If Lord Marchmain holds in himself all of the Flyte offspring, a friend has pointed out that Charles does as well. Sebastian the degenerate is in Charles. Julia the adulterer is in Charles, Bridey the rational, detached observer is in Charles, and in the end Cordelia, the believer is in Charles too.
Charles, coming from his own dysfunctional family, is a tabula rasa–a blank slate: a canvas waiting for the paint and the artist. At Oxford he is the impressionable, naive student waiting for life to happen. What happens to him is the whole vast and complicated family life of Brideshead. That he becomes an architectural painter–who first makes his name painting Marchmain House–shows that his whole life has become a meditation on the fate of Brideshead.
Some have seen Lady Marchmain as a symbol of Mother Church. I don’t agree. I think, instead, that Brideshead itself is the symbol of Mother Church and therefore Christ himself whose body the Church is. Without reading too much into it, could Mr Covington’s suggestion be true that the name ‘Brideshead’ itself is chosen for the fact that the Church is the Bride of Christ and Christ is her head? (Covington is an English teacher at St Joseph’s Catholic School) Does Nanny (who mysteriously never ages) stand for the Mother of God? There she is–always up in the attic close to God–as the one who prays for them and is the perpetual mother of them all.
If this is so, then Charles’ encounter with the Flyte clan is an encounter with the Church–in all its variety. There you find everyone, from the saints: Nanny Hawkins, Father Mackay and Cordelia to the sinners: Sebastian, Julia, Anthony Blanche, Lord Marchmain and Cara; to the self righteous religious ones–Lady Marchmain, Bridey, Mrs Muspratt, Mr Samgrass and even the boors and imbeciles: Rex Mottram and Francis Xavier the pig.
That Charles encounters them all is important, but what is most important as we identify with Charles, is that he learns from them all. Over the whole tale he observes them all and comes to see the truth. That is why at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed he can utter his pitiful little prayer that God might give Julia a sign of her father’s repentance, and when the sign comes all that he has learned is summarized and brought home in one powerful moment of his own conversion. At that point he is caught by the twitch of the thread, and everyone in the whole tale had their part to play in the catch.
In the end all is harvest, and Waugh shows us that in the divine plan, if we learn to repent, even our sin is part of our redemption. But then it is also true, that if we do not learn to repent, even out faith and good works will be for our damnation.