Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Brideshead Revisited: Did they or didn’t they?

Part of GLBT week on Vulpes Libris

I first saw the iconic Granada TV series of Brideshead Revisited as a child. I can’t quite remember how old I was, but I don’t think I had hit puberty.  I remember the fluster of hormonal older girls excitedly discussing which of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews was the more scrumptious – whereas I was not yet in that swooning breastbeating state of teenage unrequitedness.

But I did love them all the same in my own childlike fashion.

Then, one night, at the dinner table my parents and sister embarked on a ground-breaking conversation.  Was Charles and Sebastian’s relationship a homosexual one? What did “homosexual” mean I asked.  I was told the answer. And was absolutely horrified . (I was a very prudish child). Charles and Sebastian couldn’t be homosexual! I mean, I couldn’t even stomach the idea of anything sexual. They were pure as the driven snow. No way!

A day or two later and I was over it. I wasn’t stupid. Watching the series it seemed obvious, even to my innocent eyes that their relationship was certainly a romantic one. So, they were gay. Shrug. What did it matter? I still loved them. And I got back to watching my beloved characters for the rest of the series and thought little more of it.

Until a week or so ago when the subject cropped up rather unexpectedly on Radio 4’s The Reunion, which had gathered together survivors of the original cast. Asked about whether Charles and Sebastian’s relationship was a sexual one, Jeremy Irons – much to my astonishment – appeared to deny it. And this, despite Waugh’s own background, despite the incredible real-life characters thought by many to inspire the Flyte family, despite the numerous hints and suggestions within the book and series. (Anthony Andrews, I noticed, said nothing. Wise man.)

A brief low-down

For anyone unfamiliar with Brideshead, let me give you a brief low-down of the plot. Charles Ryder,  a middle-class army officer, returns to a stately home (Brideshead) which is shut up and being used as  soldier base during the Second World War. He is deeply familiar with the place and so is set of his chain of nostalgic and bittersweet remembrances – his first encounter with his great friend at Oxford, Lord Sebastian Flyte,  who he falls in love with (for his charm, for his beauty, for his class) and his subsequent doomed affair with Sebastian’s sister, Julia,  who he falls in love with (for her beauty and her resemblance to Sebastian) and his love affair with the Flyte family and the house itself (which he falls in love with for its beauty, its charm etc etc – you get the picture – and all it represents to him of pre-War values, the aristocracy, tradition, etc etc  etc).

The recent film and the “gay kiss” controversy

The recent film version of Brideshead had no doubt about the “gay” element.  Charles is warned off Sebastian’s set at Oxford as they are all “sodomites” and Lord Marchmain’s lover Cara turns to Charles at one point and tells him (in case we’re in any doubt) that this romantic friendship with Sebastian is just a phase he is going through, whereas for Sebastian it is rather more serious, she fears. If still in doubt, the film presents us with the tamest of man-on-man action – when Sebastian nips in with a quick smacker on the lips and Charles turns away with an enigmatic smirk in response. (This last causing some controversy).

I am sympathetic to the film and its intentions. There is a very interesting performance from Ben Wishaw (who is a terrific actor) and in some ways I preferred Hayley Atwell’s more robust and life-affirming Julia to Diana Quick’s more brittle version (although the latter seemed more like the book). I am sympathetic to the way the film is trying avoid presenting the religious themes, the snobbery and the pre-War aristocratic hedonistic excess through nostalgia-tinted spectacles and to bring out the homosexuality was a brave move and could have yielded some very interesting results.

However, at the end of the day – for me, the film doesn’t quite work and is more an interesting interpretation than a complete piece all of its own.   By making the subtext the text, the film narrows down the possibilities and ends up saying rather less than the book or the TV series – and, ironically, ends up becoming  more heterosexual than either.

The film presents a very simplistic and unsatisfying love triangle of which Sebastian is the losing party from the start.  As soon as Charles encounters Julia – that’s it. The story becomes a much more conventional love across the divides of class and religion sort of plot, with a sad Sebastian dying of a broken heart in the background – rejected by Charles.

