Summary: Book 1: Chapter 1

Charles remembers the first time he went to Brideshead with his friend from university, Lord Sebastian Flyte. It’s Eights Week in June during Charles’s third term at Oxford, and visitors have come to Oxford for balls and parties, which annoys Charles greatly. 

Sebastian arrives one morning to whisk Charles away, promising wine and strawberries. Sebastian has borrowed a car from his friend Hardcastle. Hardcastle claims to know Sebastian’s father, but Sebastian’s father is considered a persona non grata in polite society, so Sebastian doesn’t believe him. 

Sebastian parks near a grassy knoll, where he and Charles have wine and strawberries and smoke cigars. Charles watches Sebastian’s face. Sebastian wishes he could bury something special in every place where he’s been happy so that when he’s old, he can dig it up and remember those happy times.

Charles reflects on the chance circumstances that allowed him to meet Sebastian. Before his first term at Oxford, his cousin Jasper had offered advice on how to handle the politics of Oxford, including how to dress, which lectures to attend, and which clubs to join. He told Charles to change his room assignment because ground floor rooms toward the front attract too many visitors. 

Charles doesn’t change his room assignment. He likes the gillyflowers that grow beneath his window. He finds a studious circle of friends but feels he’s missing something until he meets Sebastian. Whereas his old friends talk about the theory of aesthetics, Sebastian comments that he feels the same emotion seeing a flower that he does a cathedral.

Sebastian stands out in their year both for his looks and because he carries around a teddy bear named Aloysius. Charles does not properly meet him until an evening in March during a party in Charles’s rooms. Sebastian, drunk, throws up through Charles’s open window. The next morning, Charles awakens to find Sebastian has sent him flowers and an invitation to lunch as an apology. The letter claims Aloysius won’t speak to Sebastian until Charles has forgiven him. 

Curious, Charles attends lunch at Sebastian’s, where the guests are eating an elaborate spread, including plover’s eggs. It’s early in the season for plover’s eggs, but Sebastian explains that his mother gets them to lay early. Charles meets Anthony Blanche, a European aesthete of unknown origin. After lunch, Anthony stands on Sebastian’s balcony and reads from the T. S. Eliot poem The Wasteland using a megaphone.

After the other guests leave, Sebastian begs Charles to come with him to the Botanical Garden to see the ivy. When he returns home, Charles no longer likes the sedate and modern way he has decorated his quarters.

After their strawberry picnic, Sebastian brings Charles to Brideshead Castle. Charles comments on what a beautiful place it must be to live, but Sebastian counters that his family lives there, not him. Sebastian doesn’t want Charles to meet his family and explains that they’re only there to speak with his nanny.

Nanny Hawkins is napping in the nursery, a rosary in her hands. She’s surprised and delighted to see Sebastian and tells him that his sister Julia is in town to speak at a Conservative Women’s tea. Sebastian insists he and Charles will be gone before Julia returns. Nanny Hawkins tells him Julia will be disappointed. She chatters about a newspaper article on Julia’s recent introduction to high society. Sebastian wants to leave before Julia returns, but Charles wants to see more of the house. Sebastian agrees to show him the chapel. Sebastian apologizes that being near his family puts him in a bad mood, but he wanted Charles to meet Nanny Hawkins. Charles confesses that he’s curious about large families because he only has his father, who has not been the same since Charles’s mother died. 

Analysis: Book 1: Chapter 1

This chapter introduces Sebastian, one of the pivotal characters in the story, characterizing him as having a magnetic and endearing childishness but not without troubling undertones. From his teddy bear to his close relationship with his nanny, Sebastian behaves not only immaturely but as if he’s trapped in childhood itself. The first thing Sebastian does is take Charles away from Oxford, that is, away from his current responsibilities. Notably, Sebastian takes Charles away from Oxford at a time when the boys were expected to attend balls, that is, a socially acceptable way to go on dates with young women. So, Sebastian also whisks Charles away from the expectations of a heterosexual society. Because of his feelings for Sebastian, Charles associates homosocial behavior (and possible sexual attraction between Sebastian and himself) with intense joy but also with childishness. By running away from Oxford to enjoy strawberries and see his nurse, Sebastian metaphorically runs away from behaving appropriately for his age and goes literally back to his childhood home. Sebastian also exhibits avoidant, immature behavior in how he runs away from having tea with his sister, not bothering to tell Nanny Hawkins goodbye. 

Charles changes his tastes very rapidly at the beginning of the chapter when he meets Sebastian, a move that portrays him as rejecting conventional, modern ideals of his day. Although not entirely the same, Jasper’s focus on political expediency and appearances recalls Charles’s commanding officer in the prologue. Whereas his cousin sees only the social ramifications of having a ground-floor room, Charles sees the gillyflowers, which he likes for their beauty. Charles’s choice to value what brings him joy over the opinions of others reveals that he does not necessarily care about being a proper Oxford student the way Jasper does. Accordingly, part of what draws Charles to Sebastian is Sebastian’s deep love of and fascination with beauty that doesn’t rely on examination or explanation in the way his academically minded friends require. Sebastian simply feels joy upon seeing the beautiful, whereas other friends resort to theories and treatises. Therefore, Charles’s turn toward what he finds instinctual and natural over the effortful and over-studied represents him rejecting an Oxford life full of intense academic labor and fostering political connections.

Notably, Sebastian’s beauty that Charles finds so attractive and magnetic has aspects of both youth and nature. Charles opens the chapter with his truly idyllic picnic with Sebastian, escaping the university walls for a lush, grassy knoll. The impetus for Charles to redecorate his room comes from Sebastian’s suggestion that they visit the Botanical Garden, implying that appreciating the beauty of ivy and flowers awakened Charles’s aesthetic senses. However, there’s a sense of impermanence to these beautiful moments, highlighted by Sebastian’s desire to bury something to remember happiness when he’s old. This comment suggests that he doesn’t believe he’ll be happy when he’s old. The summery atmosphere also suggests an impermanence because, of course, summer always gives way to autumn. From the prologue, we know that Charles becomes unhappy and disillusioned and also appears to have lost contact with Sebastian. However, even in the prologue, Charles speaks of nature when he speaks of Brideshead. Thus, given the novel’s Catholic undertones, we can speculate that Charles sees Sebastian and Brideshead as part of an Eden of his youth, a lost paradise. 

This chapter provides a first glimpse of Brideshead Castle and the Marchmain family, and this early scene sets up certain expectations for them. According to Sebastian, polite society shuns his father, Lord Marchmain, introducing the idea that his family has experienced some sort of scandal. Sebastian’s comment, combined with his reluctance for Charles to meet his family, sets the stage for future tension. While we do not hear much about Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, his droll comment that she gets the plovers to lay their eggs early suggests he considers her controlling to the point where she can make the birds lay according to her will. We can presume Julia to be around the same age as Sebastian because of Nanny Hawkins’s mention that she has just come out in society. However, Julia appears far more responsible than her brother, considering she’s already speaking at social events like a tea for a women’s group. Charles also makes note of the many Catholic aspects of Brideshead Castle, from Nanny Hawkins holding a rosary to the chapel being one of the few parts of the house not shut while most of the family is away. Clearly, Catholicism is important to the Marchmains.