Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

‘Besides, you see, I’m a public school man. That means everything. There’s a blessed equity in the English social system,’ said Grimes, ‘that ensures the public school man against starvation. One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.’
(Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall)

This was Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, after a little runup of student and young mannish articles. His preface to the 1961 edition of Vile Bodies tells us it was well reviewed but only sold a few thousand copies. It was Vile Bodies published 2 years later, in 1930, which made his name and shot him into the bestseller league.

Maybe it was because, despite its modish aspects, Decline and Fall is basically a very traditional narrative. It recounts the picaresque adventures of an innocent young man, Paul Pennyfeather, abroad in a naughty world.

Paul is a cipher, a narrative device whose purpose is to lead us through a succession of scenes and incidents conceived solely for their humorous effect, the humour ranging from broad farce, slapstick and caricature, to satire of contemporary mores and, from time to time, hints of something a bit darker. This kind of narrative goes back through his immediate predecessor Aldous Huxley, to Dickens in the 19th century, Tom Jones or Candide in the 18th, Don Quixote in the 17th, and back past them to classical forebears, while also looking forward to the hapless adventures of naive young men in the novels of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Howard Jacobson.

The whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather… because, as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.

Part one – disgrace and public schoolteacher

Oxford

The narrative opens at the fictional Scone College Oxford where Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, witness innocent hapless Paul Pennyfeather being debagged (having his trousers pulled off) by the drunken members of Bollinger Club (obviously a reference to the real-life Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members) led by the raffish Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and featuring the loud Lumsden of Strathdrummond.

Pennyfeather is a mild and harmless student of Divinity and had just returned from a characteristically high-minded meeting of the League of Nations Union, Oxford branch. On the fateful night he is set upon, has his trousers pulled off and is chucked in the fountain. He is last seen running trouserless across the main quad. Next morning he is summoned by the Dean and flabbergasted to be told he is being sent down i.e. expelled. The comedy is in the way the drunken aristocrats who attacked him get off scot-free. No one thinks of blaming them, not even Paul himself. Thus the world as it is.

Paul returns to stay with his guardian (he is an orphan, symbol of his abandonment and forlorn status) in London, his hopes of a decent career in tatters. He traipses round employment agencies, including one (‘Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents’) which finds iffy graduates jobs at dodgy private schools. Despite a comic absence of any of the qualities required (fluent in German, excellent at music and good at games) the agency puts Paul forward for the job and the desperate school accepts.

Llanabba Castle

Thus he finds himself catching a train to remotest north Wales where he arrives at the grandly named Llanabba Castle, an impressive building stuffed with Victorian crenellations and battlements. (It may be worth noting that this, like so much in Waugh’s books, is closely based on his own experiences. Unemployed after leaving Oxford in 1923, the young, unknown and unpublished Waugh took a job at a prep school in remotest Wales in January 1925. He was, as you can imagine, completely miserable and quit 6 months later.)

At Llanabba Castle, as you would totally expect, he meets a ripe cast of eccentrics. It’s very much St Trinians 20 years avant la lettre.

Thus the head is an obvious rogue, Dr Augustus Fagan PhD. He has two daughters, Florence and Diana, who the boys nickname Flossie and Dingy. There’s a slightly sinister butler, who improbably calls himself Sir Solomon ‘Solly’ Philbrick. Only a few other teachers are named, namely Mr Prendergast,  a weak and vacillating man who constantly thinks about leaving to become a vicar, whose most notable feature is his ill-fitting wig which the boys ceaselessly taunt him about; and Captain Grimes, a leery, rambuctious man with wooden leg and a liking for the local pub.

Obviously there are several chapters filled with comic incidents, especially Paul’s abrupt introduction to the rough and tumble of teaching i.e. the boys ragging him, playing tricks, him slowly realising how pointless it is to try and teach them anything. Once a week he has to take young Peter Beste-Chetwynde to the local church and supervise him playing the organ, which neither of them know the first thing about.

