Evelyn Waugh

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George Orwell (review date 1949)

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SOURCE: “Review of ‘Scott-King's Modern Europe,’” in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 1, No. 25, February 20, 1949, pp. 1, 25.

[In the following review of Scott-King's Modern Europe, Orwell argues that Waugh's work is conservative in outlook and lacks necessary elements of political satire.]

Mr. Evelyn Waugh's recent book, The Loved One, was an attack, and by no means a good-natured attack, on American civilization, but in Scott-King's Modern Europe he shows himself willing to handle his native Continent with at least equal rudeness. America worships corpses but Europe mass-produces them, is what he seems to be saying. The two books are indeed in some sense complementary to one another, though Scott-King's Modern Europe is less obviously brilliant than the other.

The book has a general resemblance to Candide, and is perhaps even intended to be a modern counterpart of Candide, with the significant difference that the hero is middle-aged at the start. Nowadays, it is implied, only the middle-aged have scruples or ideals; the young are born hard-boiled. Scott-King, age about 43, ‘slightly bald and slightly corpulent,’ is senior classics master at Granchester, a respectable but not fashionable public school. A dusty, unhonored figure, a praiser of the past, a lover of exact scholarship, he fights a steadily losing battle against what he regards as the debasement of modern education.

‘Dim,’ we are told, is the epithet that describes him. His hobby is the study of a poet even dimmer than himself, a certain Bellorius, who flourished in the seventeenth century in what was then a province of the Habsburg Empire and is now the independent republic of Neutralia.

In an evil hour Scott-King receives an invitation to visit Neutralia, which is celebrating the tercentenary of the death of Bellorius. It is the wet summer of 1946—a summer of austerity—and Scott-King envisions garlicky meals and flasks of red wine. He succumbs to the invitation, although half aware that it is probably a swindle of some kind.

At this point any experienced reader of Waugh's works would predict unpleasant adventures for Scott-King and he would be right. Neutralia, a compound of Yugoslavia and Greece, is ruled over by a ‘Marshal,’ and there is the usual police espionage, banditry, ceremonial banquets and speeches about Youth and Progress. The commemoration of Bellorius is in fact an imposture. Its object is to trap the visitors into endorsing the Marshal's regime. They fall for the trap and later learn that this stamps them everywhere as ‘Fascist Beasts.’ Thereafter Neutralia's hospitality ends abruptly.

Some of the visitors are killed and the others stranded, unable to get out of the country. Airplanes are reserved for VIP's, and to leave Neutralia any other way entails weeks and months of besieging embassies and consulates. After adventures which Mr. Waugh suppresses because they are too painful for a work of light fiction, Scott-King ends up stark naked in a camp for illegal Jewish immigrants in Palestine.

Back at Granchester, amid the notched desks and the draughty corridors, the headmaster informs him sadly that the number of classical scholars is falling off and suggests that he shall combine his teaching of the classics with something a little more up-to-date:

‘Parents are not interested in producing the “complete man” any more. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Scott-King, ‘I can and do.’

Later he adds: ‘I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.’ And when the headmaster objects that this...

(This entire section contains 1041 words.)

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is a short-sighted view, Scott-King retorts, ‘I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.’

This last statement, it should be noted, is intended seriously. The book is very short, hardly longer than a short story, and it is written with the utmost lightness, but it has a definite political meaning. The modern world, we are meant to infer, is so unmistakably crazy, so certain to smash itself to pieces in the near future, that to attempt to understand it or come to terms with it is simply a purposeless self-corruption. In the chaos that is shortly coming, a few moral principles that one can cling to, and perhaps even a few half-remembered odes of Horace or choruses from Euripides, will be more useful than what is now called ‘enlightenment.’

There is something to be said for this point of view, and yet one must always regard with suspicion the claim that ignorance is, or can be, an advantage. In the Europe of the last fifty years the diehard, know-nothing attitude symbolized by Scott-King, has helped to bring about the very conditions that Mr. Waugh is satirizing. Revolutions happen in authoritarian countries, not in liberal ones, and Mr. Waugh's failure to see the implications of this fact not only narrows his political vision but also robs his story of part of its point.

His standpoint, or Scott-King's, is that of a Conservative—that is to say, a person who disbelieves in progress and refuses to differentiate between one version of progress and another—and his lack of interest in his opponents induces, unavoidably, a certain perfunctoriness. It was a mistake, for instance, to present Neutralia as a dictatorship of the Right while giving it most of the stigmata of a dictatorship of the Left. ‘There is nothing to choose between communism and fascism,’ Mr. Waugh seems to be saying; but these two creeds, though they have much in common, are not the same, and can only be made to appear the same by leaving out a good deal. Again, Mr. Waugh's portraits of scheming Neutralian officials would have been more telling if he were not too contemptuous of the kind of state that calls itself a ‘people's democracy’ to find out in detail how it works.

This is an extremely readable book, but it lacks the touch of affection that political satire ought to have. One can accept Scott-King's estimate of the modern world, and perhaps even agree with him that a classical education is the best prophylactic against insanity, and yet still feel that he could fight the modern world more effectively if he would occasionally turn aside to read a sixpenny pamphlet on Marxism.


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Evelyn Waugh 1903–-1966

(Full name Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh) English novelist, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, poet, critic, biographer, and journalist. See also Evelyn Waugh Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 3, 8, 13, 107.

Evelyn Waugh is considered by many scholars to be one of the most talented and significant British writers of the twentieth century. Waugh is primarily known for his novels such as Brideshead Revisited and The Loved One, but also earned acclaim for his short stories. Waugh's novella, Decline and Fall, is his best-known work of short fiction.

Biographical Information

Waugh was born in 1903 in Hampstead, London, to a literary family. His father, Arthur, was an editor and publisher; his older brother, Alec, also became a novelist. Waugh began attending Oxford in 1921 and started writing stories for literary magazines. The author, however, was forced to leave Oxford in 1924 without earning a degree. Following his departure from Oxford, Waugh taught briefly in private schools and also worked for awhile as a journalist for the Daily Express. In 1928, Waugh married Evelyn Gardener. During the same year, he also published a biography of the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, as well as his novella, Decline and Fall, which marked the beginning of his career as a writer. In 1930 Waugh divorced his wife, traveled to Africa, and published his novel Vile Bodies, which earned critical acclaim. Waugh's extensive travels are reflected in some of his novels, including Black Mischief,A Handful of Dust, and Scoop. In 1936 Waugh received the Hawthornden Prize for his biography of the Elizabethan Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion. By the early 1940s, Waugh had earned the reputation as one of the most respected satirists of his age. Shortly after the start of World War II, Waugh enlisted in the Royal Marines. Waugh continued writing during and after the war, but his works grew increasingly somber and reflected his increasing sense of despair about the decay of the modern world. Waugh's most famous and controversial work, Brideshead Revisited, which is about the decadence of a wealthy Catholic family during the 1920s, was published in 1945 and earned great critical acclaim. While on a voyage to Ceylon in 1954 he suffered a mental breakdown, which is detailed in his semi-autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Waugh died in 1966 following a sudden heart attack at the age of 63.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Waugh's first collection of stories, Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories, was published in 1936. The title story—a witty tale with elements of the grotesque—is about an elderly asylum inmate who is released by a social reformer. Throughout the story, Waugh uses satire and black humor to mock pretensions of social scientists and experimenters. Waugh's satirical touch also is reflected throughout other stories in the volume. The stories include “Bella Fleace Gave a Party,” which is about an elderly aristocrat who throws an elaborate Christmas party that no one attends, and “Winner Takes All,” which deals with the misfortunes of a young man who is always overlooked due to favoritism shown to his elder brother. Waugh's next volume of short stories, Work Suspended, and Other Stories Written Before the Second World War, was most likely published for financial rather than artistic reasons. The collection includes seven stories that appeared in Mr. Loveday, “An Englishman's Home,” as well as the title story—a fragment of an unfinished novel. Many of these stories reappeared again in Tactical Exercise and in the 1982 collection Charles Ryder's Schooldays, and Other Stories. In 1998 all of Waugh's thirty-nine stories were issued in one volume.

In addition to short stories, Waugh also penned three novellas, Decline and Fall: An Illustrated Novelette,Scott-King's Modern Europe, and Love Among the Ruins.Decline and Fall, the story of a young innocent dismissed from Oxford, contains a similar brand of satire used in his early stories. Scott-King's Modern Europe is a satirical fable about a middle-aged classics master who clings to forgotten values in the postwar world of Neutralia. Love Among the Ruins, which details disappointments in the life of Miles Plastic, is a harsh attack against state interference in people's personal lives in the postwar world.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Waugh's short stories enjoyed a measure of commercial and critical success. Contemporary reviewers admired the style and wit of his stories, but many considered his short works to be minor efforts from the pen of a great novelist. Some later critics dismissed the stories as insignificant. Waugh's biographer, Christopher Sykes, for example, considered them an unimportant literary feature in the author's life. Others consider the stories insightful because they anticipate themes and ideas developed in his longer fiction. Waugh's stories continue to be praised by readers for their cleverness, stylistic elegance, and ability to entertain. Waugh's novellas, however, have enjoyed more sustained critical attention. Decline and Fall is considered Waugh's first serious literary work. The work continues to elicit interest from scholars for the insight it provides into Waugh's development as an artist and for its literary merit. Some reviewers criticized Waugh's postwar novellas for their sharp satire. Novelist George Orwell, for example, found Scott-King's Modern Europe “lacking the touch of affection that political satire ought to have.” These late novellas are not considered Waugh's best works, but are noted for their dystopian quality and biting criticism of the corruption, decay, and moral and intellectual sterility of postwar Europe.

