After finishing Rebecca, I thought I would select something from the bookshelves that looked to be a little more light-hearted, and ended up opting for Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. This was Waugh’s first published novel and came out in 1928. Interestingly he had previously worked on another book, which had the working title of ‘The Temple at Thatch’, however he destroyed the manuscript upon receiving an unfavourable review from a friend he had sent a draft copy to.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

If you have not come across Evelyn Waugh’s work before, I would recommend him to you. Whilst still relatively young he established a reputation for himself as a fine satirist and also an author of renown style. This novel is brimming with amusing lines, wonderfully named characters (Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, Viscount Metroland, Otto Silenus, etc.) and comic set pieces. Here is a rather melodramatic outburst which might give a flavour:

What an immature, self-destructive, antiquated mischief is man! How obscure and gross his prancing and chattering on his little stage of evolution! How loathsome and beyond words boring all the thoughts and self-approval of his biological by-product! this half-formed, ill-conditioned body! this erratic, maladjusted mechanism of his soul: on one side the harmonious instincts and balanced responses of the animal, on the other the inflexible purpose of the engine, and between them man, equally alien from the being of Nature and the doing of the machine, the vile becoming!

If I were to to summarise this novel in ten words, I would go for: “Scathing satire of 1920s English establishment figures and institutions.” (Okay, nine words.)

Waugh apparently took inspiration from several real institutions he had experienced when writing the novel (e.g. the scenes at Scone College can be seen as a satirical re-imagining of his own experiences at Oxford University, and the section based at the Welsh private school Llanabba may have its origins in his own short spell as a teacher in Wales).

The plot line follows the events (or the decline and fall, if you will) of a generally hapless and innocent young man named Paul Pennyfeather. We are told at the beginning of the book that Paul’s early days had been exemplary (head boy at his school, at Oxford to train for ordination, etc.) yet one evening he finds himself caught up in the notorious antics of the Bolinger Club and soon finds himself sent down for the heinous crime of being seen running around the quad without any trousers on. Scandalous indeed. This single event leads to him being thrown out of college, becoming ineligible to receive his inheritance and also disowned by his guardian. Thus, shamed and penniless, he seeks employment at a private boys’ school in Wales.

There are some comic moments during his time at this small Welsh public school, such as the school sports day. This is hastily arranged with one day’s notice when the headmaster hears that two of the wealthiest sets of parents are due to visit the following day. All of the ensuing preparations are about trying to impress the visiting parents, with the actual sports barely considered. At one point, whilst hurriedly deciding which events to include in the contest, the headmaster comments to Pennyfeather:

I have observed in women of her type a tendency to regard all athletics as inferior forms of foxhunting.

From a sporting point of view, the whole thing is a farce, with next to no proper equipment, no proper athletic track markings, and widespread ignorance about the rules of the different events. However there are – most importantly – caviar sandwiches and delicious cakes in abundance for the visiting parents to enjoy. At one point the headmaster starts a race using a real revolver (as they have no starting gun) and accidentally shoots one of the boys in the foot, for which trouble the poor lad is handed a large slice of cake to console himself with.

Later the action moves from life at this school to life amongst some of society’s social elite as Pennyfeather enjoys a brief relationship with the Honourable Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde, and then later still moves onto life in prison (when our hero, again unwittingly, takes the fall for his fiancée’s illicit business dealings). Thus Waugh uses this cock-and-bull story to mock many of the key public institutions of his day.

Have you at any time been detained in a mental home or similar institution? If so, give particulars.’
‘I was at Scone College, Oxford, for two years,’ said Paul.

So, did I enjoy this book? Yes. However, I have to say that whilst I am happy enough reading satirical novels (they tend to be pretty easy to read, fun and often make you laugh here and there), I guess I don’t tend to enjoy them as much as I do some other novels. I mean, I’ve now read this, A Handful of Dust and Scoop, which are all very well-regarded satirical novels, but for my money, however enjoyable these are, none of them is in the same league as Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, for example, which is a much more philosophical, thoughtful and serious novel.

So, as hinted at above, if you liked this, you might also enjoy Evelyn Waugh’s A handful of Dust or Scoop – or (although not really similar to this novel) his truly excellent Brideshead Revisited.