Decline and Fall

In which I read Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 satire about the debauched middle-classes, centring around a sports day at a boy’s private school. 

What it’s about: Wales, the 1920s. Theology student Paul Pennyfeather is expelled from Oxford for public indecency. Deprived of his inheritance, he takes a position as a schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle, a private school for boys in Wales. There he meets a gallery of eccentrics: the stern headmaster Dr Fagan, with two daughters he continually offers to Pennyfeather in marriage; Captain Grimes, a war veteran with an artificial leg and a taste for sex that lands him “in the soup”; Mr Prendergast, a faltering clergyman with an infamous toupée; and Solomon Philbrick, a con artist who makes a living impersonating the aristocracy. Pennyfeather has a liaison with Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the mother of one of his pupils, then discovers that her fortune comes from running brothels in South America. On the morning of their wedding, Pennyfeather is arrested for white slavery offences. Ever the gentleman, he takes the rap for Margot and is sent to prison, where he re-encounters Prendergast and Philbrick. Pennyfeather escapes by faking his own death, and retreats to Corfu. Margot announces her marriage to another man, and Paul returns to Oxford to resume his theology studies.

Why it’s a classic: Decline and Fall was Waugh’s first published novel and a huge success, establishing his reputation as a razor-sharp satirist and a trenchant critic of what he saw as the louche social mores of 1920s high society. (The title is supposedly taken from Victorian historian Edward Gibbon’s six-volume series The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Waugh read as he was working on the novel). As David Bradshaw writes in his Introduction to the 2001 Penguin Classics edition, Waugh’s critique of the decline and fall of “civilised values” received less attention than his “flagrant depiction of unorthodox conduct”, and readers embraced his “exceedingly racy if not brazenly scandalous” descriptions of drunkenness, bigamy, madness, murder, prostitution, homosexuality and the casual maiming of children. Most of what’s described would barely raise an eyebrow in today’s post-Fifty Shades of Grey culture – apart from some hair-raising references to “niggers” (more on that later) that jar badly with modern readers – but its assured style and endearing sense of the absurd makes it a highly entertaining read.

The novel is very much a game of two halves. Part One, set mainly in the boys’ school, ambles along quite amiably, and what plot there is functions as a backdrop for some delicious character comedy. Waugh has great fun describing the Bollinger Club’s “lovely evening“, in which “uncouth peers from crumbling country seats” and “smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations” smash a grand piano, stamp cigars into the carpet and threw a Matisse into the lavatory. The calamitous school sports day is the novel’s comic centrepiece, starting badly with the discovery that Miss Fagan has burned the hurdles and jumping posts for firewood, requiring them to substitute with spiked iron railings. There’s a dirge-like performance by a dreary Welsh silver band who were recently placed third in a local competition, and Mr Prendergast accidentally shoots one of the pupils in the foot. It climaxes with the arrival of Margot, parking her limousine on the playing field and emerging “like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées” with her black lover Chokey, which creates a scandal.

In Part Two, the plot – and Waugh’s satire – gets progressively more sinister. The action relocates to King’s Thursday, a Tudor mansion that Margot’s architect Silenus has renovated into a sterile mausoleum of aluminium, malachite, black glass, pneumatic rubber furniture, leather-hung walls and a tank of octopuses, and in which Margot lives in a haze of alcohol and sedatives. Pennyfeather gallantly goes to prison for Margot’s sex slavery crimes, but slowly concludes that “there was something radically inapplicable about this whole code of ready-made honour that is the still small voice, trained to command, of the Englishman all the world over“. His sojourn in prison is an opportunity for Waugh to be scathing about the (then) new fashion for psychoanalysis and the rehabilitation of prisoners. One of Pennyfeather’s fellow inmates, a homicidal Christian, saws off the hand of a visiting clergyman, who just happens to be Prendergast. Despite this, Pennyfeather finds himself surprisingly suited to prison life, feeling like “the happy people in the advertisement for shaving soap who seem to have achieved very simply that peace of mind so distant and so desirable in the early morning.” His escape is effected via a group of corrupt prison officials and doctors, who pronounce him legally dead, allowing him to “disappear” back into his original life.

At first glimpse, Pennyfeather is a rather flat, colourless protagonist, observing rather than taking action and passively accepting the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune. Waugh anticipates this reaction, and warns his readers not to complain “if the shadow which took his name does not amply fill the important part of hero for which he was originally cast.” By the novel’s conclusion, Pennyfeather is the sole voice of reason, who laments in Waugh-like fashion for the past. As he surveys the grounds at King’s Thursday, he ponders “Surely… these great chestnuts in the morning sun stood for something endearing and serene in a world that had lost its reason and would so stand when the chaos and confusion were forgotten?” Paul’s “static” personality and his refusal to change his essential nature is quietly offered as a virtue, by comparison with Margot, Prendergast,  Philbrick and Grimes, who constantly deceive and shape-shift to get what they want.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A qualified mini-bouquet. Of all the literary genres, satire is probably the hardest form of writing to engage with long after its publication, especially when the specific details being lampooned no longer have the same cultural currency. Decline and Fall is peppered with in-jokes and name-droppings of public figures (Ramsay McDonald, Arnold Bennett) that would have tickled 1920s readers, but mean little to modern audiences. Even with the excellent reference notes provided in my Penguin Classics edition, by the time I turned to the back of the book and found the explanation to an unfamiliar term, the piquancy and sting of Waugh’s joke had run out of steam. Fortunately, though, Waugh’s prose is so exquisitely crafted that the humour arises as much from the sleek construction of his sentences as from the absurd scenarios he describes. A case in point: “Everybody else, however, was there except little Lord Tangent, whose foot was being amputated at a local nursing home. The boy for the most part welcomed the event as a pleasant variation to the rather regular routine of their day.