There are a number of storylines or themes. Paul discovers that everyone wants to tell him the story of their lives, he’s that kind of person, a passive listener. The most florid example is Philbrick who tells him a long cock and bull story about being an experienced burglar and criminal which goes on for pages and pages. Later Paul discovers that he’s spun equally as extensive and detailed yarns to Prendergast and Grimes except with completely different content.

Grimes finds himself manoeuvred into a position where he is going out with, and then expected to marry, Dingy, which fills him with comic unhappiness. As often as he can, he takes Paul down the local pub, run by a Mrs Roberts, to bemoan the latest blow to his fortunes. He is, he laments, constantly landing ‘in the soup.’

Sports Day

The big set piece – rather as in the St Trinians films – is the annual sports day. It is, of course, a fiasco. There are no running tracks laid out (the boys are told to run to a clump of trees at the edge of the ground and back), the marquee keeps falling down, a local company delivers ‘hurdles’ which turn out to be 5 foot tall metal railings with lethal spikes along the top, and so on.

It’s an opportunity to meet the some of the parents who all have comic names, for example Mr and Mrs Clutterbuck, the Earl of Circumference whose son, little Lord Tangent is at the school, the local Vicar, Colonel Sidebotham and the Hope-Brownes. A mangy looking peevish local brass band shambles up. It’s a comic version of an Agatha Christie village fete.

By far the most impressive parent is Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde whose son Peter Paul has got to know and like on their pointless weekly trips to the organ loft. She arrives in ‘an enormous limousine of dove-grey and silver’. She is to become the dominating presence of the narrative, certainly dominating and guiding Paul’s destiny.

The door opened, and from the cushions within emerged a tall young man in a clinging dove-grey overcoat. After him, like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées, came Mrs Beste-Chetwynde—two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds, and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Buda-Pest.

Not only is she magnificent but she has brought her boyfriend, Chokey, who is an impeccably dressed, stylish black man. Some modern readers may struggle to get past the fact that several of the other characters refer to him using the n word. But it seemed to me an obvious reference to the extreme fashionability among a certain type of upper class bohemian woman of taking a cool black lover, as exemplified by the rich society heiress Nancy Cunard who, in 1928, began an affair with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician who was working in Paris. Chokey drops out of the narrative later, but makes a great impression in his beautiful suit, accompanying the stunning Margot.

(It’s initially a peripheral event among the general mayhem that Prendergast fires the starting pistol (an actual service revolver lent to him by Philbrick) into the ground as ordered, but in doing so grazes little Lord Tangent’s foot, his ankle in fact. Later we learn that the foot becomes infected and has to be amputated. One of 3 or 4 harsh and bleak snippets or details away to the side of the main narrative, which hint at a darker world.)

After the fiasco of the sports day, attention shifts to Captain Grimes and his reluctant marriage to Dingy, much to the disgust of her father, Dr Fagan. He’s doing it because he needs to get on and the marriage will, he hopes, bring him a part share in the business.

There is, however, a catch, which Grimes points out to Paul. He’s already married! To an Irishwoman, who shortly afterwards begins to make enquiries about him. Miserably unhappy in his new marriage, Grimes one day stages his own suicide, leaving all his clothes on the beach, in the style of John Stonehouse and Reggie Perrin.

(It may be worth noting the striking fact that this mode of suicide was based on Waugh’s own. In the summer of 1925 he quit his job at a Welsh prep school, believing he had secured a post as assistant to the noted author, C. K. Moncrieff, at the same time enthusiastically sending off the manuscript of his first novel to a friend from Oxford. But the post with Moncrieff fell through and the friend from Oxford savaged his novel, and the twin blows were enough to make him suicidal. He records that he went down to a nearby beach, left a farewell note with his clothes and walked out into the cold waves. However, in the best comic tradition, an attack by jellyfish made him reconsider his plan of action and he returned quickly to the shore.)

