Illustration by Ben Beechener
In a sense, there are two Oxford Universities.
There is the Oxford University I have been attending for just over six weeks. The university that is made up of pokey college rooms, cavernous dining halls, friends made over coffee, long tutorials, 24/7 libraries, society meetings mostly attended for the promise of free refreshments, and hours of college sports only enjoyable in the event of a victory. This university is the everyday life I live, the pragmatic realities and facts that I navigate and am navigated by every hour of the day.
And then there is the Oxford University of Brideshead Revisited. The university that is made up of magically charismatic friends, enchantingly eccentric adventures, endless wine-drinking sessions, charmingly ludicrous incidents and absolutely no work or practicalities of any kind. That university can only be accessed by my imagination, but its intrinsic impossibility and intangibility does not make it any less concrete to me.
In truth, I applied to the second university. It was not so much the ranking or prestige of Oxford that attracted me, but the possibility that perhaps I could find another Sebastian Flyte there. I didn’t actually visit Oxford during the application process but reading Brideshead Revisited I felt I didn’t need to. I could already see it and I was already there.
The book tells the story of an army officer, Charles Ryder, looking back on his friendship with the Flytes and the impact it had on him. He is first introduced to them through his Oxford friend Sebastian Flyte, who, along with Anthony Blanche, is so eccentric and charismatic he startles Charles from his cosy middle-class world. Later in the novel, he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia, but the implication is that this is simply the most acceptable way of purging his infatuation with Sebastian.
But Brideshead Revisited had a far greater impact on me than simply persuading me to apply for Oxford. It showed me what life could be.
In fact, just as there are two Oxfords, I discovered there are two worlds.
One was filled with homework and buses and football training, a world in which I was just passively shoved from one commitment to the next.
And then there was the other world of infinite leisure and eternal amusement and wonderous genius. Fine, I was passive here too, simply following Charles following Sebastian, but at least I liked the journey. Their relationship, seemingly neither platonic nor sexual, is nonetheless profoundly romantic as an entranced Charles becomes Sebastian’s closest, and only, confidant, dragging the reader along so that they too are enraptured within the self-sufficient world the two have created for themselves.
However, this does not fully explain my adoration of Brideshead Revisited. All books create another world. Many good books, and some bad ones, even create a convincing world. Several of these worlds are captivating and exciting.
Brideshead Revisited was different.
Even now, I cannot quite explain why. It had a beauty to it, a purposeless grace woven into the fabric of the language, that ensnared me before I even considered the plot. Perhaps this beauty on its own would have only been enough for me to like the book, but when combined with the fanciful idealism of the world it conjured, I couldn’t help but fall head over heels in love with this world.
Falling in love with the book taught me to dream.
It proved to me that unconformity was no bad thing. As long as it was authentic, it was actually a good thing. I learned that sometimes the most interesting, the most charismatic person in the room is the one slightly isolated from everyone else.
When I first read the book, I was so enchanted by the idealistic romance of it that I censored its profound sadness from my mind. Sebastian ends the novel isolated in a small hut in Tunisia, relying on a local monastery to save him from the effects of his alcoholism. He tried to ignore the world’s conventions and he failed.
But I never saw it as a failure. Until the very end, he was following his own path, no matter how much other people disparaged him for it. Even in this case, when he seems to have reached his nadir, he is content looking after another invalid.
As much as the book taught me to believe in beauty and dreaming, it also warned me against their truth. Evelyn Waugh, the author of the book, was, by all accounts, a morally questionable man and yet he wrote a book that, to my mind at least, is as aesthetically fine and wondrous as any other.
So, as much as Brideshead Revisited convinced me to dream of a world I had never quite known existed, it also reminded me of the dangers of dreaming. Perhaps that is necessary though. As nice as it can be to fall down the rabbit hole of entrancing dreams, an awareness of practicality is probably needed to retain balance.