Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

declineandfall

I was running out of the door to catch a train last week when I realised I didn’t have a book to read. I blindly grabbed at my shelves – my current long term read is too heavy to carry around all day – and on a whim chose a slim and rather dilapidated looking Orange Penguin, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and FallI haven’t read any Waugh for years, so I thought it was high time I revisited his work. I’m so glad I did; within minutes I was giggling away. Decline and Fall is absurd, hilarious, and utterly brilliant in its astute satire of 1920s high society. The plot is fast paced, totally unpredictable and completely ingenious; I genuinely couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough!

Mild mannered orphan Paul Pennyfeather is in training for the clergy at Oxford when an unfortunate run in with the rowdy young aristocrats of the Bollinger Club gets him expelled for indecent behaviour. Cast off by his guardian, he is forced to find some kind of employment, and as such he heads to Wales where he becomes a highly underqualified schoolmaster in an eccentric boarding school for boys. Run by the slightly deranged Dr Fagan and his two sex starved middle aged daughters, the school is filled with a motley crew of questionable staff and riotous boys who are certainly not there to learn. Paul is kept from madness by the company of his fellow masters, all of whom have come from dubious backgrounds; nervous former vicar Prendy, whose doubts forced him to resign his living; randy former public school boy Grimes, always in ‘the soup’ over something, and shady Philbrick the butler, who has as many versions of his previous life as he does acquaintances.

The enterprise, considering the quality of its students and staff, is only kept going by virtue of having a couple of students out of the ‘top drawer’, and it is for these students’ parents that Dr Fagan strives to put on a display of sporting prowess on random occasions throughout the year. At one of these events, masquerading as a champion athlete, Paul finds himself mesmerised by the beauty of the fabulously rich and still very young Margot Beste-Chetwynde, mother of one his students. The attraction is mutual, and so Margot arranges for Paul to come to her home as a tutor for her son during the summer holidays. The couple quickly become engaged, and through Margot, Paul enters a world of high society glamour that he could never have dreamed of.

However, Margot is not all she seems. In between transforming her Tudor country house, King’s Thursday, into an art deco glass and concrete block, much to the consternation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, she is also up to some shady business in South America. When Margot sends Paul on a business trip a couple of days before their wedding, little does he know that the halcyon days of lunching at the Ritz and eating caviar for dinner will soon be over.   Again, through no fault of his own, he is punished for someone else’s misdeeds, but his next adventure will see him meeting up with his old friends from Wales inside the clink, which he is surprised to find is really not as bad as it might seem…

How Evelyn Waugh came up with the ludicrous plot of this novel, I don’t know, but the eccentricities of the characters make it all seem perfectly plausible. There is nothing that Waugh doesn’t find time to lampoon, be it prison reform, public schools or arrogant Scandinavian architects, and his observations on society and the often unintentionally ridiculous ways people choose to live their lives are pin pointed with a cruelly funny precision. Decline and Fall is much more than just a shallow satire, however; its portrayal of how the impressionable, good natured Paul drifts, feather-like, through life, helpless to control his own path due to the actions of his social superiors, sends a deeper message of just how class-bound British society was (and is!), and how difficult it was (and is!) for a man of no background to get on in the world. Even so, Paul’s stint at the feet of Margot Beste-Chetwynde does reveal the ultimate emptiness of the upper class way of life, and it is intriguing that he prefers prison to the gilded cage of King’s Thursday. Waugh’s wit is tempered throughout by this undertone of bitterness, preventing his novels from having the cosiness of other satirical novels of the period. I like this element of his writing; it more accurately reflects the conflicts of the time, and makes for a much more thought provoking reading experience. I highly recommend it, and it’s certainly put me in the mood for more of the same. Perhaps a re-read of Brideshead? It’s been too long since I had the company of Sebastian and Aloysius…

“Oh, why did nobody warn me?” cried Grimes in agony. “I should have been told. They should have told me in so many words. They should have warned me about Flossie, not about the fires of hell. I’ve risked them, and I don’t mind risking them again, but they should have told me about marriage. They should have told me that at the end of that gay journey and flower-strewn path were the hideous lights of home and the voices of children.” 

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34 comments

  1. I LOVED this book!! I thought it was going to be like Brideshead but it’s utterly different. I think it’s my favorite Waugh. So glad to find someone else that loved this book.

    My library doesn’t even own a hard copy and I think I must buy my own and re-read it.

    1. I know – people who only know Waugh through Brideshead are really missing out! Oh yes you must get your own copy – I know I’ll be revisiting frequently!

  2. I love how Waugh manages to make social observation so witty and just really fun. I’ve been doing a month of reading Evelyn Waugh as I had so many books by him on my TBR so this review was very timely for me! I read Scoop last week and have been reading Vile Bodies which have both had me laughing out loud (which ill admit doesn’t happen very often for me with books). Decline and Fall isn’t on my list to read this month but will be one I’ll be reading at some point in the future I’ve no doubt!

    1. I really want to read both of those, Jennifer – just need to find copies and then I’ll be on my way! You definitely need to read Decline and Fall soon! A month of Waugh…you must be having a lovely time!

