Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

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.

66 thoughts on “Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

  1. Jonathan

    This was one of Waugh’s I was going to read first; but then I watched the TV series so I won’t want to for a while. Would you say the TV series was quite close to the book?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funnily enough, I haven’t actually watched it yet as I wanted to read the novel first! That said, it’s all lined up on the TV recorder, just waiting to go. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to it in the next week or two, so I’ll let you know. I can just imagine Jack Whitehall in the lead role – he seems like the perfect fit.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    I’ve not read this, but like you, the TV adaptation reminded me that I want to! It does sound very funny. And now my name seems so ordinary. I think I have to change it to Ffenella Cholmodeley-Beauchamp-Belvoir (pronounced Chumley-Beecham-Beaver) immediately.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha ha, I love it! He’s very good on names, Waugh. Beste-Chetwynde (or ‘Beast-Cheating’ as it is pronounced) turns out to be a great match for Margot’s personality, a very fitting surname by all accounts.

      Reply
  3. Tredynas Days

    I saw just the first episode, which seemed pretty faithful to the novel – but I read it many years ago, so remember it patchily. I do recall finding it very funny, but like you, Karen, thought it flagged halfway through

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Interesting to hear that you had a fairly similar experience with the novel, albeit many years ago. It’s a shame really as it started so strongly…oh, well.

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    I remember reading it and loving it when I was about 19 or so, but wasn’t enamoured with the TV adaptation. It was trying too hard to be funny, I think, with lots of slapstick, while much of the humour lies in Waugh’s use of language. Although there are plenty of farcical situations, obviously. I also enjoyed Vile Bodies, Scoop, A Handful of Dust. And was obsessed with Brideshead Revisited in my teens. I even had a dressed-up teddy bear who came with me everywhere. Pretentious, moi?!!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I may well have read it in my teens as well as the school scenes seemed vaguely familiar to me – but then again, I’m so bad at remembering exactly what I read back in those days that I can’t be 100% sure! It’ll be interesting to see how I get on with the TV adaptation. I can imagine it being quite raucous as there’s plenty of juicy material to work with here, much of it well suited to the visual medium. Sorry to hear you were rather disappointed by it though…I’ll temper my expectations accordingly!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, this is so different in tone to Brideshead Revisited. In fact, it’s almost as though it was written by another writer. I loved Brideshead, but this one not so much. It’s still worth considering though, especially if you’re reading around the era. The Mitfords were a truly fascinating family, such markedly different personalities and political allegiances.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I haven’t read Waugh for ages in fact I think I have read only three of his books. I watched the first episode of the BBC drama but haven’t got around to watching the rest.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I read a few back in my teens and early twenties – definitely Brideshead and Scoop, and possibly one or two others as well. Brideshead remains my favourite – I revisited it six or seven years ago and it still stands up pretty well.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    This sounds very good. Stories where protagonists fall from grace, either rightly or wrongly, go back a long time. Handled skillfully they cab still make for great books.

    Too bad there was, as you describe it, unevenness in parts of the book. Writing comedy and satire is very difficult and one often misses the mark with humor.

    Superb review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, it’s a pity about the second half of the book. I just felt it lost its way somewhat once the story moved away from the closeness of the school setting. Still, it was his first novel so maybe he was still finding his way as a writer, learning how best to sustain a narrative etc. I have another Waugh on my list for the Classics Club — Vile Bodies — so I’m hoping for something tighter there.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui – you do make this sound very appealing. I’ve read a little Waugh and liked it very much, and I have this and several others lurking ont he shelves. I do keep thinking that I must go for Brideshead soon, though – I should have read that one by now! :)

    Reply
  8. Annecdotist

    I haven’t read any Evelyn Waugh since my teens so good to be reminded of his wit. I haven’t watched the TV version but might go back to his novels, especially as my current WIP has some very dark humour.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Like you, I read a few when I was in my teens and early twenties – it seemed to be the thing to do at the time! It was interesting to revisit him some thirty years on, although I can’t help but feel that some of his humour fells a little dated now. Do let me know what you think if you decide to pick him up again, especially in light of your current project – I’d be interested to hear.

      Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    It’s at least 20 years since I read this – I enjoyed it but only in part. Some element of the plot didn’t ring true for me though – why would Beste-Chetwynde with all her money send her son to a tenth rate school?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, yes – there is that. Although I can’t help but feel that Margot’s thoughts were fully occupied elsewhere…

      Out of interest, how did you feel about Waugh’s treatment of the Welsh? The rather blatant racism bothered me on more than one occasion. Usually I try to think of this type of thing as being representative of the attitudes of the day (not that it makes it any more acceptable), but I felt quite uncomfortable about the nature of the jibes here.

