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?

(Originally published on May 22, 2010 as part of a dedicated 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 breast-beating 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’sThe 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 Schwarzenegger 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 erroneous. 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 GLBT 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.

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