Munro Beattie (review date 1955)

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SOURCE: Review of Tactical Exercise, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXXV, No. 42, May, 1955, p. 44.

[In the following review of Tactical Exercise, Beattie calls the volume “minor Waugh,” arguing that many of the stories have gimmicky surprise endings. Nevertheless, Beattie concedes the tales are witty and entertaining.]

This collection of stories and sketches is chronologically arranged. The first story Evelyn Waugh wrote when he was aged 7 years 1 month. It need never have been published; the Daisy Ashford aspect of Waugh we might at least have been spared. The other stories, which appeared originally between 1932 and 1953, are all amusing in diverse ways and to various degrees. The 1932 story “Cruise” comprises letters and postcards written by a middle-class ingenue on a Mediterranean cruise: rather dim wit, an occasional chuckle. “Bella Fleace Gave a Party” (1932) is richer in details of décor and temperament. It is the first of several stories in the book which are structurally alike, each leading the reader, more or less unexpectedly, to a surprise ending—a “gimmick” I believe it is called in other areas of the entertainment world—which sorts ill with the superb sophistication of the kind of story-telling we used to associate with the name of Waugh. Of these anecdotes by the Mayfair O. Henry the most interesting is the title story, “Tactical Exercise,” which must have proved a bit of a blow to many readers of Good Housekeeping, where it first appeared. “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing” (1935), a bland blend of the gruesome and the hilarious, comes closer to the authentic Waugh than any of the other stories.

The best of these pieces, however, is the longest: “Work Suspended” (1941), about 100 pages of a novel which was never finished. This is a charming fragment, abounding in wit and invention. But one agrees with the author: it was getting nowhere; the drift is delectable but unprofitable. The worst of the pieces is the most recently written, a would-be-macabre study of Welfare Britain in the next generation. “Love Among the Ruins,” published as a separate book in 1953, relates the romance of an incendiary orphan, reared at the expense and according to the wisdom of the State, and a ballet-girl with a golden beard. The blurb suggests that it is similar in tone to The Loved One. In tone, perhaps, but assuredly not in artistry. The Loved One, repulsive little creation though it is, is a deft narrative stylishly written. “Love Among the Ruins” is only nasty and proves conclusively what many of us have been suspecting about Waugh's work for some time: that satire generated by disdain is rarely first-rate.

This book, then, is minor Waugh. Nevertheless, it is more elegant and entertaining than the best that most other storytellers of the day can manage. Those who here meet Waugh for the first time will derive from Tactical Exercise an evening's diversion though they may not understand what all the shouting has been about. Those of us who used to do the shouting and who began—exultantly—buying Waughs is the vintage years of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies will be pleased, at all events, to round out our collections.

Principal Works

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Decline and Fall: An Illustrated Novelette 1928

Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories 1936

Scott-King's Modern Europe (novella) 1947

Love Among the Ruins (novella) 1953

Tactical Exercise 1954

Charles Ryder's Schooldays, and Other Stories 1982

The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh 1998

The World to Come (poetry) 1916

Rossetti: His Life and Works (biography/criticism) 1928

Vile Bodies (novel) 1930

Black Mischief (novel) 1932

A Handful of Dust (novel) 1934

Ninety-Two Days: An Account of a Tropical Journey Through British Guiana and Part of Brazil 1934

Edmund Campion (biography) 1935

Waugh in Abyssinia (travel essay) 1936

Scoop (novel) 1938

Put Out More Flags (novel) 1942

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (novel) 1945

The Loved One (novel) 1948

Helena (novel) 1950

Men at Arms (novel) 1952

Officers and Gentlemen (novel) 1955

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (novel) 1957

The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (nonfiction) 1959

A Tourist in Africa (travel essay) 1960

Unconditional Surrender (novel) 1961

Basil Seal Rides Again; or, The Rake's Regress (novel) 1963

A Little Learning (autobiography) 1964

Sword of Honour (trilogy of novels) 1965

A Little Order: A Selection from His Journalism [edited by Donat Gallagher] 1977

The Letters of Evelyn Waugh [edited by Mark Amory] 1980

Frederick J. Stopp (essay date 1958)

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SOURCE: “Four More Entertainments, 1942–1953,” in Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist, Chapman & Hall LTD, 1958, pp. 136–42, 152–57.

[In the following excerpt, Stopp discusses Scott-King's Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins, which he finds to be sad but humorous, and lacking in brutality or sentimentalism.]

Scott-King's Modern Europe is a sad little story, finely wrought and economical in its effects, but sad. Superficially it owed its origin to a visit to Spain, where Mr Waugh joined in the celebrations in the summer of 1945 for the tercentenary of Vittoria, at Salamanca, and had his first experience of the machinery of official hospitality in the post-war world. But it contains his first reflections on the wider scene of mid-twentieth century Europe. Even without the footnote that ‘The Republic of Neutralia is imaginary and composite and represents no existing state’, we should recognize overtones of Jugoslavia and the Dalmatian coast, and the wider echoes of decay in European historical values everywhere. Combined with this is the radical uncertainty whether anything positive can ultimately have been achieved by a war which, appearing first through the medium of common-room wirelesses under a heroic and chivalrous disguise, became later ‘a sweaty tug-of-war between teams of indistinguishable louts’. Uncertainty of the achievement, certainty of the losses incurred, these are the sad strains of the music which is here played.

The musician selected to perform is himself the reverse of distinguished. After failing to achieve a College Fellowship Scott-King has been classical master at Granchester for twenty-one years; Paul Pennyfeather, if he had stayed at Llanabba, would have been his contemporary. He has become a school institution, lamenting in a slightly nasal voice over modern decadence, and rejoicing in his reduced station through the defection of classical specialists to the Modern Side, fascinated by obscurity and failure, his own first and foremost. And his strange adventures during that summer of 1946 strike a note of dimness all along the line. Neutralia, through remaining out of the second World War physically, as did Scott-King spiritually, ‘became remote, unconsidered, dim’. Dim also was Whitemaid, his sole English academic counterpart at the celebrations at Bellacita. Care and the fear of failure dogged and finally overcame Arturo Fe, Doctor of Bellacita University and official in the Ministry of Rest and Culture, Bogdan Antonic, the International Secretary, ‘whose face was lined with settled distress and weariness’, and Garcia the Engineer. Even with Lockwood, a former prize pupil and Scott-King's rescuer from No. 64 Jewish Illegal Immigrants Camp, the same mournful note is struck. ‘Sad case, he was a sitter for the Balliol scholarship. Then he had to go into the army.’

But all these scattered notes of failure, of promise run to seed, of high hopes dashed, are gathered together in the name of Bellorius, ‘The Last Latinist’, the poet whose 1,500 lines of tedious Latin hexameters gained for him from an ungrateful Hapsburg nothing more than the cancellation of his court pension. Bellorius died poor and in some discredit in 1646; he is the patron-saint of dimness in this work, and it is this ‘blood-brotherhood in dimness’ which first drew Scott-King to study his work. The new-old and degenerate state of Neutralia could not have made a better choice when it put its first International Secretary on to searching the records for some suitable anniversary to commemorate, some occasion out of which to make political capital. And what irony in the subject to which this unknown early Neutralian humanist chose to devote his Latinity: ‘a visit to an imaginary island of the New World where in primitive simplicity, untainted by tyranny or dogma, there subsisted a virtuous, chaste and reasonable community.’ Such was the humanist dream which held Scott-King enthralled for fifteen years. The temptation represented by the engraved and embossed card on his breakfast table fell on fruitful soil in a man who for years had been secretly wedded to the warm Southern seas—‘all that travel agent ever sought to put in a folder, fumed in Scott-King's mind that drab morning’—and he went. The awakening could hardly have been ruder.

It was a world of unreason into which he thus stepped, with the one fundamental nightmare characteristic of unreason: nothing is as it seems, all is facade, covering an ugly reality. The air stewardess seems an amalgam of midwife, governess, and shopwalker; Miss Bombaum might be an actress or harlot or lady-novelist, but is in fact a topliner in modern journalism; Arturo Fe might be a slightly ageing film-actor, but is scholar, lawyer, and civil servant. The Hotel 22nd March, known through its political past under a score of aliases, but always referred to as the Ritz; the National Memorial at Simona, which turns out to commemorate a piece of political thuggery; Bellorius himself, confused by Miss Bombaum with the totally different Byzantine General Belisaurus, and finally commemorated by an appalling statue commissioned years before by a fraudulent commercial magnate, representing no one, show that even institutions have but an uncertain hold on reality and stability. It is perhaps but a belated recognition of the power of the genius loci when Scott-King departs by the ‘underground railway’ as an Ursuline nun, and arrives in Palestine as an illegal Jewish immigrant. All appearances are deceptive in this modern masquerade—a stage-set indeed, but an ominous one.

Appearances are deceptive since in this constant process of scene-shifting which calls itself modern European history the features of the new dispensation are constantly becoming apparent beneath the fading outlines of the old; and in this general dissolution the new is ugly and brash and the dispossessed old is tired and uncomprehending: too wise to be chagrined, too cultured to protest. Those few remaining Neutralian aristocrats, descendants of the Crusaders and Knights of Malta, who haunt the Ritz like lingering shades, gazing with ‘inky, simian eyes’ at that portent of the new Europe, the statuesque Miss Sveningen, are blood-brothers of the Arabs of East Africa whom Mr. Waugh met in the clubs of the seaboard towns; dispossessed by protectorates in Somalia, Aden, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar (Black Mischief, Remote People), and by more ruthless methods of penetration in Harar (Waugh in Abyssinia).

