Summary: Book 1: Chapter 3

Charles prepares to return home to his father’s house in London for the long end-of-term break. He has spent all his allowance and will not receive more until October. 

Charles has an awkward first dinner with his father. His father asks how long Charles will be at home. Charles explains he doesn’t have the money to travel. In response, his father claims to have no good advice because he’s never been in dire financial straits, and he mentions a cousin of Charles’s who had to go to Australia after falling into debt. Charles suggests his father will get bored of having him home, but Charles’s father simply states he wouldn’t tell Charles if he did.

The following dinners between father and son are similarly antagonistic. Once, Charles's father mentions how he managed to drive Charles’s Aunt Philippa out of the house even though she’d expected them to live together. In another episode, Charles invites an old school friend, Jorkins, to dinner. Charles’s father rudely pretends Jorkins is American throughout the entire event. In retaliation for Charles inviting a friend to dinner, his father throws a miserable dinner party with boring guests. 

Charles receives a short letter from Sebastian that speaks of how he intends to visit his father, Lord Marchmain, in Venice but doesn’t want to bring Aloysius lest he pick up bad habits from Italian bears. The letter reminds Charles of Anthony’s comment comparing Sebastian to bubbles. For a moment, Charles hates Sebastian. However, when Charles receives a telegram stating that Sebastian has been severely injured and requesting Charles’s presence, he drops everything to travel to Brideshead. On the train, he worries he will have arrived too late and Sebastian will be dead. 

Sebastian’s sister Julia picks Charles up at the train station and reveals that Sebastian has only broken a small bone in his ankle and must rest it for a month. He needs someone to keep him from boredom because Julia can’t stay at Brideshead for long. Julia looks like a female version of Sebastian with a less friendly face. When Julia asks Charles to light her cigarette, he feels a wisp of attraction. Julia asks why Charles and Sebastian didn’t stay to tea when they visited Nanny Hawkins. Charles explains Sebastian wanted to leave, and Julia tells him not to let Sebastian boss him around.

When they arrive at Brideshead, Sebastian is in a wheelchair. Charles tells Sebastian he was worried he was dying. Sebastian requests champagne with dinner, which they eat in a lavish, octagonal room called the Painted Parlor. The room has decoration inspired by artwork recovered from Pompeii. Julia bids Charles and Sebastian goodnight, thanking Charles for relieving her of duty in looking after Sebastian. She plans to leave Brideshead the next day. 

Charles comments that he doesn’t think Julia likes him. Sebastian explains that Julia doesn’t like many people and says that he and Julia are similar. Charles asks what Sebastian means. Sebastian explains that he and Julia look alike, but they aren’t alike in personality. Sebastian would never love someone who had his own temperament. Sebastian exclaims that they are going to have a wonderful time alone, and Charles has a sense of freedom.

Analysis: Book 1: Chapter 3

Charles’s awkward time with his father illuminates new aspects of Charles’s character. First, we see that in Charles’s family, people do not say what they mean but rather rely on implication to the point of farce. Charles displays some of this indirectness himself, such as in Chapter 1, when he talks about the way Sebastian describes beauty instead of directly stating why he likes Sebastian. In addition, the way Charles needles his commanding officer in the prologue evokes the way his father’s rudeness comes out through passive aggressive behavior. In addition, given his father’s anecdote about Charles’s aunt, it becomes clear the Ryder family has a habit of driving each other away, making every conversation a strategic battle. Given this pattern, we can understand why Charles finds Sebastian, with his open warmth, novel and exhilarating. We also see from the dinner scenes that Charles’s father pursues his own amusement at the expense of those around him, in a crueler version of how Charles now wishes to pursue pleasure heedless of the consequences. Because Charles’s father holds the authority in their small family, it stands to reason that Charles has never gotten to behave freely until now, explaining some of his Oxford excesses and his embrace of the freedom he finds there.

Charles’s strong reaction to meeting Julia clarifies several aspects of Charles’s desires. First, because his primary point of attraction to Julia comes from her physical similarities to Sebastian, their meeting works as probable confirmation of a romantic aspect to Sebastian and Charles’s relationship. However, this encounter also foreshadows a future closeness between Charles and Julia instead of Charles continuing his closeness to Sebastian. Throughout this scene, Julia holds herself like an adult despite being around Sebastian’s age: she drives a car, smokes a cigarette, and attends social engagements outside of her home. In contrast, Sebastian cannot handle even a small injury without coddling, as usual behaving much younger than his years. The way Charles portrays Sebastian and Julia as extremely similar in appearance but lightyears apart in maturity again furthers the idea that maturing means conforming to heteronormative societal dictates like marriage. Charles’s overwhelming sense of freedom and relief at Julia’s departure suggests he is not ready to grow up and take part in a world of social expectations.

This chapter also illuminates some of Sebastian’s emotional issues with his family. Julia’s eagerness to leave Sebastian hints that she has no patience for her brother, suggesting that one of the reasons Sebastian avoids his family is because they don’t enjoy his company. Therefore, while it would be easy to dismiss Sebastian’s exaggerated report of his condition as typical dramatics, it also functions as a response to a profound loneliness. Sebastian himself notes that he wouldn’t love someone with his own temperament, which implies self-loathing, suggesting that him being alone at Brideshead would have been disastrous. Sebastian’s comment that he might not bring Aloysius to Venice helps develop the role the bear plays in Sebastian’s life. Sebastian treats Aloysius almost as a conscience or positive influence. For example, in a previous chapter, when he writes the first apology letter to Charles, he claims Aloysius demands Sebastian earn Charles’s forgiveness. Sebastian thus imbues Aloysius with artistic merit and believes he looks down on bad behavior, like Anthony’s lying. Therefore, Sebastian leaving Aloysius home from Venice suggests that something about seeing his father makes him want to abandon positive influences.