      Reply
  10. Grass and Vanilla

    I’m a relative newcomer to your blog Jacqui and I absolutely love both your choice of books and how well you write about them. I’ve already made many additions to my reading list thanks to a few trips back through your archive!

    I’ve read Decline and Fall before and very much agree with your views on it. The Llanabba part is certainly the tightest and the funniest section, and there were rather grating changes in tone later in the book that blunted my overall enjoyment somewhat. I found Captain Grimes to be such a brilliant comic grotesque, a standout aspect of the novel as a whole. He is, I’m glad to say, very well played by the excellent Douglas Hodge in the BBC adaptation!

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you – how lovely of you to say! I’m so glad to hear that a few of my choices have caught your eye – I do hope you enjoy the books if and when you get an opportunity to read them.

      As for Decline and Fall – yes, exactly. The novel started so well, but then it lost its way in the second and third sections. As you say, those changes in tone were rather jarring.

      I really warmed to Captain Grimes too, such an endearing character in spite of all his flaws. Douglas Hodge sounds like a great fit for the role – I can just imagine him now. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to watch the TV series very soon.

      Thanks again for your comments – I really do appreciate them.

      Reply
  11. Max Cairnduff

    Well captured. I read this years ago but barely remember it. I’m personally not a fan of how Waugh names characters – it always feels to me like I’m being aggressively nudged in the ribs to laugh. Otherwise, like others, I think I also found the first half much stronger than the second.

    The only Waugh I’m currently tempted to return to is the Sword of Honour trilogy, where I read and enjoyed the first but didn’t manage to continue. I don’t rule out rereading others, but probably not pressingly. I should watch the tv show though…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I was wondering if you’d read this one, Max. It’s interesting how others appear to feel the same way about the different sections of the book. While I really enjoyed the early stages, I got a bit annoyed with it all once everything started to spiral out of control. It just seemed to get sillier and sillier as the action moved away from the school. Oh well…it was his first novel after all.

      I can see what you mean about the names, but I like them nonetheless. Beste-Chetwynde turned out to rather apt in the end. :)

      Reply
  12. Emma

    Great review as always Jacqui.
    The ecclectic group of teachers reminds me of the eccentric characters in Christmas Pudding.
    I bet you could write a whole post just about the names of the characters. Even a non-native English speaker like me can see that they are purposely funny.
    I’ve only read Vile Bodies, which I loved and I wanted to read more by him.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. Oh, I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed Ville Bodies so much as I think it will be my next by Waugh. It’s on my list for the Classics Club which gives me an extra reason to read it. I’m hoping to revisit Nancy Mitford at some point too. I remember your billet about her Christmas Pudding!

      Reply
  13. hastanton

    Funnily enough I read this ( for 3rd time!) when I saw the series was on . Whilst not his best novel , I agree with your comments about the latter part of it , it does contain some of his best comic writing , I think . OH is a teacher and some of the expressions have become catchphrases between us ‘ o Mr Pennyfeather, it’s amazing what one can teach when one puts ones mind to it !’

    Some of the comic touches are just inspired pop-goes-the-weasle played in vox humana, the fate of Cltterbuck which we learn in throwaway asides and Captain Grimes always in the soup !!

    The series was reasonably close to the original , the episode with Chokey does not appear for obvious reasons today . It was also filmed close to where I grew up so it was lovely to see that part of the world again !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, how interesting! Yes, some great one-liners here, especially for anyone involved in the teaching profession. I really warmed to Captain Grimes, such a lovable old rouge in spite of all his flaws and foibles. And you’re absolutely right about the throwaway asides on the demise of Clutterbuck, too – Waugh just slips that in without dwelling on it in any way. It’s really quite bizarre!

      I’m hoping to watch the series in the next week or two. It does sound good despite Marina’s reservations listed above. I was wondering how they would deal with the Chokey episode, so I’m rather relieved to hear that it’s been left out altogether. A wise move, I think!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I did feel pretty uncomfortable about the racist slurs and jibes in this book. You may well have missed it, but I touched upon this aspect in the penultimate paragraph of my review – and in my discussion with Booker Talk above. It did affect on my enjoyment of the book, I must admit.