It is to this aristocracy of the dispossessed that Scott-King finally and defiantly commits himself in his last words to the headmaster: ‘“I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world. … I think it is the most long-sighted view that it is possible to take.”’ Long-sighted, since Scott-King has finally seen the fallacy of moving with the times: taking up economic history because of the decrease in classical specialists. For change, like revolution, has the saturnine propensity of eating its own children. The more international politics become, the more men reach across the barriers of communities to link up with their ideological brethren, the more of their fellow-men find themselves displaced, dispossessed, outcast. ‘“It is extraordinary how many people without the requisite facilities seem anxious to cross frontiers today.”’ Thus the Neutralian Major of Police, who significantly doubles his official functions with running the underground escaping organization. ‘“That is where my position in the police is a help. … I also have a valued connexion with the Neutralian government. Troublesome fellows whom they want to disappear pass through my hands in large numbers.”’ The machinery of the modern state is Janus-headed, facing both ways, creating both tyranny and graft, ‘supporting a vast ill-paid bureaucracy whose work is tempered and humanized by corruption’. Miss Bombaum was more right than she knew when, quoting from one of her recent articles, she described the underground as ‘an alternative map of Europe … the new world taking shape beneath the surface of the old … the new ultra-national citizenship’. And the new world is the caricature of the old. The ‘Republic’ of Neutralia is itself a travesty of that more ancient form of state which reaches back to the Greek polis. The Underground, the symbol of the new fraternity of the displaced person, as it takes shape below the surface of old citizenships, is appropriately enough expressed in the symbols of the French Revolution. At the little seaport of Santa Maria, itself a palimpsest of Mediterranean history, from Athenian colony to Napoleonic conquest, there lies on the cobbled water-front a large warehouse, now Underground dispersal centre, a birthplace of the new ultra-national citizenship. Here, ensconced in a bed by the door, whose coverlet was littered with food, weapons, and tobacco, lay the female guardian, sometimes making lace like a tricoteuse of the Terror, while her husband, as supervising officer, made a brief appearance at the door in the hour before dawn, and called the roll of those who were to be ‘despatched’ on that day.

This was Scott-King's last visual impression of modern Europe when he embarked on the final stage of his adventure—that sea-journey in the battened-down hold of a ship over whose horrors the narrator draws a veil, and from which he emerges, first fully conscious, ‘sitting stark naked while a man in khaki drill taps his knee with a ruler’. And at this point a memory from an earlier work of Waugh comes back, a parallel to this total loss of personality insistently demands entry to the mind. Is not the spiritual odyssey of Scott-King which takes him from Granchester to Granchester via Bellacita, the Underground and a Palestinian camp, this escape from the innocence of academic life into the seaminess of modern existence, and a return incognito across the waters—is not this all strangely reminiscent of the progress of Paul Pennyfeather from Scone to Scone via Lanabba, King's Thursday, the Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd (another underground railway), and Blackstone Gaol? And if this is so, has nothing been achieved in the twenty-one years in which Scott-King has dreamed his dream of the Mediterranean? Paul, when restored to Scone and reflecting how right the Church had been to put down early Christian heresy, has at least laid the ghost of religious doubt. What ghost has been laid by Scott-King's excursion into the world of unreason? Can it be Bellorius? In the staff-room on his return to Granchester he admits:

“To tell you the truth I feel a little désoeuvré. I must look for a new subject.”

“You've come to the end of old Bellorius at last?”

“Quite to the end.”

But why, we may ask, must Bellorius go? Or rather why, in the years which lie ahead of Scott-King, may we be certain that no other Bellorius will absorb his devoted powers? Had there been still some mark of imperfection, one small blemish on the otherwise perfectly dim mental outlook of Scott-King? Even this suggestion seems strange in a man so abstracted from the realities of the moment as Scott-King, who finished the work of translating Bellorius's Latin hexameters into Spenserian stanzas ‘at the time of the Normandy landings’, and who composed his threnody on ‘The Last Latinist’ at the time of the peace celebrations; or for a man who ‘positively rejoiced in his reduced station’. Far from harbouring a baffled sense of having missed all the compensations of life, he was definitely blasé; and a passage of concealed quotation from Pater's famous description of La Gioconda gives him, in this freedom of the mind, the mysterious agelessness of one who was ‘jaded with accumulated experience of his imagination’. And his description of himself as ‘an adult, an intellectual, a classical scholar, almost a poet’, becomes his leitmotif in the undignified situations into which he is plunged.

And yet, when the story opens, Scott-King is still one small, one minute stage removed from genuine detachment: though superficially content with, nay fascinated by his reduced station, he compensates with the life of the dreamer. After years of labour on his translation, his opus, his ‘monument to dimness’, the shade of Bellorius still stood at his elbow demanding placation—that shade which was perhaps the temptation to glory in the distinction of being ‘The Last Latinist’, to create a mental Utopia in the form of an imaginary island governed by reason and free from tyranny and dogma, the temptation to escape and to dramatize the conditions of escape, to invert the pattern of one's own dimness by erecting a model to dimness elsewhere. So, to discharge his last obligation to Bellorius, Scott-King distilled his learning, wrote his last little essay and thereby gave a hostage to the outside world of noisy Neutralians—and the embossed and engraved invitation on the breakfast-table was the sign that the challenge had been accepted. There he was to learn the total irrelevance of the mental landscape of his mind to the modern age, to be finally disabused of the expectation of ever finding a ‘virtuous, chaste and reasonable community’, be these qualities never so diluted.

More than that, the man who has raised one monument to Bellorius is brought to make a speech before another monument, and, having done so, and the cord having released the enveloping cloth, is confronted with a likeness, in the eyes of the world, of his hero: ‘It was not Bellorius … ; it was not even unambiguously male; it was scarcely human.’ That unveiling was the last lesson which Scott-King has to learn, to be reconciled finally to his own dimness, and to the dimness, seen in the light of the world, of the subject and outlook which he represents. In the state of mind in which he returns, even the erection of monuments to a forgotten world is a senseless gesture, even the consciousness of being ‘an adult, an intellectual’ is excessive, even to be blasé is hybris. The only thing is to accept one's own obscurity, to be content to administer a wasting patrimony, without even the consolation of being a martyr, an outpost, a forlorn cause. The intellectual and classical scholar was, in the academic life, as was Bellorius at the court of the Hapsburgs, a pensioner of such figures of the new order as Griggs, the civics master, dilating on the sufferings of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Now even the pension has been cancelled, and no voice will be raised to extol the humanist and regret his passing. A sad story—delicately wrought, but still sad. …

In a lecture given in 1953, Professor Romano Guardini commented on the loss by modern man of the primeval images of human existence: the road, the spring of water, the flame of fire. The road was no longer a thing to be walked, stumbled, toiled along, an image of man's earthly way, but the geometrically shortest route between map reference A and B; flowing water was no longer a reminder of time, an occasion of reflection on the whence and the whither of human life, but a jet of liquid from a tap; fire was no longer both comfort and retribution, the living, leaping flame of inspiration, but a tamed demon in a lighter, flicked on, flicked off, to accompany the inevitable cigarette.

In the last sentence of Love Among the Ruins, written during work on the Crouchback novels to provide an hour's amusement for the still civilized, Mr Waugh strikes just this same note: ‘Miles felt ill at ease during the ceremony and fidgeted with something small and hard which he found in his pocket. It proved to be his cigarette-lighter, a most uncertain apparatus. He pressed the catch and instantly, surprisingly, there burst out a tiny flame—gemlike, hymeneal, auspicious.’

Hymeneal, auspicious? An augury for the success of his nuptials with the State-provided Miss Flower? Or a comforting reminder that there was always a way out? Did he feel that ‘something small and hard’ with the comfort of a groom fingering the ring in his waistcoat pocket, or of a cornered criminal fingering his knuckle-duster? Probably the latter. Faced with the hideous mess the State had made of his lover's, Clara's face, he had walked out at random and anguished, and arrived at Mountjoy Castle, the scene of his imperfect rehabilitation by a beneficent if not beneficial State policy. ‘He knew what he wanted. He carried in his pocket a cigarette lighter which often worked. It worked for him now. …’ After the great holocaust, his mind was calm and empty. ‘The scorched earth policy had succeeded. He had made a desert in his imagination which he might call peace … the enchantments that surrounded Clara were one with the splendours of Mountjoy.’ All the paraphernalia of the State, the Ministers of Rest, Culture and Welfare, the Mountjoys Old and New, the Dome of Security, and Service of Euthanasia, the Method of Reform, Remedial Repose and Rehabilitation, even the Result, Miles Plastic, as shown to the world, are one and all no more than stage properties of this Grand Guignol of the future. The genuine symbol, the touch of mania in the whole scene, that rich glint of lunacy in the eye which distinguished Aimée from her fellow receptionists, the note of a primeval urge distorted and diverted from its proper channel, is seen in that small and hard object which enables man to burn his past without however being able to rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. No liberating action, this, as when Dennis Barlow burnt his immediate past in the furnaces of the pet's cemetery, no sloughing off of a young heart before returning enriched to the roots of one's culture. Miles, the Modern Man, is the conditioned personality who recognizes his own image when confronted with a simple, rough packing case, model of the new Mountjoy Castle to rise on the ruins of the old. For him, there is no ticket back home; the gutted prison and the rehabilitated prisoner means no more than the destruction of a richer past for the benefit of a poorer future; the Revolution, as in Scott-King, eats its own children. The Common Man is an inverted myth, a counter-Prometheus, not one who steals fire from the Gods, but one who fondles a small hard presence in his pocket as a guarantee of the power of unlimited destruction.

