Summary: Book 3: Chapter 2
Celia arranges a private viewing for Charles’s Latin American paintings. When Charles arrives the day of the exhibition, Celia is busy inside. She assures him no one important has yet arrived. Charles tells Celia that he’s planning to go to Brideshead that evening, which disappoints Celia. She asks whether she was invited to Brideshead too. Charles says he didn’t mention it because he knew she couldn’t attend. As more people arrive, Celia goes into hostess mode, talking up Charles as a man who lives for beauty. Charles notes that the same critics who derided his last exhibition of English houses now find his work “virile.” Celia promises to make excuses to the children at home, and Charles realizes that she knows he’s having an affair.
Anthony arrives at the exhibition uninvited, but Charles shows him the paintings anyhow. Charles can tell immediately that Anthony doesn’t like the paintings. Anthony suggests they go for a drink. He brings Charles to a bar that caters to gay men. Anthony explains that he has always found Charles’s work too full of English charm, and not being English, he doesn’t understand the English desire to be well-bred. When he overheard people gossiping about Charles’s new exhibition—and his affair with Julia—Anthony hoped Charles’s new art would show him something truly great. Instead, he found more English charm, just disguised as something foreign. He claims that charm has killed the spark in Charles just as he’d warned.
Julia picks Charles up from the train station. He warns her that Celia knows about them. Julia says she doesn’t care who knows. At dinner at Brideshead, Rex comments that having Charles there is just like the old days, which surprises Charles. Dinner is full of political talk about the brewing conflict in Europe that Charles finds tiresome.
After dinner, Charles comments that he doesn’t know whether Celia or Rex is worse. He laments that love makes him hate the world rather than love it more. Julia says the world can’t take their happiness away, but Charles wonders how long it will last.
Analysis: Book 3: Chapter 2
The scene of Charles’s exhibition portrays London society as shallow and hypocritical. Charles dismays that the same critics who disliked his manor house paintings love his jungle paintings because he feels that in terms of technique and substance, his paintings have not changed. That means that the critics prefer to see images of buildings destroyed by an exotic nature instead of buildings that he believes are emblematic of England’s best. This also suggests that the critics exalt in ruin and decay instead of their heritage. Charles also dislikes that the critics consider these paintings more “virile” than his previous work because it associates English manor houses with femininity. Charles sees grand English houses as representing endurance, something powerful and therefore masculine. Worse, the whole exhibition has a more social and business feel than actually being about Charles’s art. Celia’s comment that no one important has arrived yet emphasizes that Charles’s job at this exhibition is to speak with the right people, not to celebrate his paintings. When Charles speaks to Anthony, he learns that people care more about Charles’s affair with Julia than the art itself. Gossip and scandal get more traction in London society than culture and beauty.
Charles’s conversation with Anthony firmly establishes Charles as traditional and not part of Anthony’s bohemian crowd. Interestingly, Anthony claims that he’d warned Charles about the dangers of English charm, which is not strictly true because he’d actually warned Charles about Sebastian’s charm. This conflation of Sebastian and English charm, along with Anthony’s dismissal of England's focus on breeding, illuminates his comments as referring to traditional English values as a whole. Anthony therefore dismisses Charles’s manor house paintings because he dislikes the very endurance and beauty that Charles loves in them. As we have seen, Anthony often makes astute observations, even if Charles strongly disagrees with how he interprets matters. Here, Anthony correctly recognizes that the substance of Charles’s paintings hasn’t changed. Instead of just painting nature or painting Latin American people, Charles specifically seeks out abandoned buildings overgrown by jungle, which he views as a failure of European colonialism to “civilize” the land. He has not painted Latin American landmarks as a celebration of Latin America but as a veneration of England. Charles is thus not one of Anthony’s aesthetes and can never be; he is fixated on English ideals rather than true beauty as Anthony sees it.