Charles Ryder is a Captain in the army. His brigade move and Charles wakes up to find himself at Brideshead, "a name so familiar…a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight" (21). Brideshead is a house that he knew well and the rest of the book deals with his memories of it and its inhabitants.


Charles goes to Oxford. At first, he spends time in the company of very dry academics which he refers to as "these grey figures" (39). It is by curious chance that he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte, son of Lord Marchmain. They do not exchange words. Sebastian vomits into his room through an open window. Despite this inauspicious introduction, their friendship blossoms. They have a very strong common desire. Charles says, "…but I was in search of love in those days" (32). It is a platonic love, romanticism, not the homosexual desire of Anthony Blanche. Cara, Lord Marchmain’s mistress describes it later as "these romantic friendships of the English and Germans…a kind of love that comes to children before they know it’s meaning" (98).

In their first year at Oxford, they find such love and indulge "the languor of youth" (77). They enjoy a riotous and romantic life of carefree frivolity - walking among the Botanical gardens, eating plovers eggs and drinking fine wines; adorning their rooms with beautiful paintings, trinkets and furniture; drinking Sauternes, eating Strawberries and smoking Turkish cigarettes "on a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms" (26). Charles’ cousin, Jasper provides the parodied voice of reality, reason and responsibility. But Charles is living in a romantic world devoid of these ‘three R’s’. In his room sits a skull on a bed of roses with the words "Et in Arcadia ego" inscribed on its forehead. Jasper’s words are a parody of the world that he has escaped. His world seems at the time more real, "I could match my cousin Jasper’s game-cock maturity with a sturdier fowl. I could tell him that all the wickedness of that time was like the spirit they mix with Douro…I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom…" (46).

He suffers another ‘reality check’ when he returns home for the long vacation having spent his allowance. He is alone with his father, without the means to escape. He receives a letter from Sebastian, who reminds him of the world that he inhabits at Oxford. He reads the letter, written on "heavy late-Victorian mourning paper, black-coroneted and black-bordered" (70) and the contrast is painfully as he looks out of the window onto his world of normality, "the grimy gardens and irregular backs of Bayswater…the jumble of soil-pipes and fire-escapes and protuberant little conservatories" (70). He rips the letter up and throws it away. He develops a resentful hate of Sebastian but it is short-lived for Sebastian rescues him, inviting him to stay at his family house, Brideshead Castle. There, Charles can return to the romantic world that he seeks. They travel together to Venice to visit Lord Marchmain, where Charles "drowns in honey" among the canals and buildings.

This life, divorced from the humdrum cares of reality cannot be sustained. They return to Oxford in the autumn for their second year and things are different, "There was a change in both of us. We had lost that sense of discovery that had infused the anarchy of our first year" (102). They become withdrawn and cease to mix with other students. The change in Charles, however, is constructive. He adapts to the changing scene and finds ways to cope with reality. He becomes more studious and, in particular, starts attending classes at the Ruskin school of Art. Sebastian, however, does not adapt, "With Sebastian it was different. His year of anarchy had filled a deep, interior need of his, the escape from reality, and as he found himself hemmed in, where he once felt himself free, he became at times listless and morose, even with me" (103). The difference lies in what they are searching for and what they have lost. Charles is searching for a romantic Arcadia, the "enchanted garden" that lies behind "the low door in the wall" (32). Sebastian is, as Cara says, "in love with his own childhood" (100).

Charles meets Lady Marchmain and is invited to spend the Christmas vacation at Brideshead. It is no repetition of the happy summer that Charles and Sebastian spent there alone. It is clear that Sebastian

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