The story is a ‘romance’ of the not so distant future. Mr Waugh is pleased to imagine, for our entertainment, the condition of a State-made desert in which the boredom of prison is the general condition of society, and a certain tranquil melancholy, conducive to some degree of culture and individuality, is only to be found in prison. Social life in the Welfare State is a fate worse than death, the Euthanasia Centre—a kind of Whispering Glades in reverse—the most popular service. Short of Euthanasia, residence in places like Mountjoy Castle under a new Penology, whose fundamental principle is that ‘no man could be held responsible for the consequences of his own acts’, is the most desirable thing.

Here lies a rich quarry of material for flashes of paradoxical humour: the law-court, which all but acquits Miles for incendiarism, and all but commits the bystanders, bereaved relatives of the airmen he has incinerated, for contempt of court; the Euthanasia Service, slack when a strike or anything of human interest is afoot, but normally so popular that foreigners with one-way tickets are turned back at Channel ports; the infinite advantages of being an Orphan rather than the product of a Full Family Life; and the minor diverting possibilities of the State newspeak—State be with you, State help me. The new Penology descends ultimately from Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, Governor of Blackstone Gaol, as the old lags of Mountjoy, Sweat and Soapy, with their melancholy regret that ‘there's no security in crime these days’, echo the sturdy individualism of the aged burglar at Egdon Heath, who urged Paul to stand up for his rights when given caviar for cold bacon.

The planned dilapidation of Satellite City and of its main permanent State building, the Dome of Security, is the contemporary note: an ironic comment on communal lack of enterprise by one who saw only too keenly the shadow side of the panem et circenses provided by the 1951 Festival buildings, and by their most prominent feature, the Dome of Discovery. The Dome of Security itself is an epitome of the whole self-defeating nature of social security schemes in this story: ‘The eponymous dome had looked well enough in the architect's model’—say, for instance, the Beveridge Report—‘shallow certainly but amply making up in girth what it lacked in height. … But to the surprise of all, when the building arose and was seen from the ground, the dome blandly vanished’. Security for all is planned, but blandly evades the planners, just as ‘great sheets of glass planned to “trap” the sun, admitted a few gleams from scratches in their coat of tar’. A prime urge of the human race vanishes into thin air at the touch of a blueprint; the sun cannot be trapped, and fire is reduced to the incendiary possibilities of a cigarette-lighter.

The pointlessness of the plan at large is paralleled by the desultory progress of Miles Plastic's last, melancholy attempt to achieve love among the ruins; his affair with Clara, on whom two State-enforced operations end by foisting a facial mask as unnatural and obscene as the smirking travesty of a face given to Frank Hinsley at Whispering Glades; and his final resort to the last ecstasy of wholesale conflagration. And it is in a desultory and whimsical manner that Mr. Waugh has chosen to point his reflections on the decline of our culture by the allusive employment of fragments from three artists of a banished age: Tennyson, Browning, and the neo-classical sculptor Canova. Tennyson's ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white’, and ‘Come into the garden, Maud’, provide the setting and the concealed quotations for that ‘rich, old-fashioned Tennysonian night’ at Mountjoy Castle, which is Miles's last night in Arcadia before an inscrutable State decrees his rehabilitation and thrusts him out into the world for which he has been conditioned. Browning's poem ‘Love among the Ruins’ takes over the setting: ‘the site once of a city great and gay’, treeless slopes where once

… the domed and daring palace shot its spires
Up like fires …

Here there remains of past glory but a single turret, but the poet knows

That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
Waits me there …

as Clara waits for Miles in her cubicle in a Nissen hut, filled with the bric-a-brac of a vanished civilization. And Henry Moses's reproductions of Canova's marbles—so reminiscent, in its 1876 binding, of the Victorian drawing-room with perhaps a Venus de Milo in the corner—provides the starting point for the illustrations. By means of a homely paste book technique which must have given Mr. Waugh much innocent amusement, he constructed the figures for the ironic juxtapositions of life in the Greek Polis and in Satellite City: the drawings ‘Exiles from Welfare’, ‘Experimental Surgery’, and others, bearing such inscriptions as ‘Canova fec., Moses delin., Waugh perfec.’

To Tennyson's mysterious Maud and to Browning's girl with the yellow hair, to Canova's groups of Cupid and Psyche and of the Three Graces, Mr. Waugh has added one further, delightful fancy, that ‘long, silken, corn-gold beard’, which was the only feature that broke the canon of pure beauty in Clara's face when Miles first beheld it, complemented as it was by the voice, with its ‘deep, sweet tone, all unlike the flat, conventional accent of the age’. But for Miles, this crowning feature, whether seen in the clear light of Satellite day, or ‘silvered like a patriarch's in the midnight radiance’ of another Tennysonian night, is the canon of beauty. ‘“On such a night as this,” said Miles, supine, gazing into the face of the moon’—and echoing all unknowingly the Merchant of Venice—‘“on such a night as this I burnt an Air Force station and half its occupants.”’ That was the only moment of ecstasy he had then known. The beard brought, for Miles, the dawning of the proscribed emotion of love, ‘a word seldom used by politicians and by them only in moments of pure fatuity’, which singles out two persons from the herd and gives them an indelible, rubber-stamp obliterating impress. But what State has given, as an unexpected result of the Jungmann operation, State may take away. The removal of the beard by experimental surgery, and its replacement by a synthetic rubber skin, ‘a tight, slippery mask, salmon pink’, is the end. Miles retches unobtrusively, walks off and burns down Mountjoy; revolt is exorcized in a moment of ecstasy. ‘… his brief adult life lay in ashes; the enchantments that surrounded Clara were one with the splendours of Mountjoy; her great golden beard, one with the tongues of flame that had leaped and expired among the stars. …’

The theme of the lovers brought together, and parted, the one disfigured by act of State, is common to this work and to George Orwell's 1984. But here we must at least say, thank State for the beard; for it is that which discharges harmlessly, like a lightning conductor, the more sultry implications of this sad little love story. Orwell develops the theme with the full attendant resources of brutality which seem now inevitable in any sombre view of the future. Mr. Waugh's short story never loses its astringent humour and freedom from sentiment. Both qualities are guaranteed, not only by his own style and outlook, but also, in this particular case, by the beard.

James F. Carens (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: “Africa, Europe, and the Dreary Future,” in The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh, University of Washington Press, 1966, pp. 148–56.

[In the following excerpt, Carens examines the postwar novellas Scott-King's Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins, noting their bleak pessimism and defeatist sentiments.]

Two grim, short political satires with none of Scoop's ebullience or consolation—Scott-King's Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins—followed the Second World War. The first of these recounts the visit of Scott-King, Classical Master at Granchester for twenty-one years, to a mythical totalitarian state called Neutralia. The second satire was in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984; Waugh's inverted Utopia depicted a fully socialized England of the near future. Both works are bleakly pessimistic in outlook.

The form of Scott-King's Modern Europe resembles that of Scoop; the opening and conclusion of the novel, which place Scott-King at Granchester, frame the confusions and distractions of his journey to the tercentenary of Bellorius, Neutralia's late Latin poet, in the same way that the Boot Magna sections of Scoop frame the terrors of William Boot's journey to Ishmaelia. Waugh himself has made the most penetrating analysis of Scott-King's Modern Europe. Explaining to an interviewer that he was sure “there's a good thing hidden away in” the satire “somewhere” but that he had not “done it,” Waugh said that if he were to do the book over he would try to suggest “more of the real horror” of such a journey. Burdened with “too much insignificant detail”1 for so short a piece, as Waugh admitted, Scott-King's Modern Europe does not convey any of the real terrors of the contemporary totalitarian state. Waugh's subject is not, to be sure, Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. A small “republic” which has managed to remain on the sidelines during the Second World War, Neutralia is, nevertheless, “a typical modern state, governed by a single party, acclaiming a dominant Marshal, supporting a vast ill-paid bureaucracy.”

Waugh directs his satire at the absurd pretensions of Neutralia, which contrast with its seedy reality, and at the clumsy propagandistic motive of the bogus tercentenary. His Neutralia, reminiscent of Anthony Powell's Venusberg, is a mélange of baroque memorials and shabby, unfinished modern buildings. The Neutralian officials—Dr. Arturo Fe, who is in charge of the program, and Bogadin Antonic, a minor bureaucrat—are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival against inflation, low wages, and rivals. At the banquet honoring the visiting dignitaries, the servants stuff their pockets with food for their families. The real purpose of the celebration soon becomes obvious. Scott-King and his fellow guests are duped into attending a luncheon at party headquarters and visiting the memorial of a particularly vicious massacre; photographs of the compromised delegates are distributed to the press. The delegates fall out among themselves when they discover that they are being used for Neutralian propaganda; and only Scott-King, who has been accused of being a “Fascist beast,” attends the unveiling of a memorial to his ideal, Bellorius, composer of a poem that had celebrated a rational Utopia in Latin hexameters. The statue, like the tercentenary celebration, is a travesty:

The figure now so frankly brought to view had lain long years in a mason's yard. It had been commissioned in an age of free enterprise for the tomb of a commercial magnate whose estate, on his death, had proved to be illusory. It was not Bellorius; it was not even the fraudulent merchant prince; it was not even unambiguously male; it was scarcely human; it represented perhaps one of the virtues.

