Brideshead Revisited is a novel that has been interpreted in so many ways it’s almost hard to keep track of them. For a secular audience, the friendship between Lord Sebastian Flyte and the narrator Charles Ryder has clear homosexual undertones, and the vagueness of its treatment is seen as a reflection of the oppressiveness of the age as well as of Catholicism. However, I think their relationship was as vague as it was because it emphasises a type of homoeroticism that is untouched by lust, which I believe was easy to find in those circles, when boys no older than 19 moved from an all-boy school to the all-male environment of the big colleges. Societies throughout the history of humanity have had different views on love and sex, with classical philosophers investing thought and energy into their theories of what the age of the internet will come to bless as the “bromance”. A name which itself betrays how we see romantic relationships compared to friendship.
In our over-sexualised age, it’s easy to see why people would think there was more to the relationship that was implied, supported by rumours that Waugh himself had, by the time of writing, become ashamed of his own university years, but I think there are enough clues in the novel to suggest that he was writing about a type of love of a bygone age that is even more lost in 2019 than it was when the novel was published in 1945. One only needs to look at the tone used by Waugh to talk about Anthony Blanche, which leaves very little unspoken, to be dissuaded to see the vagueness as related to the nature of censorship at the time and the fact the novel is a story about the Catholic faith. In a way, the theme of redemption that undercurrents it would appear all the more powerful had it been the relationship of its 2008 adaptation. The author himself would say in 1947 that “Charles’s romantic affection for Sebastian is part due to the glitter of the new world Sebastian represents, part to the protective feeling of a strong towards a weak character, and part a foreshadowing of the love for Julia which is to be the consuming passion of his mature years”; a sentiment that he hid in the words of Cara when she said that their romantic relationship is part of a process of emotional development typical of the English and the Germans. There was no doubt to the observant characters that populated their worlds that there was more to their friendship than mere friendship, but, arguably, there was also a lot more to it than mere sex.
The 1910s saw the publication of Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium, which did not remove the homoerotic nature of the relationship among men the way Victorian commentary had done. It was an intellectual love, which he saw as intrinsically linked to the inferior position of women: how could they have achieved the same intimacy with someone who was not educated, and whose main job was to bear children? While girls had, by the time of the settings of the novel, been admitted into the universities, they had their own spaces. The troubled youngest son of a nobleman and a young, poorer man with an artistic temperament, fortuitously brought together in a circle of dandies, are a prime soil for something deeper than mere enjoying one’s company the appropriate, almost sterile way of polite society.
Despite the novel being written from the point of view of Charles Ryder, I have always found his character a bit insipid, and at times even unlikable, but I have a deep love for the character of Sebastian that probably goes far beyond the love they had for each other. First of all, he has a teddy bear and so we are kindred spirits. Secondly, Sebastian is a Byronic hero, a full-on romantic. He is constantly trying to fill a void in his life with something, and escapes the trappings of the religion of his mother to end up spending the rest of his life trying to become a monk. Had he lived in 2019 he’d be one of those “Spiritual but not religious type”, too used to the externalities of the Catholic faith to have a serene relationship with it. He is a really tragic character, and one wonders what would have happened to him if he had seen beyond the surface of the faith and found the fulfilment to the thirst that he had throughout his adult life. He spent his life needing to feel needed, and that was his curse, long before his drinking. In a way, drinking was likely to be there to numb the pain of his existence, which was probably deeper than Charles ever understood, because Charles didn’t have the same depth of feelings of which Sebastian was capable (a criticism that transpires in Anthony Blanche’s criticism of his art).
There is a poignant moment when Sebastian and Charles are at Brideshead. Charles has been the impeccable guest which one would expect in such circumstances, but Sebastian tells him off for not being a faithful friend and getting too close to his family, which he never wanted to introduce in the first place because he knew they would steal him away. The jealousy and possessiveness that he betrays is not unusual among friends, but rather a very human emotion. I could spend a lot of time talking about the role of the faith in this novel, but what I think Brideshead Revisited teaches about is the depths of the human heart. We live in an age where philia is rare. Our conception of friendship is that of a secondary relationship to our romantic ones, and unless someone is part of the 1% of the population which is asexual, it’s difficult to see a romantic relationship that has no sexual component as well. But friendship, especially friendship between complex people, is much deeper than a mere enjoying someone’s company. John 15:13 said philōn in the Greek original, not the word for spouse. We are used to romantic novels and poems talking about such degree of love that you would die for the other, but we never think of something so deep as to ever come between friends. And yet, that’s what Sebastian calls Charles on many occasions. Not lover, or the more appropriate companion, but friend. Clearly humans are capable of deeper bonding than we give ourselves credit for, and we are all the poorer when we do not recognise its rightful place.
This post is part of the LoveBlog Challenge on the subject of Best Friends.