      Reply
      1. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

        Yes, I did miss that. Thanks for pointing it out. Just went and read that para again, as well as your discussion with Booker talk. I think such facts might affect us as readers (with regard to enjoying the book), even though we try to read thinking it was common in olden times. I have been reading Mr. Tibbit’s Catholic school and it is steeped in various racist remarks, especially against the Poles and the Irish. I liked the book, but the views of the main characters(Mr and Mrs. Tibbits) do bother me even though I know it was a common and accepted norm in the past.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No worries at all. It’s easy to miss things, especially with posts of this length. Yes, I agree – it’s hard to step back from these slurs, particularly if they are very blatant or excessive in tone. Some of the language in this really pulled me up short, words like ‘coon’ and ‘dago’ – and the context didn’t particularly help either. I know things were different back then, but even so it does affect the reading experience. It sounds as though you’ve encountered something similar with Mr Tibbit’s.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve read it a couple of times. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s my favourite of the Waughs I’ve read so far. Very different in tone from this one, but so beautifully done. You should definitely make time for it. :)

      Reply
  14. Caroline

    Those names! I’m not sure they wouldn’t annoy me after a while. The only Waugh Ive read is Brideshead Revisited. I loved it so much that I never returned to him. So many of his novels seem satires and very different in tone.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! The names are all part of the fun here, but I can see how they might becoming somewhat annoying after a while. Yes, this is very different to Brideshead, which I also loved. I have a couple of the satires on the shelves, and A Handful of Dust, too – I suspect that’s closer in tone to Brideshead although I might be wrong in that assumption.

      Reply
  15. bookbii

    Waugh is another of those writers I haven’t ever managed to get around to. He sounds pretty interesting but perhaps Decline and Fall isn’t his best work. Have you read any others and, if so, which would you say is his best?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I read a few back in my teens and early twenties – Scoop, Brideshead Revisited and two or three others which I’m struggling to remember now! It’s possible I may have read D&F as the school scenes seemed vaguely familiar.

      Brideshead is the one I would recommend to you. it’s rather different in tone to his satires – more poignant and elegiac. I think you would find it an interesting read.

      Reply
  16. litlove

    I have never read Waugh! I feel a little afraid of him, though I don’t know why. A friend once told me that A Handful of Dust was the most depressing novel she’d ever read, so maybe it comes from that. I didn’t see the TV adaptation either, though Mr Litlove did and he enjoyed it very much. One of these days I must tackle Waugh. I’ve not been in the mood for British modern classics for a while – but these things ebb and flow and the urge will no doubt return! Lovely review as always, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny. I feel much the same way about Nabokov! I’ve always been a bit scared of reading him, and yet I don’t know how that idea ever made its way into my head. Possibly from Lolita, which has never really appealed to me for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, other readers have encouraged me to give him a try, so it’s probably only a matter of time before I do.

      Returning to Waugh for a mo, I would definitely encourage you to give him a try when the urge for a British classic comes back again. Probably not this one as it’s a bit uneven, but maybe something like Brideshead or Scoop?

      Reply
  17. Lisa Hill

    I think I’ve read all of Waugh’s novels, a feat I owe for a brother-in-law who insisted that I read at least one and thus started a binge of everything they had at the library. I really enjoyed this review, and I hope the TV series makes its way to Australia before long!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I went through a mini-phase of reading his novels when I was in my teens and early twenties, but most of the details have slipped from my mind now. It was interesting to revisit him, especially in the current political climate. I hope the series finds its way over to you fairly soon. It looks like a lot of fun. (I think they’ve dialled down the racism and some of the controversial elements from the original novel, much to my relief!)

      Reply
  18. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  19. 1streading

    I loved Waugh’s satires in my twenties (Scoop, The Loved One, Black Mischief…) but I’m a little scared to read them now in case (as is likely) my tastes have changed. It looks like you didn’t suffer too much from going back to him!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, it wasn’t all plain sailing this time around, that’s for sure! In some ways, it’s a book of two halves. Racist comments aside, the majority of the first section is very funny, especially the scenes in the bottom-of-the-heap school – but then it really loses its way in parts two and three. A pity really as it started so strongly!

      Reply
  20. shoshibookblog

    ‘Decline and Fall’ was the first Waugh I ever read. You’re right it’s extremely patchy, but it will always have a place in my heart as my introduction to 1920’s Toff literature (as I like to think of it). Your review has made me thing it’s probably about due for a re-read…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I like your tag of Toff literature – that’s probably a category in its own right with Waugh right up there at the top of the list! As you say, a re-read could well be in order especially as it’s been adapted for TV.

      Reply
  21. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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