If Waugh was entitled to emphasize only the shabbiness, phoniness, and poverty of such totalitarian regimes as those of Spain and Yugoslavia (the countries that provided him with models for Neutralia) and to ignore their more vicious aspects, he ought, at the same time, to have softened the ending of Scott-King's Modern Europe. Nothing in the middle of the satire prepares for the ironic pessimism of the conclusion. To be sure, Scott-King has had to escape from Neutralia by the underground—not because he was in danger from the regime, but because his own consulate would not help him—and has consequently turned up stark naked in a camp for illicit immigrants in Palestine. But such satire is directed primarily at the difficulties of travel in modern Europe in the period following the Second World War and only secondarily at the evils of totalitarianism. Consequently, Scott-King's abandonment of the rationalist idealism of Bellorius and his refusal, on returning to Granchester, to do anything “to fit a boy for the modern world” seem excessive reactions to his actual experiences. The defeatist tone of the conclusion of Scott-King's Modern Europe typifies Waugh's postwar satires. William Boot, at least, had been able to find security at Boot Magna Hall; Scott-King returns to Granchester to discover that there are fifteen fewer classical specialists for the coming term. And he is fully convinced, as the headmaster warns, that the time may come when there will be no more classical boys at all.

There are no classical boys in the England of Love Among the Ruins. Miles Plastic, the antihero of this satire, lives at a period perhaps two decades or so in the future; a product of a state orphanage, he has been scientifically reared to adjust to the modern world. The anti-Utopia in which Miles lives has definitely been influenced by other contemporary works in the genre. Waugh's “State be with you” echoes prayers and oaths in the name of Ford in Huxley's Brave New World; the golden beard of Waugh's heroine, consequence of an unsuccessful sterilization, suggests both the condition of the “freemartins” of Brave New World and the deformity of the heroine of Ape and Essence. Allusion to the prevalence of sexual promiscuity also associates Waugh's satire with Huxley's.

In its drabness, however, Waugh's totalitarian future resembles Orwell's 1984. Scarcity, disorder, and grubbiness, rather than the glistening, antiseptic orderliness which Huxley described, characterize the England of the future as Waugh, following Orwell, has imagined it. As in Huxley's book and in Orwell's, the state is hostile to love, but it encourages promiscuity and frequent divorce. Certain details of Love Among the Ruins are similar to elements in the satirical poem “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden. The poem satirizes the tendency of the modern bureaucratic state to reduce human personality to a series of numbers and notations on file cards. The terms “Citizen” and “Modern Man,” used to describe the subject of Auden's poem, are both applied to Miles Plastic, whose identity has also been reduced to a social psychologist's report. “In less than a minute,” says the Deputy-Chief of the Ministry of Welfare, when Miles is released from corrective treatment, “you become a Citizen. This little pile of papers is You. When I stamp them, Miles the Problem ceases to exist and Mr. Plastic the Citizen is born.”

These similarities to other satirical protests against the authoritarianism, dehumanization, and mechanization of life in the modern world are not defects in Waugh's novel. His short book is a much slighter anti-Utopia than Huxley's or Orwell's. Love Among the Ruins does not reveal such inventive fantasy as Brave New World, or the intellectual grasp of the nature of totalitarianism, accumulative power of sordid detail, and sense of evil of 1984. Nevertheless, within its own limits, it is an effective variation on what has now become a traditional theme.

Little can be gained from judging such satires as Brave New World, 1984, or Love Among the Ruins as prophecies of the condition of life in the future. The real point of these novels is that the brave new world is now; 1984 is 1944, 1954, or 1964; the ruins described in Waugh's short novel surround us. The satirical force of these works derives from the fact that the authors have carried to certain extremes of exaggeration tendencies which already undeniably exist. Huxley's soma, his feelies, his Malthusian drill are pointless if regarded as predictions; pertinent if regarded as parody of the abandoned materialism, mindless popular entertainments, and sexual indulgences of the present. Orwell's analysis of Newspeak, doublethink, and crimestop is, in fact, an analysis of the slave-mentality which sometimes dominates the modern world; the systematic destruction of the past which he describes is really, according to both Orwell and Waugh, what the newspapers have been doing for years, and the sport of heresy hunters throughout the world for many decades. Waugh's “ruins” are not in the remote future. The Dome of Security, whose eponymous dome, which had looked so well in the blueprints, failed even to show when the building was completed, is a travesty of the Dome of Discovery, a building in the best contemporary style erected for the 1951 Festival of Britain.2 And Waugh's Department of Euthanasia is an exaggeration of the British public's interest in mercy killing.

Once again, the satirist launches an assault on a favorite subject: modern penology and that kind of social psychology which assumes that no man can “be held responsible for his own acts.” The central attack in Love Among the Ruins is leveled at this denial of freedom of the will, a position which shocks Waugh as conservative and as Catholic. Mr. Sweat, an aged criminal who is receiving “corrective treatment” with Miles at the luxurious country seat, Mountjoy Castle, assails the modern attitude toward the criminal: “There's no understanding of crime these days like what there was. I remember when I was a nipper, the first time I came up before the beak, he spoke up straight: ‘My lad,’ he says, ‘you are embarking upon a course of life that can only lead to disaster and degradation in this world and everlasting damnation in the next.’ Now that's talking.” But, alas, Mr. Sweat has fallen upon evil days; he has become, with Miles, an “antisocial phenomenon.”

To achieve his satirical effect, as he sets out after the warped sentimentalism he regards as a feature of the welfare state, Waugh inverts all the traditional values. In the most painfully funny episode of the satire, Miles is brought before the court for having burned up an air force station and its occupants. “Arson, Wilful Damage, Manslaughter, Prejudicial Conduct, and Treason” have all been struck from the indictment, which has been reduced to the single charge of antisocial activity. The trial proceeds with the same illogical logic. “Widows, mothers, and orphans of the incinerated airmen” may resent the fact, but the hearing develops into “a concerted eulogy of the accused.” The prosecution's old-fashioned attempt to emphasize the damages caused by the arson is futile; the judge insists that the jury expunge from its memory the sentimental details:

“May be a detail to you,” said a voice from the gallery. “He was a good husband to me.”

“Arrest that woman,” said the judge.

When the jurymen bring in a verdict of guilty and recommend “mercy toward the various bereaved persons who from time to time in the course of the hearing had been committed for contempt,” the judge reprimands them for impertinence and sends Miles off to the pleasures of Mountjoy Castle.

Sad epilogues to the history of Utopian literature, Brave New World, 1984, Ape and Essence, and Love Among the Ruins also make a striking commentary on contemporary history's impact on writers. When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932, he did offer some positive alternative to a mechanized and increasingly totalitarian world. Though his satire ended with the death of John the Savage, it indicated that something in human nature was impervious to total regimentation. Even after the Second World War, when Huxley wrote Ape and Essence, an infinitely depressing vision of life after the devastation of atomic warfare, he offered, as an alternative to the desolate, guilt-ridden, devil-worshiping society he described, the religious-communal society to which his hero and heroine escape. Orwell's 1984, appearing a year later than Ape and Essence, suggested no alternative at all. Its antihero, Winston Smith, experiences a few elusive moments of happiness in his love affair with Julia; but the depressing conclusion of 1984 gives us a pair of lovers who, subjected to the diabolical torture of the Ministry of Love, have lost the one thing they believed could not be destroyed: their love for one another.

Waugh is no easier on us in Love Among the Ruins. As in 1984, sexual love and some fragments of the past seem to grant his central characters a release from the drabness and tedium of society. When Miles meets Clara, the golden-bearded former ballet dancer, “hope” has appeared. In the cubicle of a Nissen hut, where Miles finds that Clara has preserved two eighteenth-century French paintings, a gilt clock, and a mirror framed in porcelain flowers, these two find a refuge from the hideous present. As in Orwell's work, however, the “state” will not countenance love. Because Clara is found to be with child, a more accomplished state surgeon than the first successfully completes the “Klugmann” that failed. He also manages to remove the skin of Clara's lower face and to substitute a synthetic rubber that takes greasepaint perfectly. Miles stares at the tight, slippery mask of salmon pink. He retches unobtrusively. Even Clara's unorthodoxy, her devotion to her art, for which she is willing to surrender everything, is corruptible by the state.

Miles has, to be sure, one other alternative—the pleasure of arson, which twice permits him to escape from being the “Modern Man.” When the short satire ends, Miles is preparing to tour the country as the ministry's sole example of a successful corrective treatment—all others having died in the fire Miles set to destroy Mountjoy. In expectation of an early divorce, he is being married, as the Minister wishes, to Miss Flower, a “gruesome” young woman. Miles seems to have submitted completely to the scheme of things. But as his hand fidgets in his pocket during the ceremony at the Registry, it encounters his cigarette lighter. When Miles presses the catch, a flame rises, “gemlike, hymeneal, auspicious,” and boding no good to Miss Flower.

This conclusion, mingling violence and the comic, is another example of Waugh's favorite shock effect. Its meaning, as a conclusion to the satire, is grim enough. Carried any further, the dehumanizing tendencies that the satirist observes in contemporary England may create a civilization in which rebellion itself can be only futile and destructive. The full irony of the title of the work is borne home. In Browning's “Love Among the Ruins,” the speaker, who surveys the ruins of a great city of the past, disdains the mortal glory which has passed away and turns to the love of the blonde girl who waits for him in the ruins; in Waugh's satire, no girl waits, and, as in 1984, only the ruins remain.


  1. Harvey Breit, “Evelyn Waugh,” The Writer Observed (Cleveland, Ohio, 1956), pp. 43–4.

  2. Stopp, Evelyn Waugh, p. 46.

Further Reading

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Hastings, Selina. Evelyn Waugh. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, 723 p.

Regarded as one of the most reliable and factually accurate biographies about Waugh.


McCartney, George. Confused Roaring: Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. 191 p.

Consideration of Waugh's interest in modernism, along with discussions about Waugh's novellas and short stories.

Stannard, Martin. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years (1903–1939). New York: Norton, 1986. 330 p.

Includes discussions of Decline and Fall and Waugh's early stories.

Additional coverage of Waugh's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914–1945; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 22; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 13, 19, 27, 44, 107; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 162, 195; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules:Most-studied Authors, Novelists,Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; andWorld Literature Criticism.

