"...perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us."
In Brideshead Revisited
, Evelyn Waugh (who I seriously thought was a woman) uses beautiful, poetic language to tell the nostalgic story of an era long gone. The narrator, Charles Ryder, recalls the days of his youth and his involvement with a charming but problematic Catholic family. He befriends the eccentric, teddy bear-carrying Sebastian Flyte during college in 1920s Oxford, and subsequently gets acquainted with Sebastian's family members: his estranged father, Lord Marchmain; his strict Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain; his dull eldest brother, the Earl of Brideshead; his practical-minded sister Julia; and his witty youngest sister Cordelia. The huge, ornamental Brideshead castle becomes Charles' playground, "that low door in the wall... which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden".
Charles and Sebastian's relationship remains a point of debate, as some interpret their intimacy as homoerotic while others see it as merely a very close friendship. There was no indication of a physical relationship between them, but Charles did not hesitate in using the word 'love' in relation to Sebastian; he thinks "to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom". The two of them fell apart as Sebastian descends further into alcoholism and runs abroad to escape the clutches of his family, which he finds overbearing. I do, however, think that feeling imprisoned by his religion and wealthy family seem like a poor excuse to destroy himself when he knows it will hurt his family. Perhaps that's why I feel there's something about Sebastian's character that I can't quite put my finger on.
Years later, Charles meets Julia again on board a ship in stormy seas and the two of them, lonely and unhappily married, began an affair which causes them to divorce their spouses in order to marry. To me this second relationship of Charles' seems much like an extension, or even a replacement, of his earlier attachment to Sebastian. Charles himself is ambiguous in the matter; he mentioned that he sees Sebastian in Julia, but may have also seen Julia in Sebastian all those years.
However, the real essence of the story, as Waugh describes himself in the preface, is not romance but divine grace that compels the characters to return to Catholicism no matter how far they've seemed to stray. Lord Marchmain, who renounced Catholicism and went to live in Italy with his mistress, finally returns to God in the last moments of his life. Julia starts out as a non-believer but in the end she can't continue to "live in sin" with Charles and chooses God instead. Sebastian, who never returns to England, seeks help from a monastery abroad. Charles argues against God and Catholicism throughout the novel but at Lord Marchmain's deathbed he goes down on his knees and sincerely prays for him. Overall, the main strength of this novel to me is the mesmerizing language that makes you wish you'd written some of the passages, as well as the mix of diverse characters that make for very interesting subjects for discussion.