The other problem with satire is that, almost invariably, what was once edgy and contemporary becomes ossified over time into something quaint and nostalgic. The louche amoral world of the 1920s that Waugh was so bent on satirising is as antiquated to modern sensibilities as the Edwardian-era values he strove to uphold, and so both worlds are viewed with the same rose-tinted view of “the past”. In that sense, Decline and Fall has become yet another annal in the inexhaustible volume of English Heritage literature, a kind of literary comfort food for those of us who enjoy descriptions of country houses, prep schools and boozy Jazz Age parties.

Despite the distance between Waugh’s world and our own, the comedy does work, because of Waugh’s instinctive understanding of human folly. In his Author’s Note to the first edition, Waugh wrote “Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY” and he mostly succeeds in this goal with dazzling success. With the possible exception of Pennyfeather, everyone in Decline and Fall is awful. Douglas Lane Patey writes that the novel is filled with “guardians who don’t guard, teachers who don’t teach, servants who don’t serve and parents who don’t parent… priests without faith, unjust judges, a physician who kills, mannish women and womanish men, childlike adults and children… prematurely catapulted into adult knowingness.”  The characters’ cheerful lack of competence and refusal to do their duty, and the social bedlam that ensues, makes for hilarious comedy, forming a link in an English comic tradition that stretches from Punch and Judy to Fawlty Towers.

But it’s not all japes and giggles. In Waugh’s hands, the comic chaos slowly builds up into something deeper and more plangent: a lament for the loss of an older, feudal social order, which he developed further and to more tragic effect in his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited. He reserves especial disgust for celebrity modernist architects like Le Corbusier, who is satirised via the character of Silenus, and expresses exasperation at the demands of modernity. Of the renovation of King’s Thursday, he writes “[m]odern democracy called for lifts and labour-saving devices, for hot-water taps and cold-water taps and (horrible invention!) drinking-water taps, for gas rings and electric ovens.” Again, this point of view isn’t that palatable to modern audiences. Only a white English male raised with the kind of privilege Waugh was born into could possibly object to a world in which hot water comes out of a tap rather than being carted up and down stairs by poorly-paid servants. Waugh is fine to insist on good manners, but much of the bowing and scraping and snobbery he laments for, however beautifully described, is better left in the past.

Which leads me back to the N-word. One of Decline and Fall‘s most problematic passages for modern readers is the arrival of Chokey at the school sports day. Chokey’s mere appearance prompts an horrific medley of racist comments from the assembled guests. “I think it’s an insult bringing a nigger here,” Mrs Clutterbuck says. “It’s an insult to our own women.” Philbrick replies, “Niggers are all right. Where I draw a line is a Chink.” It gets much much worse – even the narrator comments: “With or without her nigger, Mrs Best-Chetwynde was a woman of vital importance.” Chokey himself is presented as an exotic who is helplessly in love with the English aristocracy (“You folk think because we’re coloured we don’t care about nothing but jazz. Why, I’d give all the jazz in the world for just one little stone from one of your cathedrals“) and delivers a Shylock-esque appeal for sympathy (“Don’t he breathe the same as you? Don’t he eat and drink? Don’t he love Shakespeare and cathedrals and paintings of the old masters same as you?“). Those generously disposed to Waugh would argue that he is lampooning the bigotry of his white characters, rather than endorsing their views and that Chokey is treated more sympathetically than most of the others. Others may even try to argue that Chokey fairs better than the Welsh, about whom Dr Fagan says “[f]rom the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people…. Their sons and daughters mate freely with the sheep but not with human kind except their own blood relations“. I’m not entirely convinced that these arguments still work, if they ever did. Again, it’s difficult for someone of Waugh’s white imperialist background to maintain the supposed irony around these racist statements. For better and for worse, this discomfort can’t be explained away, and must form a part of our reading of his work.

With that in mind, it’s a polite English round of applause rather than a standing ovation. Waugh’s literary smarts and adept handling of comic scenarios in Decline and Fall is admirable, but it’s a difficult book to fall for, and feels like a minor comic effort in comparison with Brideshead Revisited and his later works.

Quotable Quote: “I don’t believe,” said Mr Prendergast, “that people would ever fall in love or want to be married if they hadn’t been told about it. It’s like abroad: no one would want to go there if they hadn’t been told it existed. Don’t you agree?”



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