Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

First published in 1930, Vile Bodies was Evelyn Waugh’s second novel, a wickedly funny satire about the farcical escapades of London’s Bright Young People from the high society set. I enjoyed it a lot – much more than Waugh’s debut, Decline and Fall, which I liked in parts but not as a whole. Interestingly, Vile Bodies was more successful than D&F on its release, catching the attention of both the critics and the public alike. It’s a very good book, one that captures the uncertainties and excesses of the time to great effect. Definitely recommended for readers with an interest in the period.

The novel centres on Adam Fenwick-Symes, an aspiring writer who has just drafted his memoirs with a view to finalising the details with his publishers. As the story opens, Adam is returning to London from France when his manuscript is confiscated and subsequently destroyed by Customs Officials at Dover, who take delight in declaring it to be in breach of new regulations – specifically those relating to literary obscenities.

This rather unfortunate episode puts Adam in a bit of a fix. With no income from the promised book deal, Adam is penniless, leaving him unable to marry his long-term girlfriend, Nina Blount. While Adam and Nina are on the fringes of the Bright Young People, neither of them has enough money of their own to tie the knot – this in spite of their penchant for dining out and drinking to excess.

Luckily for Adam, he wins £1,000 on a couple of ridiculous bets; but then he blows it all by giving the proceeds to a rather persuasive but drunken Major to put on a horse, a rank outsider in a forthcoming race. Much of the rest of the plot – if there is such a thing in this novel – revolves around Adam’s quest to obtain enough money to marry Nina, either by hunting down the Major (the horse actually romps home at 35-1) or by tapping up Nina’s father, the blustering Colonel Blunt.

The on-off nature of Adam and Nina’s wedding is a running theme throughout the book, as one minute the required £1,000 seems to be safe only for it to slip tantalisingly out of reach again before anyone can say ‘boo’. In some ways, the story becomes a sort of money chase, a fitting detail given the Bright Young People’s fondness for treasure hunts as a form of entertainment.

Waugh makes excellent use of telephone calls between Adam and Nina, typically whenever their situation changes – another feature that crops up again and again as the narrative plays out.

Adam felt a little dizzy, so he had another drink.

‘D’you mind if I telephone?’ he said.

He rang up Nina Blount.

‘Is that Nina?’

‘Adam, dear, you’re tight already.’

‘How d’you know?’

‘I can hear it. What is it? I’m going out to dinner.’

‘I just rang up to say that it’s all right about our getting married. I’ve got a thousand pounds.’

‘Oh, good. How?’

‘I’ll tell you when we meet. […]’ (p. 36)

Along the way, we encounter a multitude of striking characters, all sketched by Waugh with consummate skill. There’s Miss Agatha Runcible, a central member of the Bright Young People, who distinguishes herself by bursting in on the Prime Minister in his study the morning after a rather wild party in town. The fact that she is still dressed in her Hawaiian costume at the time does not go unnoticed. Then there are the gossip columnists – typically men within the same social set – who earn their living by reporting various comings and goings, satisfying the public’s appetite for salacious titbits. And finally (for now) there’s Lottie Crump, the rather drunken but genial woman who runs Shepheard’s Hotel, where Adam currently resides. It is here where he first meets the drunken Major who relieves him of his much-needed £1,000.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Waugh is very good on the shallowness and short-sightedness of the Bright Young People, particularly given the fact that he experienced life on the fringes of this milieu. The novel is peppered with pitch-perfect dialogue, complete with the offhand tone that seems to characterise the lifestyle within this set. In this passage, Agatha Runcible is telling Adam about a new chap on the scene, a terrible social climber by the name of Archie Schwert.

‘He’s rather sweet, really, only too terribly common, poor darling. He lives at the Ritz, and I think that’s rather grand, don’t you?’

‘Is he giving his party there?’

‘My dear, of course not. In Edward Throbbing’s house. He’s Miles’ brother, you know, only he’s frightfully dim and political, and doesn’t know anybody. He got ill and went to Kenya or somewhere and left his perfectly sheepish house in Hertford Street, so we’ve all gone to live there. You’d better come too. The caretakers didn’t like it a bit at first, but we gave them drinks and things, and now they’re simply thrilled to the marrow about it and spend all their time cutting out “bits”, my dear, from the papers about our goings on.’ (p. 24)

The portrayal of these people is dazzlingly good – the ‘vile bodies’ who party too hard, sleep too little and stumble their way through life from one escapade to another. There are reports of girls swinging from chandeliers, car races and crashes, numerous instances of libel/fabrication, not to mention the odd catastrophe or two. It all makes for a very amusing read.

