The Catholic concept of divine grace, God’s unconditional love, plays a central role in Brideshead Revisited. Cordelia introduces this theme explicitly in Book 2, Chapter 3, in her conversation with Charles in which she references her mother reading from The Wisdom of Father Brown. Father Brown claims that he has caught a thief with invisible string that he can always pull back. This metaphorically describes the relationship between God and a sinner, positing that no matter how far from God a person may stray, God can always pull them back to His fold. Charles also notices this type of love in Cordelia, the Marchmain child who finds the most permanent joy through her devout and steady Catholic faith. When discussing their mutual love for Sebastian, she uses the present tense, which evokes guilt in Charles because he has thought of his love of Sebastian as of the past, a worldly love reminiscent of a specific era in his life. Cordelia’s Catholic love mirrors divine grace because it has no past tense and is steady and unending.
Book 3 of the novel shows divine grace in action, offering comfort, purpose, and meaning to characters who previously live in near despair. Sebastian spends years trying to escape his responsibilities through drinking, but finding the monastery and supporting the monks’ work gives him peace. Despite Lord Marchmain living life according to his own dictates, Cara observes that he’s deeply unhappy. His Catholic awakening at the end of his life portrays him as at least having peace in death. From watching her father’s deathbed conversion, Julia realizes that she has not been hopelessly cut off from God just because she married Rex, assuaging her deep-seated guilt. Finally, Charles’s Catholicism allows him to find hope despite his disillusionment with the army because the army reopened Brideshead’s chapel. The reopened chapel symbolizes that even in this bleak, modern world, God’s light can shine through.
The Shallowness of Modernity
Brideshead warns of the shallowness of modernity, as Charles perceives it. The two characters that Charles describes as quintessentially modern men, Hooper and Rex Mottram, have shallow, callous natures. They possess an obsession with money without regard for humanity, which is showcased horrifyingly in Hooper’s pronouncement that the mentally ill are a waste of resources. When Charles has dinner with Rex in Paris, he chafes against Rex’s fascination with Lady Marchmain’s illness and worries about possible debts for the family, signs that Rex cares only about the Marchmains’ finances. Charles also believes modernity lacks resilience. He loves painting old buildings because they represent something time-tested and proven to have beauty. In contrast, he portrays modernity as flimsy. Julia describes Rex as an incomplete man, implying he lacks soul and substance, as shown through his comical attempts at converting to Catholicism. He has an inability to see religion as anything other than an aesthetic label. This flimsiness appears in his career as well because, despite his success, his position is not truly stable and is reliant on the whims of public opinion.
Throughout Brideshead Revisited, characters fall in love with people who represent something they have been seeking in their lives. Charles explains this theory of love in Book 3, Chapter 4, when he tells Julia that all loves might be “hints and symbols.” In other words, people love others not for who they are but what they mean. Accordingly, Charles’s early relationship with Sebastian revolves around how Sebastian awakens Charles’s understanding of beauty. Charles eventually becomes close to Sebastian’s family because Sebastian’s beauty comes from the heritage of the Marchmains and Brideshead Castle. Charles describes Sebastian as the forerunner to his relationship with Julia, which is passionate and sexual. However, Charles ties even his physical desire for Julia to his love of Brideshead, describing their first time having sex as “entering a property.” In his romances with Sebastian and Julia, what Charles appears to truly love is the Marchmain heritage and the British aristocracy, symbolized by Brideshead itself. Charles’s next great love is the army, which also represents a desire to protect this heritage. He falls out of love with the army because he doesn’t believe it actually protects Englishness, symbolized by the soldiers’ callous treatment of Brideshead Castle.