By Evelyn Waugh. This review contains spoilers of this novel.
My rating: ★★★★★
The Basics: After suddenly being expelled from Oxford University Paul Pennyfeather begins a comedic and increasingly dangerous journey through 1920s British society, high and low.
In-depth: I was made aware of this novel, Evelyn Waugh’s first, by David Mitchell choosing it on his Desert Island Discs episode. I purchased it at Hatchards, a wonderful booksellers in Piccadilly, and I was delighted when this store was actually mentioned in this novel.
Known for his cutting satire and black humour, Waugh’s first novel is as funny as it is layered in it’s targeting of all aspects of inter-war British society. On the surface, and for which it gained most attention upon it’s publication in 1928, it is a riotous and funny journey led by Paul Pennyfeather, whose passivity is typical of male narrators of 1920s social satire à la Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, and whose sympathetic willingness to listen draws out the stories of the characters but also leads him into unseen dangers.
The title is perhaps a reference to Edward Gibbon’s famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire series, which charted Rome’s descent from civilised superpower to savagery. It feels as though Waugh’s novel, which includes Churchmen of no faith, drunken teachers who do very little teaching and a prison governer who give dangerous carpentry equipment to homicidal maniacs, is also observing a demise of a once civilised society.
The story begins with Pennyfeather, a young and unassuming undergraduate at the imaginary Scone College of Oxford University, falling foul to the drunken antics of the highly exclusive Bollinger Club. Discovered walking around the college green with no trousers on, after they were stolen by a privileged fellow undergraduate, Paul is swiftly identified as a trouble maker and expelled for his “indecent behaviour”. Desperate for an income he then somehow ends up as a schoolmaster at a unknown public school in Wales.
Most of the first half of the novel takes place at the school, Llanabba Castle, and introduces a number of the schools “preposterous inhabitants”. There is the anxious churchman of Mr Pendergast who constantly doubts his faith, the pathological liar Philbrick and the headteacher Dr. Fagan whose discriminatory views about the Welsh people is rumoured to have mirrored Waugh’s own prejudices. However it is Mr Grimes, who is constantly “in the soup,” which refers to his alcoholism, who undoubtedly steals the show.
From the school onwards Pennyfeather finds himself thrust into a number of adventures which his somewhat benign nature deem him incapable to realise the dangers of. He is instructed to organise a school sports day for the prestigious visit of Ms Beste-Chetwynde, Waugh’s novels are full of seemingly unpronounceable names, and the snobby Lady Circumference, but things quickly descend into farce and scandal.
A loaded pistol is used to start one of the boy’s races which inevitably leads to a boy being shot in the foot. Waugh’s use of characters is ruthless as the reader is later informed that the boy is actually dead in a throwaway comment which receives no follow up or attention.
One of the most interesting aspects of Waugh’s writing is that it introduces characters in settings which appear believable, deep and permanent but then yanks the reader away from them with sudden and increasingly ridiculous plot twists which refresh the story.
The comedy is kept moving as the reader becomes more aware of the importance of pretence to the story. This is achieved via perceived tragedy at the end of part one, as Mr Grimes escapes an unhappy and rushed marriage to Dr Fagan’s daughter by appearing to kill himself (he later reappears and disappears under different guises) and by love in part two as Pennyfeather quickly stumbles into arranging to marry Margot Beste-Chetwynde.
However, visible throughout many of the character’s conversations, are the underlying tensions and barriers of class, race, sex and nationalism. The characters, largely members of high society which seem to obsess Waugh, are often blissfully unaware of the damaging consequences of these rigid structures as they help form the structure of their gossip, wealth and scandal. The most uncomfortable section for the modern day reader deals with the overt racism of the time but the satire knows no bounds. Pennyfeather himself fails to realise the perils of Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s grand incomes via the ‘white slavery’ of trading young women, as he is too busy enjoying the public attention he is afforded for their planned marriage.
The final act centres around another delightful plot twist where Pennyfeather’s wedding day at the Ritz Hotel is cut short by a sudden arrest for the above crime. A prison sentence follows, cut short by the ‘legal death’ of Pennyfeather, elaborately organised by his friends, which enables him to flee to Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s, now married to a Viscount Metroland, grand villa in Corfu. The story ends with a moustached, and thus suitably disguised, Pennyfeather back at Scone College studying Theology once again witnessing, but this time from a safe distance, the antics of the Bollinger Club. Not so much a decline and fall for it’s central character then but more a brief interlude of wild adventure for a man who wandered.
In all, this is a novel which possesses a comic thrust of ridiculousness and savagery which is at times difficult to associate with the 1920s from which it was produced.