It’s been a while since I last read any Evelyn Waugh (probably more than five years in fact), but the recent appearance in the TV schedules of the BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall prompted me to pick him up again. First published in the late 1920s, Decline and Fall was Waugh’s debut novel, a cutting satire which took as its target Britain’s class-conscious society, in particular, the establishment or powers that be and their outrageous codes of behaviour.
The novel focuses on a year in the life of Paul Pennyfeather, a rather naive but genial individual who gets caught up in a bizarre sequence of adventures which prove to be his undoing. Through no fault of his own, Pennyfeather is booted out of his college at Oxford for indecent behaviour after being stripped of his trousers by the drunken members of the Bollinger Club (a thinly veiled reference to the University’s notorious Bullingdon Club). A rather unfortunate turn of events given the fact that Pennyfeather, a theology student, was cycling back from a student union meeting at the time, minding his own business as usual. Under the circumstances, Pennyfeather’s guardian decides that he must discontinue his ward’s allowance, thereby leaving our protagonist in the unenviable position of having to find a job. So before long, Pennyfeather finds himself being interviewed for the role of junior schoolmaster at a bottom-of-the-league school in Wales, a position for which he feels totally unqualified.
‘But I don’t know a word of German, I’ve had no experience, I’ve got no testimonials, and I can’t play cricket.’
‘It doesn’t do to be too modest,’ said Mr Levy. ‘It’s wonderful what one can teach when one tries. Why, only last term we sent a man who had never been in a laboratory in his life as senior Science Master to one of our leading public schools. He came wanting to do private coaching in music. He’s doing very well, I believe. Besides, Dr Fagan can’t expect all that for the salary he’s offering. Between ourselves, Llanabba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School and School. Frankly,’ said Mr Levy, ‘School is pretty bad. I think you’ll find it a very suitable post. So far as I know, there are only two other candidates, and one of them is totally deaf, poor fellow.’ (pp. 16-17)
On his arrival at Llanabba, Pennyfeather encounters a strange assortment of oddballs and fools: there is the eccentric head, Dr Fagan, an absurd character who harbours delusions of grandeur regarding the relative standing of his school; then there are Dr Fagan’s daughters, the equally offbeat Flossie, and the briskly efficient Diana (or Dingy as she is fondly known); and last but not least, there are the other masters, a ragtag of misfits who prove to be just as unsuited to their jobs as young Pennyfeather. The standouts here are Prendergast (‘Prendy’ for short), a rather nervous former clergyman who gave up the cloth after being plagued by doubts, and the genial Captain Grimes, an ex-public school man who almost always ends up ‘in the soup’. In this scene, Grimes is giving Pennyfeather the lowdown on his beleaguered colleague.
‘Prendy’s not so bad in his way,’ said Grimes, ‘but he can’t keep order. Of course, you know he wears a wig. Very hard for a man with a wig to keep order. I’ve got a false leg, but that’s different. Boys respect that. Think I lost it in the war. Actually,’ said the Captain, and strictly between ourselves, mind, I was run over by a tram in Stoke-on-Trent when I was one-over-the-eight. Still, it doesn’t do to let that out to everyone. Funny thing, but I feel I can trust you. I think we’re going to be pals.’ (pp. 26-27)
Oddly enough, virtually everyone Pennyfeather meets at the school exhibits a strong desire to open up to him, and so our protagonist gets to hear all their life stories whether he wishes to or not!
At first, Pennyfeather is daunted by the prospect of facing a classroom full of unruly boys, but he soon settles into a rhythm, especially once it becomes clear that he is not expected to teach them anything useful or relevant. The main idea is to keep the youngsters quiet.
‘That’s your little mob in there,’ said Grimes; ‘you let them out at eleven.’
‘But what am I to teach them?’ said Paul in sudden panic.