Part two – Margot

Mrs Beste-Chetwynde had taken rather a fancy to Paul at the sports day and now asks him (via a letter to her son, Peter) to come and visit her at her house, King’s Thursday, in Hampshire, over the upcoming East holidays.

Margot’s house is the pretext for some broad satire of contemporary life, namely the fashion for the new, modernist, Continental architecture of the Bauhaus mode. Several pages are devoted to describing the traditional splendour of King’s Thursday, its Tudor brickwork and original wood carvings and panelling etc. We are told that when it is put up for sale, a national campaign is launched by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to save it for the nation. Then, with comic brutality, we are told that Mrs Beste-Chetwynde buys it and has it completely demolished.

She has it rebuilt in the modern style by fierce and unforgiving Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, a Hungarian modernist architect of advanced opinions. His advanced opinions are described in detail, rotating around the idea that houses are machines for living in and would ideally be inhabited by machines. He is very disappointed by humans and their failure to be more like machines.

The utterly up-to-date modernist masterpiece he constructs for Margot becomes a running joke throughout Paul’s extended stay there, the narrative dotted with casually comic references to the luminous ceiling in Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s study, the india-rubber fungi in the recessed conservatory, to the little drawing-room whose floor was a large kaleidoscope set in motion by an electric button.

There are references to the glass floor and the pneumatic rubber furniture and the porcelain ceiling and the leather-hung walls. To the lift which carries passengers to the top of the great pyramidical tower from which they can look down on the roofs and domes of glass and aluminium ‘which glittered like Chanel diamonds in the afternoon sun’ (p.142). There’s a tank of octopuses. The study is shaped like a cylinder (p.133).

Here Paul is taken by young Peter Beste-Chetwynde in a chauffeur-driven car and spends wonderful, idle weeks of what turns into a permanent house party, a more brittle, glass and steel version of the weekend house parties which feature in the early novels of Aldous Huxley only more chaotic, the young people ‘faster’, with racier slang. The guests have names like the Honourable Miles Maltravers MP and Lord Parakeet, with pride of place going to the slightly older Sir Humphrey Maltravers, the Minister of Transportation who wanly wants to marry Margot. In fact all the men want to marry Margot. But as the arrive, have hi jinks and cocktails, play tennis, go for walks, pine for Margot and eventually leave, Paul remains a fixture and slowly becomes aware that she has taken a shine to him.

In fact she manages to manoeuvre Paul into proposing to her and she accepts. That night, in a scene which was presumably daring for 1928 (remember some of D.H. Lawrence’s novels were banned for obscenity) Margot slips into the darkness of Paul’s guest bedroom, lets her silk pyjamas fall to the floor and climbs into bed with him, just to check that she isn’t making a mistake.

At one point Paul is surprised to discover his old friend from Oxford, Arthur Potts, arriving at King’s Thursday to enquire the whereabouts of Captain Grimes. As far as Paul knows Grimes is dead, but he’s struck by Potts’s role as some kind of official snoop.

The looming marriage promises to transform Paul’s life. He is going to be rich. He writes to Dr Fagan quitting his job at Llanabba Castle.

The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd

All this is very entertaining in a lazy social comedy kind of way, but the plot sharpens up a bit when we hear that Margot is involved in a commercial enterprise, The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd, which was founded by her father. Margot and Paul head to London to finalise arrangement for their marriage i.e. sending invitations to all the Bright Young Things and a lot of shopping.

In among this Margot takes Paul along with her to an ‘audition’ carried out in a bizarrely furnished sports room, where she interviews a series of young women for work in her entertainment venues in South America. Paul is puzzled by the way the ones with the least experience get the gig. They are all quite rough, working class girls.

Paul is surprised to discover Arthur Potts hanging round outside the interview venue, as if he’s spying on things.