In the book and the TV series, Charles loses Sebastian – to drink, to addiction and to his extreme crisis (of faith? Of family? Of meaning? ) and self-imposed exile.  It is a more powerful  loss for the fact it is such a realistic portrait of alcoholism, familiar to so many people. Sebastian is bent on self-destruction and self-destruct he does. He rejects Charles in the end, not the other way round, and Julia has nothing to do with it.

The quest for reality: signs and signals

In some ways, this quest for the reality behind a book or drama  – are Charles and Sebastian lovers? Is Charles bisexual or just going through “a phase” ? etc – is meaningless. Charles and Sebastian (of course) do not exist. There is no “what really happened” there is only what we are told happens. But there IS the underlying reality in terms of what we are meant to understand from the signs and signals that Waugh sets out for us.

For me, these signs and signals are clear. First of all, is the incredible dominance of Sebastian as a character within the book.  The series (which I saw first) and the book itself (that I read much later) share the same problem: that they are works of two halves. And the first half is so attractive, so dramatic, so dominant – that the second half just falls away somewhat. The first half of Brideshead is all about Sebastian and Charles’ relationship with him. The second half is about Julia – and the novel cannot conjure the same sense of rapture when concerned with this character.

It is rare to find a character in a book that is so charming off the page. Sebastian is light and witty and fun and generous.

Sebastian entered – dove-grey flannel, white crepe de Chine, a Charvet tie, my tie as it happened, a pattern of postage stamps – “Charles – what in the world’s happening at your college? Is there a circus? I’ve seen everything except elephants. I must say the whole of Oxford has become most peculiar suddenly. Last night it was pullulating with women, You’re to come away at once, out of danger. I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey- which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries”

“Where are we going?”

“To see a friend.”


“Name of Hawkins. Bring some money in case we see anything we want to buy. The motor-car is the property of a man called Hardcastle. Return the bits to him if I kill myself; I’m not very good at driving.”

This famous opening scene is so casual and it is so easy to get swept up in Sebastian’s easy charm and miss those little clues. That he is so casually turning up in Charles’ tie, for example – not “a tie I lent him” or “why does he have my tie?” but a tie that he is casually possessing and sees no need to explain or excuse. (Why, we wonder, is the tie even mentioned at all if it is not telling us something here?) The humorous mention of the women is also interesting – these are not young men expressing excitement at the thought of the young women’s presence (somewhat unusual you might have thought). Rather they are – however comically – seeking to escape; Sebastian rescuing Charles from their clutches.

“Hawkins” we assume to be some male acquaintance along the lines of “a man called Hardcastle” in fact turns out to be Sebastian’s nanny – someone he wants Charles to meet and who he obviously loves dearly.

The whole of the first half of the book is thick with Sebastian. His beauty is constantly referred to and his character dominates the novel in a way that Julia’s simply can’t compete with. Just as Charles is infatuated with him – the audience are invited to become infatuated with him and it is Julia who is frequently described as resembling Sebastian, not the other way round.  We are forever told that she looks like him – in the book and in the Tv series (despite the fact that Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick are about as similar as Arnold Swarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins. ) Her beauty is a female facsimile of his beauty. Charles is drawn to her because she reminds him of his beloved friend. When she asks Charles later in the novel why he married he says simply he was missing Sebastian, suggesting more than friendship and more, even, than an affair – but a real care and companionship: love.

The unbelievers

I did think, before researching this piece, that although it is obvious we are to understand that Charles and Sebastian have some sort of homosexual relationship,  that  it  doesn’t really matter. We are far too hung up on sex in this country. What does it matter whether they consummated some sexual act, there is still a sexual/romantic fixation whatever way you look at it – doesn’t it demean homosexual love to always reduce it down to the old “did they or didn’t they?” question?

However, since researching the reaction to the recent film and finding articles like this, I’ve decided that perhaps it is important, after all, to properly argue what is obvious to many, what is the obvious and overwhelming case. And show why these other viewpoints simply make no sense.

