Summary: Book 1: Chapter 4

Charles, in retrospect, notes that in those days at Brideshead Castle, he felt very near heaven. Charles loves all the different aesthetics in the manor’s architecture. The center of the estate is a massive terrace overhanging the lakes. Elegantly landscaped, it contains an elaborate fountain brought from Italy by the Marchmains a century prior. Sebastian asks Charles to draw the fountain. Charles attempts it, and although it’s beyond his current skill level, he does a decent job.

Sebastian finds a set of oil paints and asks Charles to paint in one of the empty oval frames that decorate a small office room. Despite his inexperience in oil painting, Charles paints a nice landscape. Sebastian wants him to attempt a larger panel, but Charles isn’t able to create something that lives up to Sebastian’s elaborate vision. 

Sebastian always attends mass. Charles, an agnostic, doesn’t understand Sebastian’s faith, believing it to be a quirk, like Aloysius. Therefore, when Sebastian exclaims that it’s difficult to be Catholic, Charles doesn’t understand. Sebastian explains that every day, he prays for God to make him good—but not yet. Sebastian believes wholeheartedly in Catholicism because he thinks it’s a beautiful story.

A few days later, Charles and Sebastian sunbathe on the roof while watching the village’s Agricultural Exhibition through a telescope. Brideshead (Bridey), Sebastian’s older brother, is in town for the exhibition, and Sebastian wants to hide from him. Sebastian considers his older brother the strangest member of the family. Bridey almost became a Jesuit, but decided to attend Oxford instead and is now directionless. Sebastian explains that Lord Marchmain converted to Catholicism with marriage, and after the separation, he doesn’t practice anymore. Sebastian is the only one of his siblings who doesn’t hate Lord Marchmain for leaving their mother. Sebastian classifies his family as either devout Catholic or heathen, happy or unhappy, and notes that Catholicism and happiness do not always go hand in hand. He explains that Catholics in England have different values from other people, and it’s difficult for him and Julia, who are half-heathen. Cordelia, Sebastian’s ten-year-old sister, interrupts the conversation. She’s in town to display her pig at the agricultural exhibition. She’s vivacious, and she compliments Charles’s paintings in the office. 

Charles meets Bridey at dinner. He’s somber and calm. When Cordelia complains that the nuns at her school consider her ill-behaved because she doesn’t believe the Virgin Mary cares about how clean her room is, Bridey comments that Mary cares about obedience. Sebastian admonishes Bridey not to be too pious because Charles is agnostic. Cordelia is upset to hear that their bishop is considering closing the chapel at Brideshead because it’s too far away to serve people. Cordelia is amazed that Charles is agnostic and offers to pray for him. Charles doesn’t understand why their family always talks about religion. He feels he doesn’t know Sebastian as well as he’d thought and understands why Sebastian endeavored to keep him away from his family.

With Sebastian’s ankle healed enough to walk with a cane, he insists that Charles come with him to Venice. His lawyers have given him the money to travel first class, but if they travel in third class, they can both travel on the money. Sebastian greets Lord Marchmain warmly, and Charles is taken aback by the casual affection between father and son. Charles is also surprised that Cara, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, is an extremely ordinary, well-mannered woman who doesn’t carry herself with shame. She joins Charles and Sebastian on a sight-seeing trip around the city. 

Toward the end of the visit, Cara notes how close Charles and Sebastian are. She believes it’s good that Charles’s early experience of love ended up being for a boy instead of a girl. Lord Marchmain’s young love was for Lady Marchmain, and now he will never truly love Cara. However, Lord Marchmain’s love has now turned into a hate so strong that he cannot set foot in England. Lady Marchmain has done nothing wrong; Lord Marchmain is childish and hates something in her that he hates in himself. Cara notes that Sebastian will grow up unhappy because he is in love with his own childhood. She adds that Sebastian drinks too much. When Charles counters that he does as well, Cara explains that the way they drink is different. 

When Charles returns from Venice, he and Sebastian part. Charles’s father asks if his friend died. When Charles says no, his father admonishes him for not having written because he was worried.

