A discussion of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, and of what it says about its author and his ideology.
It’s strange, but we tend to think of the nineteenth century as somehow more conservative than the twentieth. Mostly because it happened so long ago. But it recently occurred to me that, in reality, the great Victorian British writers were more willing to write about the working class than were those who followed them. Writers in the twentieth century, instead, mostly seemed to write about other writers.
This article deals with a very conservative twentieth-century author by the name of Evelyn Waugh-a fellow who did not write about the working class (he would have called them the “lower orders”). In particular, it deals with his first book, Decline, and Fall, which he published while still a very young man.
Waugh is mostly known today for his book Brideshead Revisited. He would probably not be happy about that. According to Graham Greene, he was later apologetic about the book, as it seemed to him mawkish and overwritten with time, and, later on in his life, he even went back to the novel and rewrote a few passages which struck him as particularly embarrassing. So it was “revisited.” Waugh was known in his own time and probably would like to be known still, for his witty comic novels and satires of British society, which were a far cry from the serious and sentimental Brideshead Revisited.
His first novel, Decline, and Fall is a book in this vein. It lampoons a whole swath of British society and is quite funny about it too. It was followed by Vile Bodies, another good-natured jibe at polite society. Then came Black Mischief, which is as racist as it sounds and deals with Ethiopia. Waugh felt the need, wherever he saw attempts being made at progress and development, to poke a bit of fun. The “mischief” referred to in the title was Emperor Haile Selassie’s attempt to modernize the nation.
This effort, for one reason or another, outraged Waugh. We’ll get to that later. He followed it with A Handful of Dust, Scoop, about journalists in Ethiopia, Put Out More Flags, about the Second World War, and the aforementioned Brideshead Revisited. Then came The Loved One, about, of all things, the Hollywood funeral industry, Helena, a historical novel, Love Among the Ruins, a dystopian satire the target of which is the welfare state, the Sword of Honor trilogy, again about the war, and the Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, about Waugh’s mental health problems late in life.
But forget all that. This article is about Waugh’s first book, in which we can already see his philosophy taking shape. Some typical Waugh features: the novel’s characters are subjected to frequent and inexplicable reversals of fortune. Horrible things befall them seemingly at random. Yet they still retain a stiff-upper-lip attitude. We can also see his conservatism and his fear of any attempt at progress.
But before we dive into the novel, we need to address certain things about Waugh. First off, was he a closet homosexual? It’s possible, but since most of us have some homosexual leanings, I’m not all that interested in finding subtle hints of them in his works.
I’m not very good at spotting them anyway. Second, we have to deal with his mental condition. Waugh later suffered a near nervous collapse, the subject of his last book, and, according to his account, as a young man, he attempted suicide by drowning (he was a teacher in Wales for a time, as the protagonist of Decline and Fall).
The book’s humorous tone doesn’t exactly give the impression of suicidal depression, but we have to realize that that hopelessness and despair was a part of Waugh. Finally, his Catholicism. He wrote his first book well before his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, but his decision to enter that institution was, as he saw it, the culmination of his philosophical development, not a change in it. So we should be able to see, in Decline and Fall, the nascent forces which lead him to the Church.
But now, the novel itself. I have to admit that when I first opened Decline and Fall, I groaned audibly. My greatest fear was that Waugh would be simply another P.G. Wodehouse. Not that there’s anything wrong with Wodehouse, as long as he is taken in small doses. He can be very funny.
But after a while, his essentially invented, a fantasy realm of rich idlers becomes intolerable. The unremitting frivolousness of Wodehouse’s characters, combined with the lack of any real, recognizable human problems in his books, can only be stood for so long. And on page one of Waugh’s book, within seconds, we are introduced to Scone College, the rowdy Bollinger Club, and a man named Alistair Digby-Vain-Trumpington. The beer-swilling, fox-hunting snobbery of it all leaves the reader almost immediately exhausted. But not to worry-things begin to look up at once.
We discover that the hero is not Digby-Vain or the other rich idlers of his ilk, but the much more sympathetic Paul Pennyfeather. Paul is a recognizable type-the Candide-Esque naïf. But he’s still loveable for it. He is a quiet, studious man who is at Oxford on scholarship and doesn’t fit in with the heavy-drinking, caddish culture of the gentlemen scions around him. Despite Paul’s pleasant disposition and his attention to his studies, he is expelled from school after the Bollinger Club removes his trousers one night. He, the scholarship student, is out the door at once, while those responsible go about their merry, drunken way.
All of this takes place in a space of five short pages or so, and is narrated from afar by two faculty members. The writing style is deliciously fast-paced and clever. But here we begin to see the fundamental problem with Waugh-he is a brilliant observer of other people’s foibles. He could be just about the greatest satirist of the century.
But in the end, he disappoints us. His satiric style can’t be touched, but he ends up taking seriously the very things we thought he was satirizing. Waugh sees why class snobbery is cruel and stupid. He understands and sympathizes with the plight of Paul in an indifferent system rigged to his disadvantage. He even pokes fun at the conservative politics of the gentlemen of Scone. One of his class-mates is ostracized and abused, for instance, for having had dinner once with Ramsay Macdonald (the Labour Prime Minister). But then, if Waugh sees why all this is stupid, why is he so conservative?
We understand more later on. But for the first portion of the novel, we continue reading and laughing and thinking that Waugh is a satiric genius.