Look at this  quote from screenwriting blogger Barbara Nicolosi in relation to the recent film version:

“The nature of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is quite thoroughly discussed in the book. And Sebastian is repeatedly set off from the group Evelyn Waugh dubs “the sodomites” who are led by Antony Blanche – who in the book is THE homosexual in the story AND whose role in the story is to articulate the point-of-view of well, Satan. The key discussion of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian comes through the analysis of the Italian mistress, Kara. She speaks of “these romantic male friendships that you British have,” which occur in youth and are a precursor for adult love. Her warning about the relationship has to do with the fact that chumming around getting sloshed and being feckless with your buddies is something children do, and that growing up will mean letting the idyllic, wistful summers of childhood go. And she thinks Sebastian is going to struggle to accept adulthood.”


I don’t agree with any of this. For one thing anyone who knows anything about the history of the British public school system will know that “these romantic male friendships that you British have” is the most obvious euphemism in the history of euphemisms. Whether those involved were “homosexual” in the categorising of themselves sense or not at the end of the day (whatever you think of the whole categorising can of worms), Cara is clearly referring to gay relations that many men of the time might have had in the all-male environments of school and college.

Sebastian is clearly a depiction of a homosexual man. It seems just plain bloody-minded to refuse to see it. He shows no interest in women. He is possessive of Charles, he is surrounded by overtly homosexual characters – including Anthony Blanche, the almost Wildean stuttering aesthete who speaks far more wisdom than anyone ever gives him credit for including a rather interesting speech about the danger of charm (voice of Satan? – I don’t think so!!). And when Charles meets Sebastian in the midst of his alcoholic decline abroad he is living with a male companion – Kurt – who he tends to and looks after with great tenderness.  Is HE just another innocent “male friendship” to do with Sebastian’s refusal to take responsibility and grow up as some would have us believe? Or is this actually the depiction of a man living with another man – as a companion, a partner, a lover – abroad and in exile away from a country where such an obvious live-in partnership would be scandalous and where homosexuality was illegal? The latter interpretation is obvious: it just makes more sense.

The idea that “the nature of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is quite thoroughly discussed” is erronious. Homosexuality was illegal. It was not discussed and even books like “Maurice” – EM Forster’s openly gay work, were not published until the 1970s. Waugh seems uncomfortable even showing a sex scene between Charles and Julia – it is one-off, extremely brief and not very romantic. But the other question is not why doesn’t Waugh put in more obvious graphic stuff – which I think answers itself – but why he puts in so much context and clues if he doesn’t want us to go down that line of thought. If Sebastian is just an innocent asexual childman – why include Blanche, why those clues and references I outlined in the scene above, why does Charles’ cousin refer to Sebastian’s set as “sodomites”, why have him living with Kurt in exile? Why go on and on and on about love and romantic love in relation to Charles and Sebastian?

A bit of background

And if none of THAT convinces you – let’s look at some context.

Last year, Paula Byrne’s book “Mad World” claimed that Waugh had at least three “full-fledged homosexual affairs” at Oxford. She also claimed that Waugh’s friend, Hugh Lygon, was the inspiration for the character of Sebastian. Whether this is correct or not, Lygon’s story is interesting in itself – as a backdrop to the book, a context for the world in which Waugh moved (or would have liked to move) and for what it tells us about the open secret of sexuality amongst the upper classes at that time.

Hugh Lygon was with Waugh at Oxford and it has been suggested that they had an affair. Hugh – like Sebastian – was charming and beautiful . And gay. He was also a prodigious alcoholic and died tragically when young. But the story of his father, the 7th Earl Beauchamp, is even more fascinating – a man whose homosexuality was known to his friends and his own children, who embarked on numerous affairs with his male servants. He was forced into exile by accusations by his wife’s brother and lived on the continent – like Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited (who lived in self-imposed exile after a wild life and “living in sin” with his Italian longterm lover). Interestingly, his children stuck by him and held him in great affection and continued to visit him abroad. The Lygons – like the Flytes – were also catholic. Whether or not you believe that the Flytes were based on the Lygon family – with whom Waugh remained closely allied all his life – it is still fascinating to see the context which surrounded Waugh – and indeed the upper classes at that time. It makes the idea of Brideshead’s innocence (as espoused by some internet writers) seem rather laughable.

