Lord Sebastian Flyte

This is precisely what Sebastian does: takes flight. Why is the poor boy (who has everything) on self destruct? One of the greatest things about Brideshead Revisited is Waugh’s uncanny portrayal of the dynamic of a dysfunctional family.

J.Scott Peck’s book, People of the Lie discusses the phenomenon of families who scapegoat a particular family member. Most often they are families who have got everything and have got it all together, but beneath their pasted on perfection great cauldrons of darkness bubble away. The darkness is then subconsciously projected on to one character who turns out to the the one with ‘the problems’. Most often it is that character who is presented to the caring professions in need of help.

The scapegoat becomes the one who develops the emotional, mental or spiritual illnesses. He or she is the one who develops the addiction, the depression or falls into the sinful relationship. There is often nothing the scapegoat can do about it but take flight, and run as fast and as far as possible from a family who are truly sinister without them knowing it. Sebastian knows this, admits it and tells Charles openly that running away is exactly what he plans to do.

When religion is thrown into the mix it all becomes even more deliciously awful. Bridey and Lady Marchmain’s perfectly horrible Catholic perfection is just the sort of outwardly religious ‘perfection’ that makes them even more everlastingly invulnerable to reality and truth. Waugh therefore shows the open sinfulness of Sebastian, but when we look more deeply Sebastian (like his namesake) is a kind of martyr–shot to death with innumerable arrows of self righteous kindness.

Waugh also shows us the unbearable self righteousness of Lady Marchmain and Bridey. They are the true sinners and hypocrites in the story, and her sad and lonely death from cancer and his destiny to lose the family inheritance and be married to Beryl Muspratt gives them both what they deserve.

Beneath the more open story of the work of providence in Charles’ life is this fascinating re-telling of the gospel story where another one is vilified, and scapegoated by the religious self righteous ones until, like the Old Testament, he is driven outside the camp and crucified. This is not to say that Sebastian is a Christ-figure. Waugh is too much of a genius to be so unsubtle. Nevertheless, the themes are there running through the story like a scarlet thread.

And as we know all it takes is a ‘twitch upon the thread…’

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  • Anonymous

    It’s actually M. Scott Peck rather than J. Scott Peck.

  • Whatever his initial was I’ll never forget the story about the parents who gave their son the gun his brother had used to kill himself.

  • Father,I think you are too harsh on Lady Marchmain, and harsher than Waugh at that. For what it’s worth, Italian-American families are famously matriarchal, and that sometimes requires steely nerves like those shown by her. (In fact, she reminds me of my late beloved maternal grandmother, a woman who ran our extended family with an as-needed velvet-covered iron fist. I suspect Lady Marchmain appreciated her role similarly.)Do you really think she was invulnerable to the truth, i.e., damned? I just don’t see it.

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  • I’m sorry, Father, but I think your statements about Bridey are totally misplaced! How is his marriage to Miss Musprat a punishment?! Bridey, I think, is wonderfully virtuous character whose greatest flaw is that of being unbearably dull and imperceptive. Yet you call him a hypocrite?! How so? What does he do that justifies such a claim? I can think of nothing.The mother is, of course, a more difficult case. She may be a ‘bloodsucker’ as Anthony Blanchecalls her; but I am never quite sure if I can believe Anthony. To call her only ‘outwardly religous’ is to say exacly what Waugh never did. Lady Marchmain’s attempts to heal Sebastian might be indications of her own sins and ‘hypocrisy’ but it is not certain. All we know is that Sebastian cannot tolerate the ‘kindness’ any longer and flees. One interpretation never heard is that Sebastian is a whiney spoiled brat who cannot be reprimanded without falling into complete self-pity. We must remember that our view of Sebastian is slightly tainted by the memories of Charles, who loved Sebastian madly. Thus, what Charles sees as intolerable meddling by the family could also be seen as the intervention of a loving family. Why are all readers so quick to blame Lady Marchmain and Bridey for Sebastian’s fall?Whether it is his fault or theirs is ultimately unknown and part of the genius of Waugh.Anyway, I’m really enjoying these posts about Brideshead so keep ’em comin’!

  • Well now, I’ve got some discussion started, and I admit these are my opinions, but it does seem to me that Bridey’s religion never goes beyond intellectual correctness and moral uprightness. Is he not the classical older brother (as in the parable of the prodigal son)? I find Bridey comical to be sure, but I don’t like him one little bit. I think he’s a self righteous, self absorbed prig. Lady Marchmain is legalistic, self righteous, snobbish and disdainful.Whoops–it was M. Scott Peck, and Jeffrey–it seems we’ve read all the same books. I will also never forget the story of the boy with the gun…

  • I agree about Lady Marchmain and Brideshead. They go through all the correct motions and responses, yet they make believing look like something insipid and cold. There’s neither joy nor love in them.

  • Love it..studied it for our Catholic women’s Book Club..

  • Interesting. But I don’t agree with your perception of Bridey. I don’t see him as a hypocrate. To me he seems innocently clueless. Cordelia, a child at the beginning of the novel, has more perception and real understanding than he does.

  • Anonymous

    But don’t you think that Sebastain has a true calling to the regloius life unlike his sister or his Brother. And his deep self hate of himself manifeasts in his behaviour and way he has to espace in order to help himself but it does not work becuse he takes himself with him. The paradox is if he took up Gods call he would be able to save him self becasue by being a priest it is only way that God can save him and could begin to understand and save himeself through the care of souls.

  • You should take a poll of your readers, Father, to see which is the majority view of our beloved Bridey!

  • Oh, now Father, I have to disagree with you strongly on Lady Marchmain. It is more than I have time for now, but must say I liked her in a cool sort of way. She is not warm like a mother, but rather cool like a father, the father missing in the family.She coolly and correctly assesses all of Sebatians ills and wrong turns. Though she is powerless over him ultimately, she does exactly the right thing in the right way. She refuses to feed the addiction, to be complicit in it, unlike Charles who is spiritually lost throughout and only occassionally does the right thing, by accident.Sebatian, as I see it is a little boy refusing to grow up. He wants to live in a child’s fantasy and when that is not possible, he resorts to drink. According to the views of homosexuality of the time which was understood as a puerile and narcissistic preoccupation to be grown out of, Sebastian is the perfect exemplar.I don’t see Sebastian as a scapegoat but the greenhouse orchid which cannot stand the challenges of open air life.

  • One friend of mine views Lady Marchmain as a type for the Church, Mater et Magistra. There is also Sebatians nod to the picture of the Virgin Mary when speaking of his mother at St. Sulpice. If he hates her, it is because he hates virtue at this point. And he only pursues the devout life, to the extent possible, when it is too late for him to reconcile with his own mother. My thoughts, anyways.Thanks for giving us this forum to discuss such a remarkable epic.

  • I think the most insightful commentary on Lady Marchmain who I think is the most interesting of all the characters of the book- (Charles is the most flawed, he can’t help it actually being Protestant trusley blinds one from true insight into the reality human condition – but i digress.)The best insight into the character of LM comes from the writer himself Waugh through Lady Cordelia when she has Charles take her out to dinner as they are about to sell Marchers. “….when people want to hate God and his saints…they choose some who they think is like God and hate them instead” (or words to that effect.