Christopher Hollis (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: In an introduction to Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh, Heinemann Educational Books LTD, 1966, pp. ix–xx.

[In the following introduction to Decline and Fall, Hollis places the novella in the context of Waugh's life and writings.]

The younger generation came in his last years to think of Evelyn Waugh as the very symbol of reaction. He appeared to them as a champion of a vanishing order, of whose survival he despaired. He wrote about peers and county families. He jeered at the crudities of Hoopers of lowly birth or of transatlantic adventurers like Rex Mottram who had invaded and annexed for themselves the privileges of British life. All foreigners were to him merely comic. In art he condemned the formlessness of modern painters. In literature he despised the poverty of vocabulary, the inattention to grammar, to coherence and to the structure of the sentence of the younger novelists. He was without hesitation in proclaiming that he had lived on into an age of total decay, in which he made a pose of being a man old beyond his years. To those who had known him for a life-time it was amusing to remember that it was as a leader of the so-called Bright Young Things—of those who were in revolt against the starchiness of their age—that he first made his name in the world. He was then hailed as the first spokesman of the rising generation, which was being criticized by its elders and professed betters as anarchical and irresponsible, as an underminer of the fabric of society.

Decline and Fall, published in 1928, was Evelyn Waugh's first novel, his first public bid for leadership of the rising generation. One says ‘public bid’, because he had won for himself a considerable reputation a few years before at Oxford. The reputation was not one of which tutors and college authorities approved. Although he had gone up to Hertford College as a scholar he had not distinguished himself in his Schools, any more indeed than had the friends with whom he associated. He had not won any post of distinction even in Societies that were not narrowly academic. But he had won for himself a formidable reputation as one of the leading figures in an Oxford society, which, if not quite so bizarre as the Bollinger Club and the first chapters of Decline and Fall, was not far different from the Oxford in which Charles Ryder lived at the opening of Brideshead Revisited.

He started with advantages in the literary world, if connections with well-known names are indeed an advantage. His father, Arthur Waugh, was the Chairman of Chapman and Hall, the publishers. His brother, Alec, had a few years before sprung suddenly into fame and, in the eyes of some traditionalists, into obloquy by his Loom of Youth, in which the alleged crudities of his public school, Sherborne, were depicted. Evelyn Waugh had himself before Decline and Fall already published a book on Rossetti. His knowledge of painting was considerable. Indeed at Oxford his friends would, I think, have been uncertain whether his future would be that of an artist or a writer. He not only wrote but also illustrated—very competently—the first edition of Decline and Fall. But the public for a book on Rossetti was not that, which, as the spokesman of a whole generation, he was to reach with his early novels.

Decline and Fall is the story of a young theological student who at the opening of the book is an undergraduate at Scone College, Oxford. He is of middle class origin. He has been at a minor public school. An orphan, he is being brought up by a guardian. (It is a curiosity that none of Waugh's comic characters have a regular family background.) He is debagged one night in the Scone quad by the hearty aristocrats of the Bollinger Club, inebriated after their annual dinner, and is most unjustly sent down by the college authorities for indecent exposure. He obtains a post as schoolmaster at an absurd school in North Wales, where he becomes involved with a rich parent, Margot Beste-Chetwynde. She pretends that she is going to marry him, but in fact involves him in taking the responsibility for the white slave traffic activities in which she is involved. As a result he goes to prison, from which he is finally released through the exercise of her influence in Government circles. A forged certificate makes it appear that he has died under an operation for appendicitis and after a period of retirement in her villa on Corfu he returns, passing himself off as his own distant cousin, to his theological studies at Scone.

Waugh's apparent passage from rebellion in youth to reaction in old age is in a measure merely another example of the familiar story of Milestones. It happens with every generation that the young are irreverent iconoclasts who jeer at the traditions which they are invited to inherit, and the old become reluctant to change and hostile to their juniors who are threatening to rob them of all that has made life comfortable for them. Such a process has repeated itself throughout all the generations of history, and there have of course been special reasons why the young of Waugh's youth and the young of his old age—the young of today—should be critical of traditions. Both lived in the aftermath of a World War, in a threatened and crumbling society, and were at least tempted to believe, whether fairly or not, that it was their parents' excessive adherence to old ways which led them into their catastrophe. But, is there therefore an exact parallel between Waugh's rebellious youth and the rebellion of the youth whom he later criticized? Is there nothing between them except the span of forty years?

I do not think that that would be quite true. If a rebel is a man who thinks that some bad cause is on the throne and some good cause ought to supplant it, then neither in Decline and Fall nor elsewhere was Waugh ever exactly a rebel. Neither there nor elsewhere, it is hardly necessary to say, did he ever write of the Kitchen Sink. It was not so much that he attacked it or that he defended it. He was not interested in it. It can hardly be said—though very careless critics have said it—that Decline and Fall is a snobbish book in the sense that Waugh presents in it any glamourized picture of the upper classes. Both the aristocrats and the plutocratic adventurers in Decline and Fall are people singularly—and, if we are to consider them as in any way portraits of real people—almost inhumanly without principle or even the beginnings of an understanding of moral worth. It is a work of labefaction. The society of Decline and Fall is a society in which certainly the rich are able to see to it that it is always the humble and meek who pay. It is the wealthy members of the Bollinger Club who after their dinner roll home and make the College quad hideous. It is Paul Pennyfeather who suffers. But there is no suggestion that because they are rich they are therefore admirable. On the contrary they are portrayed as exceptionally unattractive young men. Their predecessors had three years before brought a fox in a cage into College and stoned it to death with champagne bottles. They attacked and debagged the wholly unoffending Pennyfeather and allowed him to be sent down for their offence. It was only afterwards that Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington had a certain twinge of conscience, which he assuaged by the insolent device of giving Pennyfeather twenty pounds. Margot Beste-Chetwynde is enormously beautiful and enormously rich but, again, she is as unattractive as possible—not merely incontinent but callous and brutal in her unhesitating readiness to make Pennyfeather pay the penalty for her sins. Waugh, it is true, is not concerned to deliver an overt Osbornean attack on the misdemeanours of these rich people, but he is only not so prepared because he finds an irredeemable futility in all mankind—so much so that it would indeed be a waste of trouble to depose one governing class in order to put in its place another equally worthless and equally absurd—to put down Lady Circumference and Sir Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington in order to put up Grimes and Philbrick. A straight-laced Conservative might have criticized—indeed many straight-laced Conservatives did criticize—the book on the ground that the effect of its picture of universal labefaction would be inevitably subversive, but no one could pretend that its purpose was to subvert. It was not the book of a radical. Its purpose was, as Waugh claims without qualification, to amuse. ‘Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY’, he wrote in his Author's Note.

The author of Decline and Fall was indeed even at that stage of his life not a radical but a conservative—not indeed a conservative of principle (one who believes that a special order of society is divinely founded)—but a conservative of the school of David Hume, who believes that since power so inevitably corrupts whoever wields it, it is a waste of energy to trouble with the exchange of one set of masters for another. Decline and Fall gives the impression that it is the work of a young man who thinks that the world is a cruel and pitiless place and quite frankly derives amusement from contemplating its lack of pity. The characters are, it is true, so two-dimensional and unreal that, as has been said, serious compassion at their misfortune is hardly possible. The death of the young Lord Tangent from Mr Prendergast's starting gun at the Llanabba sports cannot tempt the reader to the sympathy which he must feel, in spite of its surrounding absurdities, at the death of young John Last in A Handful of Dust.

In spite of its general cynicism about human nature however, its picture of a society where no one—the Dons at Scone, the masters at Llanabba, the prison officials—does properly the work which he pretends to do and for which he receives his renumeration, Decline and Fall does not show human beings as at all influenced by standards in their conduct. There are no virtuous characters in the book—no characters indeed in the least influenced by virtue. But he had then, as fully as he has kept it through life, an artistic standard. He had an intense regard for the writing of good prose. In this Decline and Fall is a very different sort of book from, say, Lucky Jim and it is this difference which accounts for Waugh's distaste for Kingsley Amis's work. The sentences of Decline and Fall are shorter and more allusive than in his later novels in which he is concerned with what one might call three-dimensional characters—characters that have about them some aura of probability. Sometimes, as in Grime's assertion that Paul was in love, there was a trace, I fancy, of the influence of P. G. Wodehouse, whose style Waugh so greatly admired.

‘Old boy,’ said Grimes, ‘you're in love.’


‘Smitten?’ said Grimes.

‘No, no.’

‘The tender passion?’


‘Cupid's jolly little darts?’


‘Spring fancies, love's young dream.’


‘Not even a quickening of the pulse?’


‘A sweet despair?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘A trembling hope?’


‘A frisson? a Je ne sais quoi?

‘Nothing of the sort.’

‘Liar,’ said Grimes.

There was a long pause.

This is the unmistakable Wooster touch, and in general Decline and Fall, like all Waugh's works, and unlike the works of so many contemporary novelists, is the work of a man who is intensely concerned with the problem of style—who, before putting pen to paper, has most carefully thought out what he wants to say, how he can say it with the greatest economy, and is most exact in saying it.

Astonishingly mature as the work is, considering that Waugh was at the time only twenty-five, Waugh does of course here and there fall from the style that he has set himself as he would not have done in a later book. Thus when in the middle of the book Grimes, before the awful threat of his second marriage, bursts out into reflections of serious remorse we cannot but feel that Waugh had for the moment slipped from the style that he had set himself. Such a character as Grimes should not be allowed to mar himself by a relapse, however transient, into the language of decency. But such lapses are rare.

