This is surely the crux of Brideshead Revisited and its most arresting, limpid quotation. It comes quite early in the book and it takes until the closing pages to see what that involves. And this in a book where love is thwarted.
This was my first reading of Brideshead in over three decades, prompted by a friend who was sure I’d enjoy a second read. I found it unexpectedly gripping even though it describes a time and class for which I have no great affinity (on the contrary, as I read, I was grateful to belong to neither). I read it in a weekend, finding it hard to leave aside.
Sebastian and his role was less clear by the end than it appeared at the beginning. At first he seems the principal member of the Brideshead family we are meant to get to know, whereas later he fades into a distant story of self-destruction, slightly mitigated by the compassion of strangers. It appears he existed only as the conduit for Charles to meet Julia, Sebastian’s sister, and the real story is about her, Charles, and the family more generally. But then, he himself tries to keep Charles away from his family lest they take over the friendship. Seeking any cause for Sebastian’s alcoholism in his class or religion felt inappropriate, and it may be that all his suffering boils down to the simple revelation, late in the book, that he needed to have someone to look after, rather than being looked after by others.
The ending was bewildering, perhaps because I have not grown up within a religion, let alone one followed quite strongly. The choices made by Julia, both regarding her marriage and potential re-marriage were therefore puzzling to me and yet the strength of the writing and the characters carried it through, despite what felt like a rather abrupt and deflationary ending. But I am also sure I missed things that others will have picked up, and look forward to being enlightened.
‘I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.’
Source: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968 (1945)), p. 46
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