusalem in the chant, the children of Brideshead have abandoned it. For Charles and Cordelia, it is the lack of Sebastian’s presence that is so acutely felt. And so Brideshead, without Sebastian in its halls or Christ in its tabernacle, enters into what seems to be a permanent Good Friday.[32]

Years later Lord Marchmain, free to return to England now that his wife is dead, comes back to Brideshead to die. We are told that he hates his wife and her Church. He asks Cordelia to sit with him “in this Gethsemane,” casting himself somewhat blasphemously as Christ.[33] Nevertheless, a priest is brought to see him. He sends him away, announcing “I am not in extremis,” and that he does not practice the faith.[34] But as the end approaches, Julia decides to bring the priest to her father again, ignoring Charles’s protest. The priest says the words of absolution over the unconscious man, asks him to make a sign, and anoints him, and Charles finds himself on his knees in prayer. “I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me praying, I knew, for a sign.”[35] Lord Marchmain’s arm moves to his forehead, as if to brush off the holy oil, but instead he crosses himself. “Then I knew,” Charles recalls, “that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.”[36] The long Good Friday of Brideshead has finally come to an end.

Charles, though agnostic at the time, seems to see Lord Machmain’s death as that of the penitent thief. The women kneel at the foot of his cross and, at the last moment, he turns to Christ. This moment at Calvary proves the most pivotal in Charles’s spiritual journey.

Consummatum Est

Consummation is the moment when an act, such as marriage, becomes complete. It is, therefore, decisive; there is a “before” and an “after.” At the start of Charles and Julia’s affair, Charles refers to the first time they make love as the “act of possession.” It is the consummation of their possession of one another; afterwards, their relationship is different. But Julia longs for a deeper consummation; eros consummated as complete possession is insufficient.

The setting and title of the novel point us to the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ. The consummation of Christ’s spousal union with the Church occurs at Calvary. “On the Cross,” writes Benedict XVI,

God’s eros for us is made manifest. Eros is indeed—as Pseudo-Dionysius expresses it—that force “that does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved.” Is there a more “mad eros” than that which led the Son of God to make Himself one with us even to the point of suffering as His own the consequences of our offences?[37]

At the crucifixion, the deepest nature of eros is revealed: that of total self-gift. Perfect eros is also perfect agape. This is the only answer to the paradox of possession.

The symbolic Calvary of Lord Marchmain’s deathbed is the consummation of Julia and Charles’s love as well. When he dies, Julia remains kneeling at the foot of his bed for some time. Finally she meets Charles, in secret, to say goodbye. She tells him that she cannot be with him, because that would mean setting up a rival good to God’s and cutting herself off from his mercy. It is at Calvary that Julia glimpses the answer to the paradox of possession. Her renunciation of Charles is an act of love for both herself and him. It is the moment when her eros for him is transformed from possession into agape.

At Lord Marchmain’s death bed, Charles’s love for Julia is transformed as well. He finds himself praying to her God for a sign because she desires one. When they say goodbye, Julia wonders why she and not Charles has been able to understand. “I don’t want to make this easier for you,” he responds; “I hope your heart may break; but I do understand.”[38] Through his own act of selfless love, he becomes able to understand hers.

The Path from Eros to Agape

It is in meeting Sebastian that Charles is first transformed. The grey world within which he had been living falls away. His love for Sebastian opens him up to a new way of looking at the world, to a new joy in life, to Arcadia. Their love, however, is possessive, and so slowly poisons the friendship. But the experience of this love changes Charles; he can never go back to the colorless life he had before. He has to walk the hard Lenten path of renunciation necessary for his love to be transformed.

Those who would have dismantled the “caritas synthesis” claimed that there is no path from eros to agape. For Charles, however, there is no other path. If it were not for the eros—imperfect and needing purification—that he experienced first in his relationship with Sebastian, and later with Julia, his conversion could not have taken place. And even at the bed of Lord Marchmain, it is his love for Julia and desire for her to be happy that allows him to beg for a sign. His eros is not annihilated but rather fulfilled like Christ’s. And it is only because Charles has experienced this eros, at first unredeemed and possessive, that his love can be transformed into agape.

 [1] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1944), 27.

[2] Waugh, Brideshead Revisited., 44.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Waugh filled Brideshead with numerous references to things in early 20th century Catholic and British culture, many of which are lost on contemporary American readers. I found David Cliffe’s Brideshead Revisited Companion extremely helpful in understanding the references made in the text. Accessed on 3/9/2019 from:

[7] Charles later says that “since Sebastian counted among the intruders his own conscience and all claims of human affection, his days in Aradia were numbered.” Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 127.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] See the conversation between Anthony Blanche and Charles, Ibid., 51-57.

[10] Ibid., 273.

[11] Ibid., 56.

[12] Ibid., 111.

[13] Ibid., 37.

[14] Referring to Plato, Pope John Paul II writes the following: “Even when it seems to give, eros continues to be a ‘desire to possess,’ but nevertheless it is different from a purely sensual love in being the love that tends toward the sublime.” John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 315.

[15] Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, trans. Richard and Clara Winston and Sr. Mary Frances McCarthy, S.N.D (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 213.

[16] Pieper, Faith Hope, 218. Quoting C.S. Lewis’s Four Loves and Georg Simmel’s Fragmente und Aufsätze

[17] See Augustine’s Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

[18] Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 214. Quoting Anders Nygren’s Eros und Agape.

[19] Ibid., 216-217.

[20] Benedict XVI, God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est, Encyclical Letter (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 7.

[21] Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 261 [emphasis mine].

[22] Ibid., 330.

[23] Ibid., 16.

[24] Ibid., 79.

[25] Luigi Giussani, Why the Church?, (Montreal,: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 227-228.

[26] Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 86-87.

[27] Ibid., 81 [emphasis mine].

[28] Ibid., 82.

[29] Ibid., 220 [emphasis mine].

[30] Ibid., 220.

[31] Lam. 1:1,5,6 (Douay-Rheims). I choose this translation because it is the one Waugh would have been most familiar with.

[32] You could also argue that it is Lady Marchmain whose absence is so felt, but as Cordelia says near the end of Book I, neither she nor Charles ever really loved her. See Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 221.

[33] Ibid., 319.

[34] Ibid., 327.

[35] Ibid., 338.

[36] Ibid., 339.

[37] Benedict XVI, Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2007, accessed on 3/9/2019.

[38] Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 341.

Featured Image: Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1638; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Patrick Tomassi

Patrick Tomassi teaches math and science at Trinity Academy in Portland, Oregon. He writes about film, music, and literature, and is the co-host of the podcast Pop-Culture Pelican.

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