With only days to go, Margot asks Paul to do her a little favour and fly to Marseilles to sort out the passports and visas for Margot’s girls to catch their ships to South America. Being the unquestioning cipher and innocent abroad that he us, Paul proceeds to do this, excited at flying to the South of France and staying in a swish hotel, though there is momentarily a sense of menace when he finds himself taken by taxi later the same night into an increasingly dark, dingy and threatening slum quarter of Marseilles. He is eventually so scared that he runs away and back towards the well lit streets, but not before the reader has gotten a pretty shrewd idea that these English girls are being shipped into prostitution.

Next day Paul shuttles between French passport and visa offices to clear the girls’ way to travel abroad, not understanding the officials’ nods and winks and innuendos, although the reader does. Then he flies back to London just days before the date set for the wedding.

Paul is enjoying a is surprised at the squalid slum they seem to be staying in and then the nods and winks and innuendoes of the French officials he has to speak to and pay small bribes to ensure their passage.

Back in London he is having a boozy lunch with his best man-to-be, Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, (the same bounder who debagged him right at the start of the story, but all’s fair in love and war, old man) when there’s a tap on his shoulder and Inspector Bruce of Scotland Yard arrests him.

Part three – prison

Paul is convicted of white slaving and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Margot’s name is never mentioned during the trial and Paul doesn’t mention the fact that he was simply carrying out instructions for his fiancée who, he now realises, made her money from running what they used to call the white slave trade and we nowadays call people trafficking. In fact the reverse; the pompous judge goes out of his way to contrast Margot’s spotless reputation with Paul’s implied depravity.

Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s name was not mentioned, though the judge in passing sentence remarked that ‘no one could be ignorant of the callous insolence with which, on the very eve of arrest for this most infamous of crimes, the accused had been preparing to join his name with one honoured in his country’s history, and to drag down to his own pitiable depths of depravity a lady of beauty, rank and stainless reputation.’

This is a complete comic inversion of the truth, structurally identical to the way the titled yobbos who debagged Paul at Oxford got off scot free while his life was ruined.

Paul is shipped off to Blackstone Prison as Prisoner D.4.12. Here, in the best tradition of comic novels, he meets many of the characters we know from earlier in the book, namely Philbrick, who’s got the cushy job of meeting new convicts, delousing them and handing out a uniform covered in arrows. And when the chaplain visits Paul in his cell, he turns out to be none other than weedy Mr Prendergast, still full of doubt and uncertainty, still wearing a terrible wig, and ragged by the prisoners even worse than he was by the boys.

Satire

The prison is the setting for multiple strands of comedy and satire. There is a great deal of fun at the expense of the newish governor of the prison who is an academic, Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, a sociologist, whose fatuous attempts to treat the prisoners as sensitive individuals is epitomised by his belief that:

I came to the conclusion many years ago that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.

Thus Sir Lucas insists that all the prisoners take part in an Arts and Crafts class he’s set up for them to express their creativity but where, in fact, one or two prisoners each week take advantage of the sharp tools to try and commit suicide. He sets up a bookbinding class which fails because many of the prisoners eat the paste, claiming it’s better than the prison porridge.

Sir Lucas is prey to all kinds of fashionable fads like his plan to introduce artificial sunlight into prisons. He also wants to hire a permanent psychoanalyst and his interviews with the prisoners are continually pushing psychoanalytical ideas (‘Would you say you are an introvert or an extrovert?’) which confuse both the prisoners and the strict disciplinarian Chief Warder. He is, in other words, a broad caricature of the well-meaning, high-minded liberal whose pampered upbringing means he has no understanding at all of the institution and people he has been set to manage. The dynamic between his wispy ideas and the hard-knuckled approach is identical to the dynamic between the governor of Slade Prison and Mr Mckay in the TV series Porridge.

The extended satire comes to a gruesome climax when the governor, in thrall to his faddish beliefs about psychoanalysis and frustrated creative urges, lets a man who is clearly a religious psychopath attend carpentry class in order ‘to express himself’. With utter predictability, at the first opportunity, the psychopath uses the carpentry tools to attack Mr Prendergast the chaplain, who he is convinced is the antichrist, and saw his head off! Like the incident of little Lord Tangent being shot in the foot and dying of blood poisoning, only on a much bigger scale, this incident takes farce and ‘humour’ to the limit.

