A good novel is one that can pull the reader into its story and, in doing so, transport him to another world. A great novel does this and more, returning the reader to his own world with his feet more firmly planted in reality and a heart more fervently yearning for the transcendent. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is one such great novel. It is a thoroughly Catholic book not just because the story concerns a Catholic family, but because, as Waugh himself explained, the novel deals chiefly with “the operation of divine grace.”
Grace, that unseen force woven into Waugh’s rich tapestry, adds significance to the story’s luxurious frivolities and sweetness to its moments of pain and despair. Brideshead is perhaps best understood as an account of the protagonist’s slow, even tortuous journey to faith through cooperation with God’s grace.
The reader who understands Brideshead only as a journey to faith, however, misses the beauty of Charles Ryder’s journey through love. Charles’s relationships with Sebastian and Julia Flyte were not just checkpoints on the road to faith but the very means of his conversion. Brideshead actually has much to teach us about love for others and how it can lead us to the highest form of love: love for God.
What are we to make of Charles’s relationship with Sebastian? It’s clear there is great affection between the two young men, and Lord Marchmain’s mistress even describes Charles’s fondness for Sebastian as a “romantic friendship.” Not surprisingly, many a critic has remarked on the novel’s supposed homoerotic themes. Such allegations are not without substance; at one point in the book a very homely prostitute dismisses Charles and Sebastian as “fairies.” It’s true that the two are something more than friends. Those who see such close male relationships as necessarily homoerotic, however, betray their shallow understanding of love.
The relationship between Charles and Sebastian is rooted in philia. This is not just friendship, but brotherly love. In fact, Sebastian’s sister Cordelia notes the similarity between her love for Sebastian and Charles’s. This explains Charles’s entanglement with the Flytes: he has, in a sense, become part of the family through his brotherhood with Sebastian. It is his philia love for Sebastian that leads Charles to Julia and then to faith. As Charles later explains to Julia, Sebastian was the “forerunner.”
While affection characterizes Charles’s love for Sebastian, his love for Julia is distinguished by passion. Indeed, whereas his friendship with Sebastian blossoms during their languorous summer together, Charles’s eros love for Julia reveals itself in force amid a storm on the dark waters of the Atlantic. Tossed about like Paolo and Francesca, the two are literally thrust into each other’s arms by the tempest. This is not simply lust; Charles truly desires Julia as a whole person. And though he is drawn to her “magical sadness,” he desires her happiness as well. This is the impetus behind their synchronized respective divorces.
In the end, Julia and Charles must separate. Having regained her faith, Julia explains that starting a life with Charles would mean shutting herself out from God’s mercy — setting up “a rival good to God’s.” But again, we should be wary of seeing their relationship as a diversion from God’s plan when, in fact, it was itself a “forerunner”to faith.
Charles’s conversion begins in earnest with his prayer for Lord Marchmain as the patriarch lay dying at Brideshead. He prays for the lapsed Catholic to accept God’s grace — not for Lord Marchmain’s sake but “for the sake of the woman [he] loved.” This act of love is what leads Charles to encounter agape: the love of man for God and of God for man. Though he later looks back on his life with more than a hint of sorrow, the truth is that the “fierce little human tragedy” in which he played taught him to love, guiding his heart through philia, eros, and agape. It’s clear, then, that neither Charles nor Sebastian nor Julia were true tragedians in any real sense; rather, all three played their part in the divine comedy.
“Perhaps,” Charles wonders toward the end of the novel, “perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us.” Indeed, true love for others points beyond itself — beyond this world, in fact — to the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.