Summary: Book 3: Chapter 4

Charles and Julia’s relationship becomes even more notorious in high society. Celia makes it very clear that Charles is to blame for the fall of their relationship. In addition, no one understands why Julia and Charles are bothering to marry. 

As Julia prepares to move out of Brideshead, she and Charles worry they may have to leave it forever once Bridey and his new family move in. Wilcox interrupts to announce that Cordelia will arrive soon. In the twelve years since Charles last saw her, Cordelia tried convent life but left to volunteer with an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War, and she has been in Spain since. 

When Cordelia arrives, Charles is shocked to find her unattractive in adulthood. Julia and Charles catch Cordelia up on family news as they take her up to see Nanny Hawkins. Cordelia responds politely to the news of Julia and Charles’s upcoming marriage, unwilling to question them despite her religious beliefs. She wryly comments that Mrs. Muspratt must be marrying Bridey for his title. As Nanny Hawkins greets Cordelia with delight, Charles looks at how loving Cordelia’s eyes are and realizes that she is, in fact, beautiful in her own way. Cordelia has news of Sebastian. He’s staying with a group of monks in Tunis and has become very religious. 

Later, Julia comments how disconcerting it is that Charles has forgotten Sebastian. Charles explains Sebastian was the “forerunner” to their relationship, and Julia wonders if she, too, prefigures another love. Charles says that perhaps all loves are merely symbolic of other loves they don’t yet know. 

Charles asks Cordelia for more news of Sebastian. She explains that Sebastian is deathly ill. He arrived at the monastery in Tunis and begged to become a missionary. However, the monks didn’t believe an alcoholic had the strength to do so. Nevertheless, Sebastian kept appearing, and the monks eventually gave him a room at the monastery and employment as an under-porter. They respect his sincere faith. Sebastian lost Kurt years ago when he was called back to Germany for military service. Kurt tried to escape but was caught and imprisoned, and he committed suicide. Cordelia notes that caring for Kurt made Sebastian happy. 

Cordelia explains that she hasn’t told Julia the full story of Sebastian because Julia doesn’t love Sebastian like Cordelia and Charles do. Charles hears the present tense of love in Cordelia’s sentence and is angry at himself. Cordelia doesn’t see a bad future for Sebastian. She knows he’ll be beloved by those at the monastery and find spiritual satisfaction. He will suffer though, which is part of what she believes makes Sebastian holy. 

Cordelia asks whether Charles thought that it was a shame she had grown up to be a plain spinster. Charles admits that his first thought was the word “thwarted.” Cordelia counters that she used that word to think about Charles and Julia. 

As Charles gets ready for bed that night with Julia beside him, he has an image of a small dwelling in an avalanche that eventually won’t survive the storm.

Analysis: Book 3: Chapter 4

This chapter puts Charles in touch with his relationships with Sebastian and Julia and forces him to consider what connects the two. Whereas Julia believes Charles has forgotten Sebastian, Charles believes that his feelings for Sebastian and Julia are different manifestations of the same love.  His answer understandably doesn’t comfort Julia, but it offers insight into Charles’s emotional journey throughout the novel, which he begins by describing going to lunch at Sebastian’s Oxford rooms as a search for love. Charles believes that people love each other not for who they are but because they represent something a person needs in life, similar to how Cara describes Lord Marchmain as hating Lady Marchmain because she reminds him of something he hates within himself. Charles falls in love with Sebastian because he represents a world of beauty. He falls for Julia because she possesses Sebastian’s looks and background and because she, like Charles, has wearied of modern people without substance. What he loves in both siblings has less to do with who they are as people and more with the fact that they are Marchmains, and Charles loves the tradition their heritage represents.

Cordelia represents the power of spiritual love. Before this chapter, Charles has always thought of Cordelia as a girl who will one day grow up to engage in typical heterosexual romance, and therefore, he finds her plainness in adulthood tragic. However, when he sees her love for her family, he changes his mind, representing that he’s recognized the power of a love that goes beyond the worldly, romantic, or sexual. When Cordelia talks about her and Charles’s love for Sebastian, she uses the present tense, shocking Charles, who had not considered that love for someone needn’t fade with estrangement. Cordelia in this chapter and previously has taught Charles about divine grace, or the Catholic concept of God’s unconditional love, and her consistent, present-tense love here emulates the concept. Notably, Cordelia uses the word “passion” to describe Charles and Julia’s relationship, not love, implying that worldly lust drives their relationship. Cordelia’s gentle rebuke causes Charles to think seriously about the potential futurity of his relationship with Julia because Cordelia is a voice of spiritual truth.

Sebastian’s bittersweet end demonstrates the workings of divine grace. When Sebastian last appeared in the novel, he appeared hopeless, choosing a life of drinking without regard for his health or safety. However, as Cordelia predicted, he has found his way back to God despite the odds. In addition, Sebastian finding his way back to the church evokes Charles’s theory of people loving others that symbolize what they are searching for in their life. Sebastian has always wanted someone to guide and care for, prefigured in his relationships with Charles and Kurt. When he begs the monks to become a missionary, he’s asking for a job in which he’ll offer many people what he believes to be the ultimate form of loving guidance: shepherding nonbelievers to Catholicism. Even though he lacks the strength to accomplish this goal, his job at the monastery as an under-porter allows him to care for a Catholic center, expressing a love of Christ in his work.