Always careful of language, Waugh has also been careful of language in another sense. It would not be possible to deduce from Decline and Fall any evidence that Waugh at that time was particularly oppressed by the problems of sexual conduct. His characters, from Margot Beste-Chetwynde at the one extreme to Grimes at the other, are cheerfully immoral in sexual as in other affairs. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that they are so—or to conceal their acts. White slaving is discussed light-heartedly as though it were more a matter for amusement than anything else. Yet Waugh does not here—or indeed anywhere else—think it necessary in modern fashion to sprinkle his prose with four-letter words. He would have thought that to do so was an evidence of literary insufficiency rather than of moral indecency.

It is again true enough to say that there is indeed a great contrast between the Waugh who wrote Decline and Fall and the other early two-dimensional novels, such as Vile Bodies,Scoop and A Handful of Dust, and the later author, say, of Edmund Campion and Helena. It would be clearly impossible to find such a character as the older Crouchback (of the Second World War trilogy) in Decline and Fall. It would be grotesque to imagine him there and indeed Waugh would certainly have denied it with contempt if some too careful expositor had pretended to find in Decline and Fall incipient evidence of the religious or political opinions to which he was subsequently to come. Certainly at the time when Waugh wrote the book he was a young man who, along with most of his companions, merely took it for granted that the Christian religion was untrue and irrelevant and had no passing suspicion that he would ever come to think it otherwise. Yet he had had a religious upbringing. His father was a practising High Churchman. He was sent to Lancing—a Woodard school. In his middle years there, he was, as he tells us in A Little Learning, for a time a pious communicant. He had a large number of Anglican clerical relations. His upbringing was very different from that of those moderns who have been raised in families quite uninvaded by any whisper of the possibility of religious practice or belief. It is not as easy as is sometimes thought wholly to slough off early religious influences, even when one wants to. The clouds of glory have a way of treading their path into shades of the prison house—even if sometimes in somewhat oddly filtered forms. No one—at any rate no one who goes back to it after reading Waugh's later books—can fail to be struck, considering its utterly worldly tone, with the extraordinarily large number of references to religion in Decline and Fall. It would be hard to think of any other writer who would have introduced so many into such a work. These references are not, it is true, in the least complimentary to religion. Without exception they hold it up to ridicule. Prendergast had been a clergyman who had abandoned his Orders because of ‘Doubts’ and then returned to them on the discovery that ‘there is a species of person called a Modern Churchman who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.’ He became a prison chaplain, where he was murdered by a religious maniac, filled with the belief that he was the Avenging Sword of the Lord. Philbrick is reported in a passing phrase to have been ‘a Roman Catholic.’ The other prison chaplain—at Egdon Heath—and the chaplain at Scone College are introduced and held up to mild ridicule. Margot Beste-Chetwynde's negro protégé, Chokey, makes absurd religious protestations. Paul Pennyfeather himself is a theological student at Scone at the beginning of the book and again a theological student there at the end, destined for Holy Orders. The contrast with Waugh's later properly religious books is so obvious as not to be worth drawing, but even without going forward to them, there is no suggestion in Decline and Fall of any character of the strength of Father Rothschild in Vile Bodies, who speaks with deeper understanding than the empty men and women around him. Yet throughout the book religion, if a subject for ridicule, is nevertheless always strangely present.

Waugh, the superior of his rivals in wit, is not unique in writing of characters who are unrelieved by virtue. If one knew nothing of him but these early novels, the temptation, to which so many critics fell, would be to dismiss him as a nihilist—a man who did not believe that life had a purpose or that there existed such things as values. One would only hesitate in such a verdict—only distinguish him from so many other modern authors—by noting that, though he did not appear to see much value in men, he saw much value in words. His devotion was to good prose, and this is a faith the more striking because, standing by itself, it is so evidently unreasonable. The art for art's sake of the nineties is not much now in fashion, but the belief in the value of words for words' sake still has its devotees. Cyril Connolly has told us that nothing is ultimately worth doing except the writing of a masterpiece. ‘Words alone are certain good,’ said Yeats. Sartre has confessed how in his youth he saw writing as ‘the dedicated career.’ Yet, if men are valueless, it is hard to see how writing exactly about them can be very valuable. Why should it matter what one says, if it does not matter what happens? So, whatever may be the enthusiasms of youth, it is only reasonable either to go forward from such a half-way house or to slip back from it. Sartre slipped back. He came, as he said, to think of this dedication as what he called ‘squalid nonsense’, to jeer at words as ‘the little swift black mercenaries’, to take refuge in confessed unreason. ‘I have renounced my vocation’, he writes, ‘but I have not unfrocked myself. I still write. What else can I do?’ Samuel Butler said the same. ‘In that I write I am damned.’ Waugh took the opposite road—did not abandon belief but logically moved forward from believing a little into believing more. It would be a false affectation to pretend that one could deduce such a development from Decline and Fall. Nobody did in fact draw any such deduction at the time. Waugh himself did not dream of drawing it. It was only with Father Rothschild and Vile Bodies that some bold spirits began timidly to hint at the sort of development that might be before the nation's then most talked-of young novelist. But, in retrospect at any rate, it is possible to see that even in unbelief he could not keep himself from continually adverting to the eccentricities of belief or wholly abandon values.

At the time of his writing of the book Waugh had of course been at Oxford, and, as readers of A Little Learning will remember, had taught at a school in North Wales, which was at least sufficiently bad and sufficiently bizarre to serve as an inspiration for Llanabba. No one will pretend that either Dons or school authorities, ridiculous as they often are, are quite as ridiculous as Waugh makes the Dons of Scone or the authorities of Llanabba, but comic satire need not apologize for exaggeration, if it is exaggeration à propos. Even if it be granted that Waugh was using the satirist's privilege to exaggerate, yet there were then, and indeed still, are private schools so bad that their absurdities are almost beyond exaggeration, and, since he had no other more solid advantages to offer, Dr Fagan, the headmaster of Llanabba, would doubtless have boasted as much as he could about his own superior breeding and that of his pupils. But, while he would have done all that he could to attract the rich and the aristocratic to his school and certainly would, as such schoolmasters do, have pretended that the boys were a great deal more highly born than they really were, it is by no means clear why he should in fact have had any success in attracting them—why Lady Circumference should have sent there her son, Viscount Tangent, or why Margot Beste-Chetwynde, a lady, as we are so often told, both of enormous wealth and possessed of vast powers of influence, should not have used those powers and that influence to get her son into some school of better standing.

But beyond that Waugh, though he had been to school and university, had never been to prison. He had taken the trouble to examine those who had had that experience and was careful when he exaggerated the details of prison life—of the harshness of the regime, the absurdities of reforming governors—to be sure that he was at least exaggerating reality. But the necessities of his story set him a problem which it was not easy to solve and which it cannot be pretended that he solved quite successfully. The needs of his story required him to show that life was, as the absurd charlatan Professor Otto Silenus described it, like ‘the big wheel at Luna Park’. Some found their seats near the centre of the wheel and moved very little. Others were on the circumference, rose high and sank very low, but in the end all ended up very much where they began. Thus it was necessary by the end of the story to bring Paul Pennyfeather back as a theological student to Scone College where he had been in residence when the novel began. To get him there Waugh had to get him out of prison. Waugh had perhaps a little strained probability in his description of Pennyfeather's condemnation and of the ease with which Mrs Beste-Chetwynde was able to keep her part in the white slave traffic out of the case. But we are asked to take it on trust that because Maltravers, a Cabinet Minister, was infatuated with her, she had an almost overwhelming influence over official action, and this we must accept. That she should have had the power to see to it that Paul received in prison titbits that were forbidden by the prison regulations is not beyond belief. But the possibility of a bogus death certificate and Pennyfeather's reappearance under the same name and as the cousin of his former self, changed only by the addition of a moustache and his acceptance in that form by the authorities of Scone, a little defies credibility even in such a work of fun and high spirits as this.

It is a temptation to a young writer, anxious for paradox, to write as if the pleasures of life were exactly the opposite to those which are generally pretended—as if a life, for instance, of solitary confinement in prison was a life preferable to that of the world's social round. It is amusing to write,

The next four weeks of solitary confinement were among the happiest of Paul's life. The physical comforts were certainly meagre, but at the Ritz Paul had learnt to appreciate the inadequacy of purely physical comfort. It was so exhilarating, he found, never to have to make any decision on any subject, to be wholly relieved from the smallest consideration of time, meals or clothes, to have no anxiety ever about what kind of impression he was making; in fact, to be free.

but Waugh had not himself been in prison—still less in solitary confinement. The life that he was choosing for himself and living at that time was much more nearly the life of King's Thursday—Margot's luxurious home—than the life of prison, and the sentences do not ring true. In general throughout the book Waugh is describing what is happening to people. The amusement of the story comes precisely from those deadpan objective statements—from the fact that he does not linger to consider what he characters thought about the adventures that came their way. The essay in interpretation which he contributes here for Paul Pennyfeather is not in character—is evidence perhaps that he was here a little beyond his depth, in describing an experience which he has not in fact encountered instead of, as in the scenes at Scone and at Llanabba, amusing himself by exaggerating experiences with which in essence he was familiar. He did not really know how a prison worked and how prisoners reacted to it.

These are but passing points. The total achievement for a man of twenty-five was an achievement of remarkable maturity and at once won for Waugh the deserved reputation which he has since held. We still turn to Decline and Fall for sheer amusement, but we turn also to see the shadow of coming events. It has been said with some truth that every history is always in truth a history of its own times, and in the same way every biography, real or fictional, is in a measure always an autobiography. A man cannot escape from his own character, and, even when he is least conscious that he is doing so, he is in fact always revealing it. Certainly with Waugh in Decline and Fall, little though he guessed his own future, the child was there the father of the man.