At the end of the day, whether Hugh Lygon is Sebastian hardly matters – but what it does show was that Waugh was surrounded by openly gay friends and, what’s more, he stayed friends with them and their families throughout his life. I doubt there was much that would shock him – Catholic convert or not.

The verdict

As this is LGBT week on Vulpes Libris, I set out to look at this one theme and one question. I haven’t even touched on the themes of class and religion (about which I have just cut copious words for the sake of blog brevity and focus). Perhaps another time.

In the meantime I will leave you with this lovely and illuminating article by John Mortimer – a little nostalgia-trip in itself about that original TV series.

Oh yes, and the answer to the original question?

Most definitely.

20 comments on “Brideshead Revisited: Did they or didn’t they?

  1. annebrooke
    May 22, 2010

    This is a totally fabulous article, Rosy! I am inspired, and will now rush to get Brideshead Revisited, the book – which to my utter shame I have never read. Shock! Horror! I will go remedy that right now 🙂

    I did love the TV series though, but haven’t yet seen the film.


  2. Lara Zielinsky
    May 22, 2010

    What an exceptional conclusion to the week’s theme! Excellent discussion of Brideshead, and its many layers. I thank you.

  3. Sam Ruddock
    May 22, 2010

    Nice in depth review, Rosy. I’ve been wanting to read Brideshead for the past couple of weeks since I read Naomi Alderman’s new novel, The Lessons. (review and interview coming soon.)

    It’s basically Brideshead re-composed for the 1990s with a large dollop of The Secret History thrown into the mix.

    I’ve never even seen the Bridehead TV series but it’s now top of my to-read and to-watch pile.

  4. Jackie
    May 22, 2010

    I was another of those enchanted by the TV miniseries, though I was a bit older than Rosy & I refused to watch the new movie, because it would never stack up to the original. I read the book a few years after the series & was struck by the humor and lovely prose of Waugh’s writing, which I read more of in following years.
    This was a really interesting piece and I hope we eventually see a post about the other subjects within it that you mention, class & religion. Your essays always make me see things in familiar works that I never did before, which is much appreciated.

  5. Hilary
    May 22, 2010

    Great article, Rosy! Of course they did. Strangely, it never occurred to me when I read it in the 60s, and saw the TV series in the 80s, that they didn’t. When I read the novel I was about 18 or 19, and sexuality somehow was the least of the big deals in it to me. I identified so strongly with Charles, discovering Oxford, discovering and being discovered by this exotic menagerie of a family – a million miles from what I was experiencing, but in detail not in essence.

    There is such richness in the novel, so much detail to mine, to portray a place and an age, and its constituent parts of class, religion, wealth, family. I think it responded better to the extended, almost leisurely treatment of a multi-episode adaptation. Making it into a feature-length film seems to me to be asking for superficiality, and impatience with the subtleties.

  6. Moira
    May 22, 2010

    Well now, isn’t this curious? Because it never crossed my mind that they did: not when I originally read the book in my early 20s nor when I subsequently saw the series in the 80s.

    I never thought that Sebastian was anything other than gay, of course – but I also never thought that his relationship with Charles was a physical one. I may need to revisit the novel with 30 more years under my belt to see if my 50-something brain thinks differently.

    I remember the novel well, even now. I read it, as I recall, in just a couple of days, barely able to put it down I was so enthralled with it … and the series didn’t disappoint. Oxford has never looked so achingly beautiful.

  7. Phil
    May 23, 2010

    “……….Asked about whether Charles and Sebastian’s relationship was a sexual one, Jeremy Irons – much to my astonishment – appeared to deny it……….”