‘Oh, I shouldn’t try to teach them anything, not just yet, anyway. Just keep them quiet.’ (p. 37)
There are some wonderfully comic scenes in the first half of the novel, most notably those focusing on a landmark event in the school’s calendar, the annual Sports day. At a moment’s notice, Pennyfeather is put in charge of managing the full programme of races and contests, with the hapless Prendergast as referee and Captain Grimes as timekeeper. No expense is spared in preparing the refreshments for the occasion as Dr Fagan is keen to impress the visiting parents and the local dignitaries. Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan – not surprising really, especially given the head’s record at hosting these events in the past.
‘During the fourteen years that I have been at Llanabba there have been six sports days and two concerts, all of them, in one way or another, utterly disastrous. Once Lady Bunyan was taken ill; another time it was the matter of the Press photographers and the obstacle race; another time some quite unimportant parents brought a dog with them which bit two of the boys very severely and one of the masters, who swore terribly in front of everyone. I could hardly blame him, but of course he had to go. Then there was the concert when the boys refused to sing “God save the King” because of the pudding they had had for luncheon. One way or another, I have been consistently unfortunate in my efforts at festivity. And yet I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish. Perhaps, Pennyfeather, you will bring luck to Llanabba; in fact, I feel confident you have already done so. Look at the sun!’ (p. 58)
To begin with, Prendergast has one too many at the pub before the races get underway, and so he ends up firing the starting pistol into a boy’s foot by mistake. The boy in question, Tangent Circumference, is carried off to the refreshments tent where he is given a large slice of cake to quell his wailing. Then there is a dispute over the result of the six-furlong race when Lady Circumference accuses the winner, Percy Clutterbuck (the son of the owner of a local brewery), of having skipped a lap. Unsurprisingly, the Clutterbucks are far from impressed.
As the holidays approach, Pennyfeather receives an invitation from wealthy socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde (pronounced ‘Beast-Cheating’), mother of one of the more sensible boys at the school. He is to act as a private tutor for a few weeks, coaching her son, Peter, with extra lessons over the Easter break. The glamorous Margot has taken a bit of a shine to Pennyfeather following his exploits at the Sports day – and the schoolmaster, for his part, is also smitten. Little does our protagonist know that his trip to Margot’s residence in Hampshire will lead to even more trouble as once again he finds himself caught up in a scandal through little fault of his own. To say any more would probably give the game away, but suffice it to say that Margot isn’t quite as sweet or innocent as she appears at first sight.
I found Decline and Fall an enjoyable satire, albeit somewhat uneven in places, especially in the latter stages of the narrative. While the first half of the novel is tight and packed with viciously comic moments, the second seems more wayward. When the story moves away from the brilliantly-realised settings of Oxford and Llanabba, it loses its way somewhat, becoming sillier and more contrived in the process. Nevertheless, Waugh’s natural sense of comic timing remains impressive throughout. He has a keen ear for dialogue, too, especially in the scenes which are set within the confines of academia. For the most part, Waugh is aiming his sights at the establishment here – the badly-behaved privileged classes, the criminal justice system, even the Press – but there are times when it is hard to feel fully on board with his brand of humour. There are some unfortunate racial slurs here, mostly uttered by rather flawed characters whom we are invited to chastise; nevertheless, they do make for somewhat uncomfortable reading in today’s more enlightened age.
By the end of the novel, we come full circle as Pennyfeather returns to Oxford. Renewal is a running theme in the narrative with several of the characters reappearing in new guises at various points, desperately trying to reinvent themselves in the process. As an observer remarks to Pennyfeather in the closing stages of the story, ‘Now you’re a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others.’ He is talking about life here, a messy business at the best of times. Somehow or other, the innocent Pennyfeather was catapulted onto the great revolving wheel of life – imagine it as a wild ride at the fairground – and roundly thrown off again, almost immediately and with a severe bump. Maybe, just maybe, he can find his way back to solid ground.
Decline and Fall is published by Penguin Modern Classics; personal copy.