Analysis: Book 1: Chapter 4

In addition to his deep fondness for Sebastian, Charles spends the summer developing a love of the aesthetics of Brideshead Castle. In Chapter 1, Charles’s aesthetic tastes mirror his understanding of the world. When he begins at Oxford, he tends toward less elaborate decor and accordingly pursues friendships with studious and staid people. However, when Sebastian awakens his sense of beauty, he develops a taste for the elaborate. We see this trend again at Brideshead in his love of the house itself. Charles’s love of the castle’s aesthetics explains his growing desire to become an artist and hints at future character development. Notably, Catholicism notoriously tends toward lavish and elaborate decoration in contrast to the starkness of Protestantism, tying Charles’s attraction to the house to his future Catholic leanings. The elaborate fountain at the center of the courtyard furthers this connection. Like Catholicism, the fountain came from Italy long ago. As in the prologue, the quintessential modern man, Hooper, doesn't understand it, and now the agnostic Charles cannot adequately capture it in his drawing. Significantly, Charles blames his skill level for his inability to draw the fountain, meaning he may someday improve, again foreshadowing Charles’s implied religious conversion.

Charles finds the Marchmains’ Catholicism bewildering, but his fondness for Sebastian undercuts his professed disdain for religion. Charles’s assumption that Sebastian’s Catholicism is like Aloysius, that is, a childish coping mechanism, characterizes him as someone who finds religion childish and strange. His realization of how fundamental Catholicism is to Sebastian’s worldview forces Charles to see Sebastian in a new light because it means that part of what he loves about Sebastian actually comes from his religiousness. For example, although Charles insists Sebastian could not possibly believe in something just for its beauty, part of what Charles loves about Sebastian, and, indeed, models from Sebastian, is the way he finds truth in beauty. Catholicism also plays a central role in the Brideshead house, symbolized in part by the elaborate Italian fountain in the middle of the courtyard. In practice, almost every conversation the family has eventually takes a religious turn, highlighting how foundational it truly is in their lives. Therefore, Charles finds himself wrestling with the fact that Catholicism underpins everything he likes about Sebastian and Brideshead Castle. 

In this chapter, the other members of the Marchmain family are finally introduced, after being common topics of gossip and chatter amongst other characters. The dynamics in the family mirror others in the book, further developing themes of innocence and experience. Bridey’s grim, philosophical nature evokes the likes of Collins and Charles’s other abandoned, studious friends. His scolding of Cordelia for her nonconformity also mirrors Jasper’s exasperated lecture to Charles. Like Jasper and Collins, Bridey’s constant over-the-top analysis appears out of touch with reality. Cordelia’s youthful exuberance recalls Sebastian’s own, but unlike Sebastian, her Catholic worldview appears fully realized and devout. Although Sebastian tries to make conclusions about Catholicism given his various siblings’ happiness and religious beliefs, he fails to examine the connection he and Cordelia share as the two happy siblings. Cordelia is still a child, and Sebastian lacks maturity, meaning their current happiness potentially stems from their youth. Therefore, the question of who will stay happy in the long term or become happy remains unanswered. Charles’s surprise at the normalcy of both Lord Marchmain and Cara highlights his inexperience with the world. Despite his attraction to unconventional people, a part of him still judges people by very conventional mores. 

Cara’s extremely insightful monologue confirms many of Charles’s fears that previous chapters have foreshadowed. Throughout much of Part 1, hints that Charles and Sebastian’s youthful joy cannot last arise. Cara’s belief that Sebastian’s first love is his youth casts doubt on his ability to grow up and potential for future success. There is ample evidence of Cara’s sound judgement in this case, given Sebastian’s previous comments associating growing old with sorrow. Cara also draws a disconcerting parallel between Lord Marchmain and Sebastian by calling Lord Marchmain “childish.” Cara explicitly identifies an aspect of Lord Marchmain’s childishness as him projecting his self-hatred onto others, which is ominous because we know that Sebastian suffers from self-loathing. In addition, her belief that Lord Marchmain has ruined his own ability to move in society because of his own childishness prophesies a similar doom for Sebastian if he refuses to grow up. Cara’s comment that Sebastian represents Charles’s first love that he will move on from also develops the idea that their love is a youthful fancy that must eventually be left behind in favor of adulthood.