The good news for the prisoners is the incident quite dampens Sir Wilfred’s faddish ideas and the prison returns to being run by the Chief Warden, who is much more of a stickler for rules and regulations. The prisoners like him. They know where they are and what to expect. Everyone is very happy.

There’s a minor thread satirising public school (every novel written by someone who went to public school has to criticise public school, it’s part of the contract). There’s comedy in the way that Paul, like all arrivals at Blackstone, has to undergo 4 weeks of solitary confinement but how, when the 4 weeks are up and he goes to see the governor, he surprises both him and the Chief Warden by asking if he can continue being in solitary. He finds it peaceful and thoughtful. After all:

anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying. (p.188)

Egdon Heath and Captain Grimes

After a few months, Paul is transferred to the Convict Settlement at Egdon Heath, where the prisoners spend the day hacking rocks in a quarry. Here he meets none other than Captain Grimes. After faking his own death, he travelled incognito to London and was hoping to start a new life away from his two wives, but he was caught, charged, convicted and sentenced to 3 years for bigamy.

On the train to Egdon a warder charitably shows him the day’s paper which happens to contain a big photo of Margot and the news that Peter has inherited the title of Earl of Pastmaster. While we were at King’s Thursday Peter somehow morphed in a few weeks from being a schoolboy to becoming the self-possessed young man who claimed to have set Paul and Margot up (though, as we know, Margot had her own motives in ‘hiring’ Paul to do her bidding). Now he is an Earl. He has aged far more than the time described in the novel, but then it is a panto.

Paul settles in to life at Egdon but soon becomes aware that a guardian angel is looking after him: unaccountably nice food is sent to his cell, the prison trusty offers, instead of greasy tomes from the library brand new books sent from London. The guardian angel is, very clearly, Margot, who feels frightfully guilty at how things turned out for him.

Then the Great Lady herself comes to visit, mainly to complain that her acquaintances are cutting her and she feels she is growing old and to tell Paul that she is going to marry Maltravers (who has now been promoted to Home Secretary) she hopes he doesn’t mind and she sweeps out, leaving Paul stunned but no longer surprised. Nothing surprises him.

Meanwhile Grimes gets restless. He can’t stand being locked up (unlike Paul who rather likes the solitude and lack of distraction). One foggy day in the quarry Grimes creates a distraction, then manages to leap astride a warder’s horse and gallop off into the gloom. He escapes. His hat is found in the centre of the great Egdon Marsh and he is reported dead, but Paul realises Grimes is too much of a life force to ever be extinguished.

Paul’s escape

Then Paul escapes. It is impresario-ed by Margot, with the details managed by her now very capable son, the ever-more mature Peter. Peter arranges for his stepfather, Sir Humphrey, who is now the Home Secretary, to sign a form permitting Paul to be taken to a clinic to have his appendix removed.

(Sir Humphrey has been made a lord and taken the name Lord Metroland, which makes Margot Margot Metroland. We learn that none of this has stopped Margot taking a younger lover, Alisdair.)

Paul protests to the warder taking him to the clinic that he’s already had his appendix out, but the warder gives him a broad wink and more or less tells him it’s a scam. Paul will be taken to a clinic on the South Coast where he will apparently ‘die’ under the knife. Death certificates will be signed to terminate his legal existence. Then the man with no legal existence will be rowed out to Margot’s yacht, waiting anchored off the coast, and sail civilisedly round France, into the Med and be conveyed to Margot’s luxury villa on Corfu.