Waugh also has a lot of fun with the characters’ names in this novel. We have Mr Outrage (last week’s Prime Minister as the government has just fallen), Miles Malpractice (a Bright Young Person who becomes a gossip columnist), Mrs Melrose Ape (the leader of a troop of singing angels), and Fanny Throbbing (a minor player with the most outrageous of names).

The actual characterisation is excellent too, from the impetuous Agatha Runcible to the blustering Colonel Blount. The latter is terribly irritable and forgetful, so much so that he fails to recognise Adam as the man who wants to marry his Nina. By this point in time, Adam has also joined the ranks of the gossip columnists, merrily inventing members of the upper classes who regularly feature in his Society reports. In this scene, the Colonel is actually talking to Adam about Adam, or Mr Chatterbox as he is known to his readers.

‘She’s very nearly made several mistakes. There was an ass of a fellow here the other day wanting to marry her. A journalist. Awful silly fellow. He told me my old friend Cannon Chatterbox was working on his paper, Well, I didn’t like to contradict him – he ought to have known, after all – but I thought it was funny at the time, and then, d’you know, after he’d gone, I was going through some old papers upstairs, and I came on a cutting from the Worcester Herald describing his funeral. He died in 1912. Well, he must have been a muddle-headed sort of fellow to make a mistake like that, must he?…Have some port?’ (p. 182)

While the novel begins in a very amusing vein, the tone starts to shift a little towards the midpoint, darkening somewhat every now and again towards the end. The pressure to deliver enough material to satisfy the newspaper editors takes its toll on one of the gossip writers, an unfortunate chap who finds himself excluded from a prestigious party by the discontented host. There is also the threat of war, something that never seems to be too far away.

‘Wars don’t start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions. (p. 112)

It is suggested elsewhere that these tonal shifts may have been a reflection of Waugh’s state of mind during the creative process – Waugh’s wife allegedly left him for another man as he was halfway through the novel. Irrespective of this, the tonal variations never feel odd or awkward – quite the opposite in fact as any changes seem to be an inherent part of the story.

So, a rather enjoyable and entertaining read for me, another success from my Classics Club list.

Vile Bodies is published by Penguin; personal copy.

36 thoughts on “Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

    1. Lisa Hill

      Yes, me too, Simon. I read this in my twenties and loved it, but if pressed I couldn’t have explained why because I didn’t keep a reading journal in those days. So it was a great pleasure to read this review, thank you Jacqui:)

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        You’re very welcome, Lisa. I read a few of Waugh’s books back in the day, but not this one. It feels like a stronger book than Decline and Fall, more consistent in terms of quality and style.

        Reply
  1. heavenali

    I remember enjoying this, a great satire and brilliant period piece. I haven’t read that many Waugh novels probably because of being scarred by A Handful of Dust.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I recall another blogger (Hayley at Desperate Reader, I think) saying that A Handful of Dust always destroys her. It’s actually sitting in my TBR, so it might be one for next year if I can find the right moment for it.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Interesting that the tone of the novel appears to shadow that if the personal life of the author, I’m sure you’re correct in that his subconscious would have been affected and therefore the mood of his creative output. Not an author I’ve read however.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The introduction comments on Waugh’s personal situation during the period in question, so it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t have had some effect on the mood or tone of the book at a subconscious level at the very least. I think the Waughs had only been married for a year when their relationship broke down, a development that left the author shocked and disheartened.

      For you, I would recommend Brideshead Revisited ahead of any of Waugh’s satires. It’s nostalgic, elegiac quality feels more your kind of thing.

      Reply
  3. realthog

    What an illuminating review — many thanks! I’m halfway certain I read Vile Bodies back in my teens, but that was a very long time ago. Clearly I should do a Brideshead on it at some point.

    It’s interesting, if as you say Vile Bodies both is better and was in its day more successful than Decline & Fall, that it’s the latter that’s by far the better known today. I wonder why?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, John. I read a bit of Waugh back in my youth, too – not this one, but definitely Scoop and Brideshead. Well, the Anthony Andrews/Jeremy Irons TV series certainly sparked my interest in the latter!