    Could Jeremy Irons’ denying it have to do with his being of a certain age? I, as someone close to Jeremy Iron’s age (I’m marginally older) also didn’t think that Charles and Sebastian necessarily had a physical relationship.

    “……….to bring out the homosexuality was a brave move………”

    Wasn’t the film’s bringing this out, more to do with it being a contemporarily-made film, than that it was brave? I would have expected it to dwell on the homosexuality aspect, because this is what we’re obsessed with today.

    After all, is it not true that contemporary films set in times past, say as much about today, as they do about the times they are set in?

  8. rosyb
    May 23, 2010

    “I would have expected it to dwell on the homosexuality aspect, because this is what we’re obsessed with today.”

    Actually I think this is rather an unfair assessment of the film and contemporary society. I am assuming you haven’t seen the film here as it is actually very very very low-key about any homosexuality aspect to be honest (in fact I was surprised there was any furore about it.) All it does is make it clear that Sebastian is homosexual by having him try to kiss Charles. It does not even seem to put forward necessarily that the two might be lovers- in fact i think it suggests this less than the film or book in some ways. As I said, it – somewhat ironically – seems to me to be a much more mainstream heterosexual film by closing off interpretations.

    AS for us being obsessed with the homosexuality aspect today, are you really saying we as a culture are obsessed with homosexuality in our cinema? I think you would be hard pressed to find much of it in contemporary cinema at all. We are hardly awash with gay characters – particularly not gay heroes and heroines in any widely distributed film. Far from being obsessed by it, the majority of films seem to need to court the US market as much as possible these days to have any chance of getting financed.

    I think it is brave because many films these days seem to need the US approval factor to have any chance of getting financed and subversiveness/alternative culture/society/viewpoints is hardly where US cinema excels.

    I think the Brideshead film might have been more interesting in a way if it had increased our knowledge of the hidden worlds and layers of society then and given us more of a view of the time (such as the film, Wilde, for example) and deconstructed some of the snobbery, the hypocrisy, the hedonism, the religion etc that costume dramas so often don’t challenge.

    As audience members, I suspect that our age and background and assumptions etc have a lot to do with our interpretation. Perhaps the younger generation are more used to the idea of things in the past not always being as they seem…

    But I do think given the background and context of Waugh’s university years and the many details and references and clues that seem to cement Brideshead to this – that it is very strange indeed not to even ask the question at all. And that is what I found so strange about Irons. But then an actor’s interpretation is not necessarily the same as the director’s. But I was amazed that he wasn’t asking the question as it seemed a proper question to ask.

    I personally prefer works that ask lots of questions rather than try to answer them all – but I’m amazed if anyone didn’t see this element as a big question that lies at the heart of the book. For one thing it surely feeds into the whole idea of being an exile – which is very much a theme of the book. People who wanted homosexual love and companionship (as Sebastian seems to) were the ones exiled. As we know, many people practised the sex without it affecting their respectable surface life one way or the other.

    This is why I think Sebastian and Kurt is an important feature of the book.

    Of course, what Waugh is SAYING with all this stuff is another matter entirely. But a good work of art often says many things – some of which the author intends and some of which he doesn’t.

  9. Phil
    May 24, 2010

    “………I am assuming you haven’t seen the film here as it is actually very very very low-key about any homosexuality aspect to be honest………..”

    Having seen the original 12 part BBC series at least twice over, and seeing how faithfully it followed the novel, I had the original series in mind when I saw the relatively recent film of “Brideshead Revisited” . Hence I was struck by the overtly “campy” behaviour of Sebastian in the film, and thought it reflected our contemporary cultural climate.

    I therefore concluded that, since such an overtly homosexual male character would not be satisfied with less than a full physical relationship with a close male friend, the makers of the film intended viewers to think that the relationship was a physical one.

    “……..AS for us being obsessed with the homosexuality aspect today, are you really saying we as a culture are obsessed with homosexuality in our cinema? I think you would be hard pressed to find much of it in contemporary cinema at all. We are hardly awash with gay characters – particularly not gay heroes and heroines in any widely distributed film. Far from being obsessed by it, the majority of films seem to need to court the US market as much as possible these days to have any chance of getting financed……….”

