Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh book review
This time last year BBC 2 brought to the screen a “ghastly gaggle of braying Oxford toffs”, as one reviewer put it, in a delightfully-cast three-part adaptation of Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 satire on the great and the good of England, between the wars. If you missed it, your public library will have it on DVD.
Decline and Fall is the story of an Oxford undergrad who, through no fault of his own, gets sent down, ends up teaching at a terrible prep school, falls in love with a society matron and ends up going to jail. Written before the breakdown of his first marriage, Waugh’s debut novel is pure fun, lacking the darkness of later works like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust.
As the book opens, Paul Pennyfeather, an inoffensive divinity student at Scone College, Oxford, is set upon by members of the Bollinger Club who are rampaging through the campus, bent on destruction. They strip him of his clothes, leaving him naked in the centre of the garden quad. Charged with “indecent behaviour”, our hero is expelled, causing the college porter to remark, “I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir…that’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour”.
Paul does exactly that. With no experience in teaching, and no qualifications, he lands a position as an assistant master at a dreadful preparatory school in Wales. His fellow teachers at Llanabba Castle are ridiculously inept: Captain Grimes is a one-legged pederast who frequently lands “in the soup” but is always rescued by his fellow Old Harrovians, and Prendergast is an alcoholic lay preacher who left the Church when he started having “doubts”. Dr. Augustus Fagan, eccentric and ineffectual, runs the school with the help of his daughters, Flossie and Diana, and the mysterious school porter, Philbrick, who has been, depending on the story he’s telling, a bank robber, an aristocrat in exile, and a con man.
During a hilariously chaotic sports day at the school, Paul meets the mother of one of his students, the beautiful and wealthy Margot Beste-Chetwynde (pronounced either “Beest Cheating” or “Beast Chained”, depending on the reviewer). Margot invites him to spend the summer at King’s Thursday, her country estate in Hampshire, supposedly to tutor her son, Peter, although it’s obvious from the beginning that she’s attracted to the handsome young teacher. As for Paul, for the first time in his life, he’s in love.
King’s Thursday is a centuries-old Tudor stately home, a lesser, more run-down version of Brideshead. By the time Paul arrives, it’s been modernized out of recognition by yet another eccentric character – “Professor” Otto Silenus, an architect who works for Margot and is currently her lover. Silenus, who believes that factories are the only truly perfect buildings as they care for machines rather than people, has turned the estate into a Bauhaus-inspired monster of concrete, glass and aluminum. He tells Paul that Margot has twice asked him to marry her but he refused. “She would interrupt me terribly,” he says. “Besides, she’s getting old. In ten years she will be almost worn out.”
Throughout the summer, with Otto no longer in the picture, Paul and Margot spend time getting to know each other. She throws a party to introduce him to her society friends, the “Bright Young Things” whose exploits dominate the gossip pages. One of the guests is older, fatter and much less fashionable than the others. This is the corpulent Minister of Transportation, Sir Humphrey Maltravers. He tells Paul that Margot is damaging herself, hanging around with this set:
“What Margot ought to do is marry – someone who would stabilize her position, someone,’ said Sir Humphrey, ‘with a position in public life.”
Luckily for Paul, Margot is not in love with Maltravers or any of her other suitors. When Paul asks her to marry him, she agrees, and wedding plans go ahead full steam – new clothes, expensive gifts from Margot, a honeymoon in Corfu. Unfortunately, there’s a glitch. Unknown to Paul, his fiancée’s fortune stems from a thriving trade in prostitution. When Paul is caught up in her shenanigans, she flees the country, leaving Paul to be arrested and held for trial. While he’s waiting for his case to come up, Peter Beste-Chetwynde visits him in his cell, telling him that if Paul agrees, Margot will marry the odious Maltravers, who is now the Home Secretary, and who will then use his influence to get Paul out of jail. As Peter says, she does feel rather guilty for Paul’s predicament and, short of going to prison herself, will do anything to help.
“You can’t imagine Mamma in prison, can you?” Peter says. Paul agrees – no, he can’t. The penal system is made for other, lesser creatures; a woman like Margot is above it.
Hoping that his sentence will be short, Paul says he’d prefer it if Margot waited for him. The sentence that is handed down is a shock: seven years penal servitude, beginning with a month in solitary confinement. Contrary to what you might expect, these four weeks are some of the happiest of his life. He enjoys the solitude, the time for reflection, and the peace and quiet, after a summer of hectic social activity. Plus, there’s a sense of familiarity about prison life; as he reflects, “anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison”.
For all its lightheartedness, Decline and Fall is preoccupied with themes that will recur in later novels: honour and dishonour, moral ambivalence, the tension inherent in the English class system. He knows he might have saved himself from prison by informing on Margot but he feels that would have been an ungentlemanly thing to do.
Margot doesn’t completely abandon him. She organizes special food to be delivered to him in prison and eventually finds a way to get him out. After faking his own death, Paul returns to Scone College, keeping his last name and pretending to be a distant cousin of that other Paul Pennyfeather who left in disgrace. He picks up his divinity studies where he left off, relieved to be where he never should have left – on the sidelines.
In Decline and Fall Waugh creates an archetype he returns to again and again: a modest hero drawn into exceptional and exciting circumstances who eventually returns to his comfortable, humdrum existence. Paul Pennyfeather is essentially an outsider, as was Waugh, in spite of his privileged upbringing and his many fashionable and aristocratic friends. Much of the book is autobiographical in origin: Scone College is based on Hertford College, Oxford, where Waugh was educated. The Bollinger Club, home to the “ghastly Oxford toffs”, is almost certainly designed after the notorious Bullingdon Club, whose “privileged members are known for vandalism and ostentatious displays of wealth”. And the dreadful Llanabba Castle School where Paul goes to teach is a thinly disguised version of Arnold House, the Welsh school whose headmaster, “a tall old man with stupid eyes”, offered Waugh a £160-a-year post teaching history, Latin and Greek. “Apparently,” he recorded in his diary, “the school is so far away from any sort of place of entertainment that it is quite impossible to spend any money at all there.”
When Evelyn Waugh was alive, his reputation was one of “snobbery, greed, irascibility, homophobia, homosexuality, anti-semitism, bigotry and bad manners”. He was gifted with a sharp but uncharitable sense of humour and was unforgiving in print towards those he disliked. It’s fair to say he had all the social prejudices of his age and only a few of the graces.
A nice man? No, not really. But a very funny book.