Wednesday, January 16, 2013

518. Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

History: first published in 1928. It was Waugh's first published novel; an earlier attempt, entitled The Temple at Thatch, was destroyed by Waugh while still in manuscript form. Decline and Fall is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. It is a social satire that employs the author's characteristic black humour in lampooning various features of British society in the 1920s.
Plot: The novel tells the story of Paul Pennyfeather, student at the fictional Scone College, Oxford, who is sent down for running through the college grounds without his trousers, having become, inadvertently, immersed in the activities of the Bollinger Club. Having defaulted on the conditions of his inheritance, he is forced to take a job teaching at an obscure public school in Wales called Llanabba, run by Dr Fagan. Attracted to the wealthy mother of one of his pupils, Pennyfeather becomes private tutor to her boy, Peter, and then engaged to be married to her - the Honourable Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde (who later becomes "Lady Metroland," and appears in Waugh's other novels.) Pennyfeather, however, is unaware that the source of her income is a number of high-class brothels in South America. Arrested on the morning of the wedding, after running an errand for Margot related to her business, Pennyfeather takes the fall to protect his fiancée's honour and is sentenced to seven years in prison for traffic in prostitution. Margot marries another man with government ties and he arranges for Paul to fake his own death and escape. In the end he returns to where he started at Scone. He studies under his own name, having convinced the college that he is the distant cousin of the Paul Pennyfeather who was sent down previously. The novel ends as it started, with Paul sitting in his room listening to the distant shouts of the Bollinger Club.
Review: In a little foreword to this novel the author entreats us to bear in mind throughout that his book is meant to be funny, and we have, though at times somewhat strenuously, to take him at his word. And Mr. Waugh is funny, with that mingling of worldly wisdom and bunkum which is the ne plus ultra of your masterly undergraduate.
He affects to tell the story of a varsity man who was sent down, but the story is, as it is intended to be, so very silly that he has had merely to interest himself in its superficial presentation, and he manages this so extremely well that one is occasionally reminded of P. G. Wodehouse, though it must be added that Mr. Wodehouse has a far greater knowledge of human nature than appears to reside at present in Mr. Waugh's consciousness. But anyway "Decline and Fall" is a great lark; its author has an agreeable sense of comedy and characterisation, and the gift of writing smart and telling conversation, while his drawings are quite in tune with the spirit of the tale.
Opening Line: “Mr. Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr. Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr. Sniggs’s room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College.”
Closing Line: “Then he turned out the light and went into his bedroom to sleep.”
Quotes: “...any one 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.”
Rating: Didn’t like.

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