Everything is out to get Paul and no one is there to save him. Paul is expelled for indecent behavior-really for the indecent behavior of others. Then, just as suddenly, his guardian kicks him out of the house. He has a daughter, after all, and he can’t have Paul around as a bad influence. Pennyfeather can find work only in the one place which will take perverts and sociopaths: a private school.
Once more, Waugh’s razor-sharp wit and rapid-fire style are devastating. We are introduced to an incredibly squalid school in Wales and we meet cad extraordinaire, Mr. Grimes. He explains that although he “gets in the soup,” quite frequently, someone always comes along to bail him out because he is a “public school man.” That, he explains, is the glory of “the social system”, which guarantees that wealthy Old Etonians and such will always be bailed out in the end.
But it isn’t until we meet Mr. Prendergast, another faculty member, that Waugh’s true worldview begins to come clear. Prendergast, you see, intended to be a clergyman, but it struck him one day, while he was observing his mother and a neighbor woman discussing which silverware to buy, that one simple aspect of church doctrine didn’t make sense.
Namely, he couldn’t see why God would want to create the world in the first place. When the scene occurs in the novel, it is brilliantly funny, but the setting in Wales recalls Waugh’s suicide attempt. Perhaps he suffered from such doubts himself. Waugh is amused by the world, but he also despairs of it. It is full of bizarre, random, cruel events, and it is all entirely meaningless. This is why Waugh needed religion-without it he saw no real value in the world.
Like many first novels, Decline and Fall, well, declines after an excellent start. Some of the humor starts to lag when we are introduced to the cast of high society busy-bodies who will take up the bulk of the novel after Paul leaves Wales. Some of the scenes are simply unnecessary. Others are downright offensive, including a scene with a black man whom Paul’s love-to-be, Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde, seems to have on a proverbial leash. Waugh’s racism is visceral and painful to read, as are his depictions of the Welsh people. He begins to come across as a man of small-minded hatred.
Paul ends up moving in with Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde, originally as a tutor for her son, but then as her fiancée. Poor naïve Paul, however, doesn’t realize, even as it becomes increasingly obvious to the rest of us, that she is something of a big shot in the world of “white slave trafficking.”
In other words, she’s a pimp. Paul ends up taking the fall for her and finds himself in jail. Here the novel picks up again. Waugh’s back in his element-the world of cruelly unpredictable fate-and we start laughing.
We are introduced to the warden who, far from being the ogre we might expect, is a fair-minded social reformer who is attempting to create a more humane prison system. The problem is, no matter what he tries, it backfires at once. Every one of his reforms leads to the most horrible unintended consequences. Looking back on the novel, the prison section stands out as one of the best.
But we have to think about what Waugh is saying. In reality, he is using an old trick of conservative satirists. He’s making fun of the quirks of individuals instead of pointing out what is wrong with their ideas. He can’t explain why it would be a bad idea to make the prison system more humane because there is no rational argument against it. So he invents wild and improbable consequences of the reformist attempt to make it seem ridiculous.
I am reminded of conservative so-called “humorists” today who make fun of feminism. They can’t come up with any rational argument against women’s equality that doesn’t rely on outright chauvinism, so they end up mocking the foibles of individual feminists. It’s an easy path to mindless hatred.
Waugh’s ideology becomes more and more explicit as we continue reading. Paul languishes in jail while Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde runs off with another man. He considers telling the truth and incriminating her, but then decides that because of her social standing, wealth, and gender it would be impossible to put her in jail.
Paul simply accepts this as the way of things. He does not fight it or even criticizes it. And here’s the heart of Waugh’s ideology. He fears any attempt at progress because he sees it as hopeless. He understands that the social class structure is stupid and petty and cruel, yet he believes it to be both natural, and even, in a strange way, proper.
Paul eventually gets out of prison with the help of his former fiancée, although she refuses to marry him, and after a stay abroad, he winds up back in Scone College, listening once more to the shouts of the Bollinger Club. He meets a former student of his who is also studying there. The young man is perpetually drunk (note: that was how Waugh spent his college years) but he is still able to hold down a sober conversation with Paul about the circular nature of fate.
After all his adventures, Paul has ended up where he started. And on that bitter-sweet note, the novel ends. This is Waugh’s final statement: everything ends up where it began. No wonder, therefore, that he believes progress to be impossible.
So here’s the problem with Waugh: he ends up believing in the very things you think he’s going to savage and mock. He was, after all, a racist and a snob. He truly believed that human beings were divided into categories from birth and that he and his fellow rich white men were naturally on top.
You have to wonder how he could be a Catholic and still hold these views. I’m an atheist, but still, it seems to me that most Catholics have to admit the possibility of love and equality triumphing in the end if they’re going to believe in Jesus. I’m inclined to the Graham Greene view. As he put it, “It should be impossible for a Catholic to be a conservative.” But Waugh, after all, was a convert. And like many converts, he probably saw the Church simply as a massive, feudal relic and a bastion of tradition and hierarchy-two things he loved.
Decline and Fall seem to conclude that the only thing we can do is sit back and accept things as they are. Even if they are stupid and cruel, we should leave them be then try to fix them. So what can we say of Waugh? His comic style cannot be denied-neither can the genuine fun of reading his books.
But his racism, snobbery, and defeatism wear thin after a while, especially when we consider how many people have suffered due to such ideas over the years. The problem with Waugh is the problem with all conservative satirists. It is difficult for them to be funny for very long, since, in the end, they have to take seriously things that are fundamentally cruel and irrational. In Waugh’s case, that would include class hierarchy and racism.
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