      1. I am! I think the word ‘chortle’ probably describes my physical reaction to Waugh’s books. The funny thing is that I don’t remember Brideshead Revisited being funny – if I get a chance this month I’ll give it another spin. Would love to read Decline and Fall too – it’s referred too so often in conjunction with Vile Bodies.

  3. One of my favourites by Evelyn Waugh! Along with “The Loved One” – not as ambitious in scope but absolutely brilliant – a bit twisted and ever-so-sarcastic. Good reading, oh yes indeed.

  4. For an easy holiday read, you could do worse than Mad World by Paula Byrne, which recounts AW’s friendship with the Lygon family, on which Brideshead was based. I haven’t read her new book, Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, but it was well reviewed and she seems to have a knack for penetrating crowded markets.

    1. I’ve seen that…and hadn’t made the connection between the new Jane Austen book. Thanks for the tip, Bruce – I’ll see if the library has it!

  5. It was such a refreshing refresher of Waugh! I always gobble up each syllable of your book reviews. ‘Waugh’s wit is tempered throughout by this undertone of bitterness, preventing his novels from having the cosiness of other satirical novels of the period.’ That was a stunning insight into the author’s art.

  6. Why don’t I remember the prison at all? I only read this a few years ago!

    I’ve read four Waugh novels now, and love him when he’s not being TOO mean. I found this one, and Put Out More Flags, a little too cruel – but I love The Loved One and the one I’ve only just read, coincidentally: Scoop. I love your description of Paul as feather-like – in Scoop, if you’ve not read it, Boot is equally feather-like. It’s hilarious. I’m a sucker for comic misunderstandings, and amiable people wandering through extraordinary situations.

    1. The prison section is the best bit, Simon!

      Oh Simon, it’s not too cruel! It’s just wicked! ;) I really want to read The Loved One and Scoop – I’m looking out for copies!

      1. The Loved One is rather wickedly funny – it takes on rather a large number of themes for a short novel (Hollywood, British expats, the American attitude to death and burial, etc.). it was turned into a rather madcap film in the 1960s. Apparently, the idea to make a film (in hollywood!) came from the non-fiction exposé of the scams of the funeral industry in the US by Jessica Mitford’s (The American Way of Death), which is interesting given how friendly Waugh was with Jessica’s sister Nancy Mitford.

  7. Delighted to meet “Decline and Fall” again! It is a marvelous send-up of the whole “public school” educational system (Waugh himself taught as an unqualfiied schoolmaster for a time in a similar school). I laughed so hard at the “Gargoyle and Church” educational advisors (based on an actual agency with a name that if anything was funnier than the fictionalised version – “Gabbitas and Thring”). I never knew these things existed before reading D&F, and apparently they were mainly meant to advise parents on choosing a school for their children, but also helped would-be teachers find a suitable post.

    I was listening to this as a talking book while driving through the East Sussex countryside once, and was stopped around 20 minutes on a country road by a herd of sheep being driven from one side of the road to a field on the other. It was a good thing, as I was laughing so hard at the part about the different classifications of schools listed by the agent (they had a block of index cards that rated the institutions as “leading school, first-rate school, good school or school”, and the agent remarked, “frankly, “school” is pretty bad”.

    1. I didn’t know he’d been a teacher, Monica – that adds a whole new level of hilarity! I laughed out loud at that bit about the schools, too – brilliantly witty!

  8. I loved A Handful of Dust and of course Brideshead. I also want to reread the latter but I am busy rereading The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and savouring every word. Have you ever read it. I recommend it highly.

  9. Would you believe that I actually picked up this book in the library on Sunday? My arms were already cramping from too many books, and I put it down. Now I know I will need to retrieve it, Rachel, and I know exactly where it is on the shelf, looking forlorn as I’m sure it hasn’t been checked out in a long time. I’m so grateful that you will keep up your posts. Whatever would I do without all you insight?

  10. I tried ‘Decline and Fall’ twice, once on the page and a second time in a radio adaptation: I gave up on both. It may be that, as Simon T suggests, it is too mean. I too had more success with Scoop, his satire on journalism. It could equally be that my lack of success with D&F was because it is supposed to be a funny book. My track record with humourous literature is rather patchy. I’m glad that it worked for you as a random reading selection. If I found myself on a train with nothing else to read I would be inclined to give it another try. It would have to be better than reading the headlines in someone else’s newspaper – something that is getting harder to do now that there are fewer people reading papers on the train.

    1. Oh no, David! It’s not too mean! You have to give it another try one day. All these recommendations of Scoop have made me desperate to read it now – I bet it’s brilliant!

  11. Brideshead Revisited is the only Waugh under my belt so far but you’ve made this sound too good to resist! I dug a gem out of the discard bin yesterday ‘The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel’ and it says Waugh’s father’s company published D & F but demanded cuts (obscenity). These were added back in after 1962. Something to think about when digging around dusty second-hand bookshops for a copy!

    1. I know you’d love this, Darlene! Oooh that sounds brilliant – and I didn’t know that! My copy is 1940s so I’m wondering what got added in? I need to get an updated version and find out!

  12. Nice review. Makes me wonder if I am too dense to understand Waugh, just finished Brideshead Revisited and was left with a meh feeling. I felt that I should have been more impressed but I think the focus on religion was not for me. I have a copy of Decline and Fall somewhere around the house, it sounds like something I can tackle.

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