    I was thinking more of contemporary culture generally. It’s only within the last twenty or so years that we’ve witnessed the public discussion about the putative real relationship between the literary figures, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; and between the comic-strip cartoon characters, Batman and Robin; and the putative homosexuality of historical public figures as disparate as Abraham Lincoln, Cecil Rhodes, and J Edgar Hoover.

    Beyond 20 or so years ago, it wouldn’t have crossed many minds that there was anything remotely untoward in the behaviour of any of the above characters, whether fictional or real.

    Think also of the current public discussion about what the sexual orientation is of the woman who Barack Obama has nominated to be on the US Supreme Court. Such discussion wouldn’t have happened ten, or even five years ago.

    As for films eschewing homosexuality because of wishing to court the US market, what of “Brokeback Mountain”, about two homosexual cowboys, which won the Oscar a few years ago? And HBO (do you get it in Britain?) had the very popular series, “Six Feet Under”, two of whose male characters had a very no-holds-barred homosexual relationship.

    All this said, I enjoyed very much reading your piece about “Brideshead Revisited”, and am now tempted to re-read the novel for the third time!!!

  10. rosyb
    May 24, 2010

    Thanks for liking the piece, Phil, and for the comments too.

    “Beyond 20 or so years ago, it wouldn’t have crossed many minds that there was anything remotely untoward in the behaviour of any of the above characters, whether fictional or real. ”

    I think you have to be a bit careful here. Which people and groups are you talking about? I remember studying Oscar Wilde and all the coded words that spoke to gay people in the audience, but would have flown over the heads of those not in the know. A work of art can speak to many people and say many things. Knowing a little about the background of a writer can – at least – maybe point out to us the kinds of audiences they might have been trying to communicate with and the different languages they might use.

    I’m not saying that Waugh is doing a Wilde, but I do think there can be a level of understanding…

    As for the comment about homosexuality in American film and TV – I also have to point out that Brokeback Mountain was considered absolutely groundbreaking. It is a real sign of how very very RARE it is to see any such relationship depicted in US cinema not the other way round. Sadly. As I feel it is very important that we do represent all kinds of relationships in our mainstream cinema. HBO is famous for doing extremely brave and interesting drama – but it’s also famous for being the very rare exception. It is a subscription only channel in the US which is very significant.

    As for the new film and the interpretation of Sebastian, because the TV series was so very dominant in our memories, the new film had to do a different interpretation in a way. I am one that tends to like lots of different interpretations (being a great fan of Shakespeare and all the many interpretations his plays invite: mad, bad and everything in between). If you want the book – the book still exists. If you want a very elegiac interpretation of the book with all its complex and subtle themes – the TV series hits the spot. Actually, the film didn’t quite work for me as I explained, but perhaps because it didn’t go far enough – for me, perhaps it hovered a little between intentions and closed down interpretations too much for me. I’m not sure. But certainly not because of the gay kiss! 🙂

    Now, talking of Brokeback, as this piece was part of GLBT week, you must take a read of one of my all-time favourite Vulpes LIbris pieces – Anne’s examination of the story and film (both of which were excellent , I hope you agree) that was part of Adaptation Week. Enjoy!

  11. Rod O'Neal
    June 22, 2010

    I would refer to the online “A Companion to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited” by David Cliffe, which is a marvelous resource.
    In it, he states, in note number 46 ‘naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins’
    “the only reference in BR to the depth of Charles Ryder’s relationship with Sebastian (after all he was ‘looking for love’). Some think that the implication is that they were lovers. They argue that grave sins are known in the Catholic Church as ‘mortal sins’, and, if unrepented, deserve eternal damnation. Mere friendship cannot qualify for such condemnation.”