      Yes, it’s odd that Vile Bodies isn’t better known or more widely read these days. I’m not quite sure why that is. I can’t even recall if it had much of a boost after the Stephen Fry film adaptation, Bright Young Things – can you? I do recall enjoying that film when it came out, but it feels like such a long time ago now (fifteen years, maybe?). I must give it another watch as the cast list is top-notch – virtually every British actor of note at the time seems to have been in it!

      Reply
      1. realthog

        I’m pretty certain I never saw that movie. My wife’s a monster Stephen Fry fan, though (I’ve tried to tell her it’s hopeless, but she won’t listen), so I’ll see if I can borrow a copy from the library.

        The Waughs I remember reading most aside from Scoop are, oddly, The Loved One and Love Among the Ruins, both of them pretty minor works, I think. I’m not sure how much either is remembered today.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the film if you track it down. Given Pam’s fondness for Stephen Fry, it’s got to be worth a watch.

          Oddly enough, I have seen various copies of The Loved One around and about, mostly in Hatchard’s in Piccadilly. They were doing some kind of vote or promotion of favourite novels a year or so ago, and I’m pretty sure The Loved One came out on top. Can you recall if you enjoyed it back in the day?

          Reply
          1. realthog

            I remember the subject matter and thinking it was pretty okay, and that’s about all! It was pretty much in vogue when I read it — perhaps there’d been a Beeb adaptation or something. But we’re talking half a century here, Jacqui!

            Reply
  4. bookbii

    This sounds like a very entertaining read. For some reason Waugh has never really appealed to me, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the use of funny names, it seems a bit blunt. But then you’ve convinced me, Jacqui, that I should ditch those perceptions and give him a try (post borrowing/buying ban, of course). Lovely review, as always.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Waugh’s satires aren’t to everyone’s tastes, that’s for sure – but as an author, he’s still worth exploring. If you’ve never read Brideshead Revisited, then I would suggest you start there. I get the feeling that its elegiac, nostalgic feel might appeal to you more than the savage nature of the satires?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It has been rather interesting for me to revisit Waugh over the last couple of years. Like many other people, I read a few of his novels back in my youth, only to move on to different authors as years slipped by. Even though Vile Bodies is very much a period piece, it seems to have aged somewhat better than its predecessor, Decline and Fall. Some of the humour in D&F struck me as feeling terribly dated when I read it last year, but I didn’t have quite the same problems with Vile Bodies. All in all, it was a veritable hoot!

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    I want to read Waugh. As I mentioned before I need to read more Twentieth Century writers. I like the telephone related passages. Though phones were not exactly new in 1930, it reminds me the way that contemporary writers are incorporating Text messages, Facebook posts, Tweets, etc. into today’s novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think Waugh is a must-read for you, Brian! Brideshead Revisited is one of the great novels of the twentieth century, and the satires are worth exploring too. Either this one or Scoop (about journalism and foreign correspondents) would be a great addition to your reading list.

      I really liked the telephone passages too. They felt entirely natural and worked well within the context of the book.

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    I remember reading this in my teens and finding it quite chilling underneath the humour. There was an air of desperation and of course poor Agatha Runcible comes to a very bad end.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s definitely an undercurrent of darkness here, especially towards the end. An air of desperation is a good way of describing it as even the wild parties have a sense of manic frenzy about them. Good point about Agatha Runcible, perhaps the epitome of the ‘live fast, die’ young culture of the day.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It”s a good one, isn’t it? Not as dated as his earlier novel, Decline and Fall – a relief, really, as I enjoyed this a lot more. As you say, it’s very British – just like Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    Great review Jacqui, I read this quite a while ago and you brought it all flooding back! I totally agree about the tone, I didn’t feel the darker shift jarred at all. Reading it from a postwar perspective meant it felt perfectly judged to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the shifts in tone kind of fit with the story, don’t they? I think Gert is right when she says there’s an air of desperation underneath all that gaiety, a sense that tragedy is never too far away. A reflection of the times, I suspect.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I read The Loved One at university – a long time ago now! – which led me to read quite a number of Waugh’s novels. I frequently think of re-reading but must admit I’m a little frightened I won’t like them as much so it’s a relief to hear how much you liked this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I definitely liked this a lot more than Decline and Fall which just felt very dated when viewed from our current cultural environment. It’s hard to go back to books you loved as a teenager just in case they fail to live up to your memories second time around. I had a similar fear about re-reading Raymond Chandler, a writer I loved when I first discovered him in my youth. Luckily though, his novels really have stood the test of time and they seem just as stylish now as they did all those years ago!

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

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