Summary: Book 2: Chapter 2

Charles turns to Julia’s role in his story. He has always had some interest in Julia because she looks so much like Sebastian, and as Sebastian declines, he notices Julia more and more. Charles now regrets not going to a ball at the London Marchmain house during Julia’s first season in society. He had thought that he would have time later to enjoy London society.

Not long into her first season, Julia begins strategizing about making a good marriage. Although she stands out with her looks and personality, her Catholicism prevents her from marrying into a desirable family. However, she believes converting to Protestantism would send her to hell. 

When she meets Rex, she’s impressed by his demeanor and his ability to join prestigious social circles. Because he’s from Canada, Rex has a unique position in society that makes him seem mysterious. Realizing that Julia is a good marriage prospect for him, Rex works on getting close to her by offering assistance to her and her family. This strategy eventually wins her heart. Soon, Rex proposes.

Lady Marchmain doesn’t approve of their engagement because she doesn’t trust Rex. Julia continues the relationship in secret, leading Rex to continue an affair with an old flame, who is a married woman. Rex claims Julia has left him with no choice because she “gives so little.” Julia asks her priest in confession whether there is a way that committing a small sin to prevent a larger one could be acceptable. When he says no, she temporarily renounces Catholicism. After Julia refuses to take communion at Christmas—the same Christmas of Sebastian’s drunken escape—Lady Marchmain forbids her engagement to Rex. But Lord Marchmain, impressed with Rex’s prosperity and pleased that Lady Marchmain doesn’t like him, agrees to the marriage. 

Because Rex and Julia’s marriage will be considered mixed—between a Protestant and a Catholic—their wedding will be small, infuriating Rex. He decides to convert to Catholicism. Lady Marchmain doesn’t believe Rex is sincere in his faith, and the priests agree that he’s attempting to convert without understanding the substance of conversion.

Bridey discovers that Rex has been married once before, and because the church frowns upon divorce, Rex cannot convert to Catholicism. Rex argues that the priests don’t know about his marriage, so it doesn’t matter. Julia agrees, infuriating Cordelia. Rex suggests they get married in a Protestant church. Lady Marchmain forbids it. Julia scandalizes everyone by saying that she’s been Rex’s mistress and wants to marry him so that she can stop living in sin—a lie. In the end, Rex gets Lord Marchmain’s permission and marries Julia in tiny ceremony in a chapel often used for weddings between previously divorced people.

People take Lady Marchmain’s side in the matter, and Julia observes that Lady Marchmain has the sympathy of everyone except those she loves. Julia, in retrospect, observes that Rex is a creature of modernity, only partly human. 

Analysis: Book 2: Chapter 2

This chapter develops Julia’s character, portraying her as trapped between religion and society. Unlike Sebastian, who cares so little about society’s judgment that it crosses into selfishness, Julia appears to care deeply about her reputation. Her approach to marriage is as strategic as Rex’s calculated, political approach to helping Charles, Sebastian, and Mulcaster get out of their drunk and disorderly charges. Charles highlights that Julia resents that her Catholicism limits her marriage prospects even though her natural beauty and charm make her popular. On the one hand, this dichotomy embodies the way London society prioritizes the temporary (youth and beauty) over the long-lasting (Charles’s perception of the Catholic Church). However, for Julia at this moment, the contradiction leaves her feeling slighted. Her willingness to renounce Catholicism rather than lose Rex seems less about Rex himself than about her frustration with this aspect of her life hindering her social prospects. In this light, Julia’s lie about being Rex’s mistress highlights her desperation to feel legitimized by society through a good marriage. 

This chapter establishes Rex as emblematic of modernity, much as Charles will later declare Hooper the symbol of Young England. As a Canadian immigrant, Rex, by definition, is an upstart in British society, joining the elite societal circles on force of personality without heritage, and Charles portrays Rex as all personality but no person. Rex’s farcical attempt at converting to Catholicism highlights this innate shallowness. He first becomes interested in Catholicism because he likes the aesthetics and only begins the conversion process when he realizes his Protestantism will necessitate a smaller wedding. He approaches conversion by trying to sound Catholic, parroting what the priests tell him instead of trying to internalize the spiritual substance of what the priests mean. Rex thrives in political and social situations, easily manipulating the justice system through connections, and here he expects to use the same tactics on the priests. Therefore, Rex represents the utter shallowness of modern society and politics, even treating religion as simply a means to achieving a higher social position.

Lady Marchmain has a polarizing effect on the other characters in the novel. As Sebastian’s comment about the plovers’ eggs foreshadowed, she is rather controlling. However, when examined objectively, Lord Marchmain, Sebastian, and Julia’s anger at Lady Marchmain never seems to actually be about how she treats them but rather that they don’t like what her actions mean about their own behavior. Cara previously noted that Lord Marchmain hates Lady Marchmain because she reminds him of his own flaws, meaning that his anger at her is actually anger at himself. Lady Marchmain’s sobriety measures may have been extreme, but then so is Sebastian’s drinking. In addition, Lady Marchmain had ample evidence that Charles would capitulate to Sebastian’s whims, making her desire for Sebastian to live with the chaplain understandable. Her concern for her son signifies how much he’s deteriorated and how perilous his condition is. Rex’s obvious insincerity in converting to Catholicism and then dropping it at the first impediment demonstrates a lack of seriousness about Julia herself that Lady Marchmain recognizes from her own marriage. Thus, Lady Marchmain’s disapproval reveals that marrying Rex truly isn’t a good idea, something Julia would rather not acknowledge.