But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere . . . in the heart of that gray city.
Charles, as narrator, says this quotation in Book 1, Chapter 1, when he describes going to lunch at Sebastian’s college rooms for the first time. This passage sets up the beginning of Charles’s search for meaning throughout the novel, framing it as a search for love. Charles describes his life at Oxford before Sebastian as missing something. In addition to finding love in his relationship with Sebastian—whether we interpret it as platonic or romantic—Charles also discovers a love of beauty with Sebastian, here described metaphorically as an “enchanted garden.” Part of what draws Charles to Sebastian is Sebastian’s natural exuberance and passion, exemplified in the way his heart leaps equally at a flower as a cathedral. Furthermore, the symbol of the garden evokes the Garden of Eden, tying this image to the novel’s Catholic themes. However, since gardens and flowers are also seasonal, this quote also implies that the love Charles finds for Sebastian won’t last.
This passage also prefigures Charles’s rejection of modernity. The image of going from somewhere gray and gloomy to an enchanted garden evokes the way Charles describes stepping into the landscape surrounding Brideshead in the prologue. Here young and naïve, Charles isn’t yet disillusioned, as he is in the prologue, but his life, full of study and propriety, lacks meaning and passion. His only guide to Oxford has been his cousin, Jasper, who views the university experience entirely as a stepping stone for future endeavors, a philosophy that focuses on appeasing society. Jasper worries about the social implications of Charles’s ground floor room while overlooking the beautiful gillyflowers beneath the window. We will later see the emptiness of the life Jasper pursues through Rex Mottram and Celia, people whose entire lives revolve around ingratiating themselves to others. Charles instead chooses a life represented by Brideshead, enduring and beautiful but overlooked by those pursuing conventional, modern, and popular ways of being.