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.