Which is exactly what happens, the comic element being played up by the fact that the clinic he is sent to is run by none other than our old friend Dr Fagan, who’s packed up the teaching lark and sold Llanabba Castle. And by the presence of young Peter and Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington to oversee it all, not least handling the comically drunk surgeon, who is so plastered they easily persuade him the patient has died under the knife, with the result that he bursts into drunken tears and signs the death certificate before passing out.

Corfu

The scene cuts to Corfu. Life is very civilised in Margot’s villa. Who should he meet but Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, spouting his metallic modernist opinions. He delivers a speech which might sort of be the serious point of the novel – or a semi-serious meditation on life provided for readers who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s to the effect that there are two kinds of people, the static and the dynamic. Paul is static and ought to sit in the stalls watching life. Margot is dynamic and loves throwing herself onto the whirling fairground ride of life, screaming her head off. Silenus naturally gravitates to the centre of the spinning wheel of life where, for a master such as himself, there is stability. Paul should never have got involved with dynamic people.

Epilogue

The book ends with a very satisfactory completion of the circle, when Paul, comically disguised with a moustache, returns to Oxford, gains readmission to his old college and resumes his studies in divinity.  After a bit of thought he retains the surname Pennyfeather but takes another first name and tells everyone he is the other guy’s cousin.

There is some broad comedy in the way he discovers that ‘Paul Pennyfeather’ has, in his brief absence (of, we are startled to discover, only a little over a year) become a legend at Scone College, various college worthies telling him about the legendary figure’s madcap escapades, all of which Paul knows to be utterly fictitious. Fictions within a fiction. Comic quirkiness and character are added when Waugh gives us details of some of the early Christian heresies Paul is now happily studying.

The story really does come full circle when, one quiet and studious evening, Paul hears a loud commotion in the quad outside and realises it’s the Bollinger Club again. Soon afterwards his door crashes open and it is none other than Peter Beste-Chetwynde who is now a student at Paul’s college and has been getting plastered with the other aristocrats. He drunkenly reels off all the adventures they’ve had in the past year, which serves as a useful summary of the story, told by a drunken student, a clever and funny device. Peter reels out and quiet Paul returns to his study of the Ebionite heresy.

Very neat, very stylish, very satisfying.

Descriptions

So much for the plot. This young man’s first novel also contains all kinds of verbal and stylistic pleasures. Here are a couple from Paul’s time at King’s Thursday.

Paul had noticed nothing in the room except Mrs Beste-Chetwynde; he now saw that there was a young man sitting beside her, with very fair hair and large glasses, behind which his eyes lay like slim fish in an aquarium; they woke from their slumber, flashed iridescent in the light, and darted towards little Beste-Chetwynde.

And:

As the last of the guests departed Mrs Beste-Chetwynde reappeared from her little bout of veronal, fresh and exquisite as a seventeenth-century lyric. The meadow of green glass seemed to burst into flower under her feet as she passed from the lift to the cocktail table.

Characters and tones

Waugh is excellent at mimicry, at ventriloquism, at doing various voices. There’s the raffish, disreputable voice of Captain Grimes always wanting to go off down the pub; the Germanic mechanical tone of Professor Silenus; or the impressive capture of Peter Beste-Chetwynde’s drunken dialogue right at the very end. There’s the elaborate Welsh locutions of the Llanabba brass band and the chilled drawl of Chokey, the extremely smooth black man.

Waugh particularly relishes music hall cockney, which I find particularly enjoyable to read in my mind’s ear, or out loud. Here’s a warder at Egdon reassuring Margot, when she comes to visit, that she can say what she likes without fear of being reported:

‘Don’t mind me, mum, if you wants to talk personal,’ said the warder kindly. ‘I only has to stop conspiracy. Nothing I hears ever goes any further, and I hears a good deal, I can tell you. They carry on awful, some of the women, what with crying and fainting and hysterics generally. Why, one of them,’ he said with relish, ‘had an epileptic fit not long ago.’ (p.194)

‘He said with relish’ :). Waugh is always looking for the comic detail, the foible which reveals people as the rogues and rascals that, deep down, they all are.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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