    The naughtiness that Sebastian and Charles were indulging in was said by Charles to be “high in the catalogue of grave sins”. I don’t think Charles is talking about getting drunk as a grave sin, although even David Cliffe has updated the above quoted entry in his online companion to include speculation, stemming from his readers’ comments, that “drunkenness and self-centered hedonism” is what Charles is talking about.
    I really think that this overlooked comment by Charles is very key to understanding the relationship between the two.
    Oh, and I happen to be Gay myself, so my viewpoint may have special insight… or prejudice/bias, as you conservatives will no doubt think.

  12. Pingback: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde « Vulpes Libris

  13. jaz
    December 19, 2012

    Brideshead Revisited is one of my favourite novels and you have done it justice! A fabulous article, explaining the TRUE characters (I read one article that depicted Anthony Blanche as ‘evil’, what nonsense!) and you elaborate on what I’ve been thinking all along! The article is perfect, and very interesting. Thank you for the link to the other article concerning BR, I had a small laugh at it and sniggered, too (links called ‘this).

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  15. Pingback: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – A Longer Rumination | Fanarchist - Reading Blog

  16. cwanderson
    June 13, 2014

    I have also just recently covered this same ground –the Brideshead book and television series– and the reviewer is right to focus on this question that plagues the viewer — Are they, could they be,… Doing it? No doubt you are correct (Rosyb)that they are, but more importantly that you point out that homosexuality was illegal and very much barely ever even discussed.

    To wit, the author and scholar A.L. Rowse , while a don at Christchurch, was having a chat with Wystan Auden, who before speaking closed the door (and curtains) before kneeling under the lamp to show Rowse a letter he had received from a friend who was abroad, somewhere, — Tangiers, Morrocco, or Egypt — where the letter writer was carrying on homosexual affairs (w the natives, so to speak). Rowse, a repressed (self-admitted) homosexual himself is shocked, really bowled over by the sheer brashness. This was very much an extremely taboo subject at the time. I’ve read a good deal of Waugh, letters, diaries, etc. and I was never left with the impression that Waugh himself was a homosexual, but only that he knew a great many. (I am not doubting anything Ms. Byrnes has found to the contrary).
    Rowse himself may be a perfect example of someone who never once engaged in a homosexual act his entire life. Either that, or for him it would be the height of impropriety to ever reveal such a thing, especially in his writing. For the eminently dignified and proper Rowse such things were not discussed.

    You can read this scene in Rowse’s book on Auden “The Poet Auden: A Personal Memoir.”

  17. James Watford
    May 16, 2015

    Loved it! And completely agree.

  18. Helen moriarty
    October 26, 2015

    Can’t thank you enough for educating me, in depth on this fascinating book! I too will now read the book! Question – my 12 year olds sons English teacher has suggested this read for my son! What’s your view, considering the topic and child’s age?

  19. John Price
    January 31, 2016

    The Lygons were Anglo Catholics, not Roman Catholics

  20. David Stickley
    March 11, 2019

    What seems to be overlooked here, and in every other review I have read of the book / series / movie, is that the nature of Charles’ & Sebastian’s physical relationship (yes, they were gay – duh…) is absolutely secondary to the nature of their spiritual relationship: they were the loves of each others’ lives. Sebastian drank for his own reasons (presumably his inherited theology of what he wanted most being sinful, and therefore forbidden if he wanted a relationship with God), and Charles couldn’t manage Sebastian’s alcoholism. Charles’ marriage failed because he didn’t love Celia, and he was never in love with Julia – rather, he continued his love for Sebastian through her, which is why they didn’t marry in the end. The theology woven through the story of what love really is, what God really wants from us, and how we respond to those two things is fraught with tension and disappointment until the end, when the burning sanctuary lamp gives us a sense of the Divine presence and the hope that Charles is finally able to draw from that for his life going forward.

    Those may be the parts of you wonderful blog that got cut. A shame, because everyone who says that being gay is wrong focuses on the physical, not the spiritual. And in doing so, they perpetuate the dark and inherited theology of a punishing God who simply cannot be that way if – as Scripture tells us at the very beginning of our story – God looked at everything that had been made and called it “very good.”

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The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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