Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224
At Scone College in Oxford, the annual dinner of the Bollinger Club ends with the breaking of glass. Reeling out of Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington’s rooms, the drunken aristocrats run to earth the inoffensive divinity student Paul Pennyfeather and forcibly leave him trouserless before they go roaring off into the night. Bollinger members can be fined, but the college authorities feel that Paul deserves more severe punishment for running across the quadrangle in his shorts. As a result, he is sent down for indecent behavior. After informing him that under his father’s will his legacy could be withheld for unsatisfactory behavior, his unsympathetic guardian virtuously announces his intention to cut off Paul’s allowance.
Through a shoddy firm of scholastic agents, Paul becomes a junior assistant master at Llanabba Castle, Wales. Llanabba is not a good school. Its head is Dr. Augustus Fagan, whose lectures on service are intended to cover up the inadequacies of his institution. He has two daughters: Flossie, a vulgar young woman with matrimonial ambitions, and Diana, who economizes on sugar and soap. One of the masters is Mr. Prendergast, a former clergyman who suffers from doubts. The other is Captain Grimes, who wears a false leg and is, as he frankly admits, periodically in the soup. A bounder and a scoundrel, he puts his faith in the public-school system, which may kick a man out but never lets him down. Grimes thinks he was put on his feet more often than any public-school man alive. His reluctant engagement to Flossie is his protection against the next time he finds himself in trouble.
Paul is in charge of the fifth form. When he meets his class for the first time, most of the boys claim that their name is Tangent. An uproar arises between the would-be Tangents and a few non-Tangents, but Paul puts an end to the situation by announcing that the writer of the longest essay will receive half a crown. After that, he has no more trouble. Mr. Prendergast, whose own students behave outrageously and make fun of his wig, wonders why Paul’s classes are always so quiet. Paul considers young Peter Beste-Chetwynde the most interesting of his pupils.
Arthur Potts is one of the few men Paul knew at Scone; he writes that Alastair Trumpington regrets Paul’s dismissal and wants to send him twenty pounds. Hearing of the offer, Grimes wires for the money in Paul’s name.
When several parents expressed their intention to visit Llanabba Castle, Dr. Fagan decides to honor their visit with the annual field sports meet. Philbrick, the butler, objects to his extra duties. He confides to Paul that he is a crook who took the post in order to kidnap little Lord Tangent, but that he reformed after falling in love with Diana. He tells Mr. Prendergast that he is really Sir Solomon Philbrick, a millionaire shipowner, and he leaves Grimes under the impression that he is a novelist collecting material for a book.
The sports meet is not a success. Lady Circumference, Lord Tangent’s mother, is rude to everyone when she distributes the prizes. The Llanabba Silver Band plays. Margot Beste-Chetwynde creates a social flurry when she arrives with a black man. In carrying out his function as the starter, Mr. Prendergast accidentally shoots Lord Tangent in the heel and later becomes drunk and abusive. Paul falls in love at first sight with Peter Beste-Chetwynde’s beautiful widowed mother.
The term drags to a close. Lord Tangent’s foot becomes infected, and he dies. Grimes, landing in the soup once more, announces his engagement to Flossie, but the marriage turns out as badly as he expected. When detectives arrive to arrest Philbrick on charges of false pretense, he flees. A few days later, Grimes’s clothing and a suicide note are discovered on the beach.
Engaged to tutor Peter during the vacation, Paul goes to his home, King’s Thursday. At the time Margot Beste-Chetwynde bought the place from her impoverished bachelor brother-in-law, Lord Pastmaster, it was the finest example of Tudor domestic architecture in England. Bored with it, however, she commissioned Otto Silenus, an eccentric designer, to build a modernistic house in its place. Silenus builds a structure of concrete, glass, and aluminum. It is a house for dynamos, not people, but people come there anyway for an endless round of house parties.
When Paul finally finds enough courage to propose to Margot, she accepts him because Peter thinks the young Oxonian will make a better stepfather than Margot’s rival suitor, Sir Humphrey Maltravers, the minister of transport. During preparations for the wedding, Paul learns that Margot still carries on her father’s business, a syndicate vaguely connected with amusement enterprises in South America. Grimes turns up mysteriously in her employ. Potts, now working for the League of Nations, also takes an unexplained interest in Margot’s business affairs.
A few days before the wedding, Margot asks Paul to fly to Marseilles and arrange for the passage of several cabaret entertainers to Rio de Janeiro. He does so without realizing that he is bribing the officials he interviews. On his wedding morning, Paul is having a final drink with Alastair when a Scotland Yard inspector appears and arrests him on charges of engaging in international white-slave trafficking.
Margot flees to her villa at Corfu and does not appear at the trial. Potts, a special investigator for the League of Nations, is the chief witness for the prosecution. Convicted of Margot’s crimes, Paul is sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. He serves the first part of his sentence at Blackstone Gaol, where he finds Philbrick a trustee and Mr. Prendergast the chaplain. Shortly after, Prendergast is killed by a crazed inmate, and Paul is removed to Egdon Health Penal Settlement. Grimes is briefly one of his fellow prisoners, but one day, while serving on a work gang, he walks off into the fog. Everyone but Paul assumes that he perishes in a swamp. Grimes, whose roguery is timeless, can never die. Margot comes to visit Paul. She announces her intention to marry Maltravers, now Lord Metroland and the Home Secretary.
Paul’s escape from Egdon Heath is carefully contrived. On orders from the Home Secretary, he is removed for an appendicitis operation in a nursing home owned by Dr. Fagan, who forsook education for medicine. After a drunken doctor signs a death certificate stating that Paul died under the anesthetic, Alastair, who becomes Margot’s young man, puts him on a yacht that carries him to Margot’s villa at Corfu. Officially dead, Paul enjoys the rest he thinks he deserves. Wearing a heavy mustache, he returns to Scone some months later to continue his reading for the church. When the chaplain mentions another Pennyfeather, a wild undergraduate sent down for misconduct, Paul says that the young man is a distant cousin.
At Scone, the annual dinner of the Bollinger Club ends with the breaking of glass. Paul is reading in his room when Peter Beste-Chetwynde, Lord Pastmaster since his uncle’s death, comes in; he is very drunk. Paul’s great mistake, Peter says, is that he became involved with people like Margot and himself. After his departure, Paul settles down to read another chapter in a book on early church heresies.