Christopher Sykes (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: In Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Little, Brown and Company, 1975, pp. 78–82, 162–64.

[In the following excerpt from his biography of Waugh, Sykes discusses Waugh's short stories as well as Mr. Loveday's Outing and Other Sad Stories, which Sykes believes is “not an important feature in Evelyn's literary life.”]

[Waugh's] earliest work had not only shown little promise but no firm indication of what sort of writer, if a writer at all, he was likely to become. The greatest literary critic imaginable would be unable to identify from the text alone the authorship of Anthony Who Sought The Things That Were Lost as that of Evelyn Waugh. The only characteristic of his later work to be found in that essay in preciosity is a certain boldness of approach, but this boldness is vitiated and almost cancelled by the evident vagueness of intention.

The most interesting of his early writings is ‘The Balance,’ subtitled ‘A Yarn of the Good Old Days of Broad Trousers and High Necked Jumpers.’ Though it cannot be described as good, a literary detective might possibly discern its authorship from internal evidence. It contains dialogue, and though the most important single dialogue in the book is inept, some of it has a glimmer of Evelyn's later sparkle. It is difficult to say what the story is about as the narrative line is self-consciously complicated in the endeavour to be as modern as possible. It does emerge that there is a young man named Adam Dour, an art student, who is unhappily in love with a fashionable girl called Imogen Quest; that his frustrated suit drives him to attempt suicide by poison; that the attempt fails as he cannot prevent himself vomiting (closely described) thus expelling the lethal dose; that he then writes a farewell letter to Imogen and is about to drown himself but is dissuaded in the course of a conversation which he holds on a bridge, with his reflection in the water, and in which the two discuss ‘the balance’ between life and death. What makes the story especially difficult to follow is that most of it, following the ‘inspiration’ at Aston Clinton, takes the form of a film scenario which is represented as being watched by a large audience, some of whose comments are given. The people in the film spill over into the ‘real life’ story. It is easy to imagine James Joyce using a device of this kind. There are a few Joycean touches in the writing and it is possible that Evelyn had recently plunged into Ulysses. Joyce may have begotten this weak and misshapen child but he was not to be an influence on Evelyn. This was very fortunate. Like that of Wagner in the nineteenth century the influence of Joyce on his contemporaries in the twentieth was usually destructive and often fatal.

The failure of the story was inevitable from the fact that, as is apparent throughout, the author was attempting a picture of modern life without sufficient experience. The subject, almost against the writer's wish, so one may feel, gravitates back to Oxford. It begins as a parody of the debased drama of the cinema, but the story told by the fictitious film is concerned with the rakish life of Evelyn's undergraduate days, a subject wholly untypical of the cinema of the time. (Harold Lloyd's immortal College Days provides no exception.) As a result, the element of parody is entirely misdirected: it makes mock of a kind of film which no one had made or was likely to make. (A Yank at Oxford again provides no exception.) The climax of the story, the conversation between the hero and his reflection, is an abysmal mixture of sophistry and sentimentalism. In favour of ‘The Balance,’ apart from some bright dialogue, can be claimed convincing descriptions of the squalor of debauchery. Evelyn wisely never had it reprinted, and I never heard him mention it. I was unaware of its existence until after his death. …

In the middle of June [1936] Chapman and Hall published Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories. The … book is not an important feature of Evelyn's literary life, so it need not detain the reader beyond a couple of paragraphs.

The excellence of the eponymous story is in no doubt. It may have been based on the report of some atrocity of the kind in the newspapers; it was widely remembered some twenty years later when an almost identical disaster occurred as a result of misguided progressivism in the treatment of criminal lunatics, a grim subject which Evelyn had already effectively guyed in Decline and Fall. Under the title ‘By Special Request’, the mild ending to A Handful of Dust contrived for the American serialization was reprinted. It has been discussed already. The third piece, ‘Cruise’, was an excursion into a style of glossy-magazine gossip-writing story which has happily disappeared. In ‘Cruise’ Evelyn fell, probably unawares, under the influence of A. P. Herbert's once much lauded The Trials of Topsy. The story which followed it, ‘Period Piece’, was a skilful variation on the theme of Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose and was as fully worthy of Evelyn as ‘On Guard’ … was not.

‘Incident in Azania’ should have become better known than it did. The scene of the story was life in an outpost of the British Empire and was set in the Protectorate regime of Azania following the events related in Black Mischief. The kind of incident and the kind of life depicted had been both more thoroughly dealt with by Somerset Maugham, but the ‘truth to nature’ of Evelyn's picture of that now vanished world will strike any witness of it as authentic. By 1936 Somerset Maugham had made the subject over-familiar, a fact which may account for the neglect of ‘Incident in Azania’. The stories which followed it showed Evelyn indulging his taste for fantasy conjoined with realism. ‘Out of Depth’ is a not wholly successful little outing on the Time-Machine; the debt to H. G. Wells (against whom Evelyn was unashamedly prejudiced) is too obvious. The succeeding story, ‘Excursion in Reality’, is one of Evelyn's few ventures into the obscene unreality of the film-world. Here a reader may strongly feel that, for all its many excellencies, the story is a display of raw material for a fine piece of fiction rather than the thing itself. ‘Love in the Slump’ is based on the over-worked material of his early novels; it reads like a parody of his writing. (Strange that no other writer has parodied his intensely idiosyncratic style.) The last two stories are both flawed. ‘Bella Fleace Gave a Party’ is supposed to be based on an incident which did actually happen: an ambitious hostess, it was related, gave a party but the invitations were not posted. The legend or fact was very well known in those days and by 1936 had grown ‘something musty’. Many readers must have known the end of the story from the beginning. The same fatal weakness was in the last story, ‘Winner Takes All’. It is designed to have a surprise ending, but, as Raymond Mortimer noticed in a review, the title gave the show away early on.

The book enjoyed success in England and later on in the United States where it was published in October. It kept Evelyn's reputation in the public eye, but, except possibly for the title-story, added little to the reputation. Even his most fervent admirers could not but notice that the quality of the stories was very uneven. …

Alain Blayac (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “‘Bella Fleace Gave a Party’ or, The Archetypal Image of Waugh's Sense of Decay,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 69–73.

[In the following essay, Blayac argues that as a metaphor for changing social conditions “Bella Fleace Gave a Party” ranks among Waugh's best works of short fiction.]

In his somewhat controversial biography of Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Sykes tentatively discards some of the writer's early novels as uneven and immature;1 he is even more censorious of the short stories which, except for “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing” and “Period Piece,” he repeatedly finds fault with.2 They are, he suggests, repetitive, impersonal, and occasionally marred by too close an imitation of well-known stories or writers. As a case in point, Mr. Sykes writes that “Bella Fleace Gave a Party”3 “is supposed to be based on an incident which did actually happen: an ambitious hostess, it was related, gave a party but the invitations were not posted. The legend or fact was very well known in those days and by 1936 had grown ‘something musty.’ Many readers must have known the end of the story from the beginning.”4 Mr. Sykes' summary, focussing on the trivial and the superficial, will hardly do justice to a short story whose essential meaning he fails to grasp. For us, Waugh used the largely drawn upon anecdote5 as a mere platform for the voicing of a serious and thoroughly consistent outlook on life. He wove it into a grim, ironic, archetypal satire not so much of Ireland and the Irish in themselves as of a modern world which has forsaken the glory and grandeur of its past. As such the short story assumes a new significance, for which Waugh's art certainly comes off the better, and “Bella Fleace” in the process comes to rank among the writer's most meaningful short works.

The simplicity of the structure underlines Waugh's intentions. Through an apparently objective description—reminiscent of the Blue Guide Style used in A Handful of Dust to introduce Hetton Abbey6—the reader is successively acquainted with Ballingar, “a typical Irish town,” Fleacetown, Bella's manor in “typical Irish country,” and the Fleaces themselves seen through historical perspective. This introduction provides the story with a coherent background of reference, arouses the reader's attention by gradually travelling towards a close-up on7 the house and family, and keeps his interest awake with a number of outside elements used as counterpoints to the main theme. In fact it strikes the “change and decay” note.

Ballingar, the typical Irish town, proves to be the very image of poverty and dereliction; Fleacetown, although “unusually habitable,” will barely “survive its owner;” the eponymous heroine is revealed to be the last descendant of a once-thriving family. Waugh evokes a favorite theme, Decadence and Death; in this respect the flashback on the Fleace story (providing the anecdote with a temporal background) is a clever stroke which exemplifies, both technically and ideologically, the ineluctable waning of house and family. This is traced from the heroic times when the Fleaces were a strong, warlike tribe living in a “stockaded fort” to the eighteenth-century splendor of an already “enervated” though “still wealthy and influential” family, and eventually the steady decline which, through “no heroic debauchery,”8 ended in the generation of eccentrics culminating—or tapering off—in Bella herself. The very mutilation of the latter's name from Miss Annabel Rochfort-Doyle-Fleace to plain Bella Fleace, and even Bella is one more token of the overwhelming corruption that submerges the world. Annabel—etymologically grace and beauty—is now Bella, an old woman over 80, lame in one leg—a witch in appearance.

At this stage, one must remark that Waugh is too much of an artist to state his theme in an overly simple manner. The degradation of property, family and last representative is made more dramatic by a number of variations and counterpoints which obliquely state the author's point of view: the mere juxtaposition of declining ancient values with rising modern fashions endows the episode with almost universal significance. The anecdote becomes the central archetype of Waugh's earlier fiction—that of the decline and fall of Man in these, our modern times.

Concurrently to the decadence of Fleacetown, other neighboring houses undergo resurrection of a sort. Electric light, central heating and a lift have been installed in “the rival Gordontown,” which, together with Mock House, Newhill, together with Castle Mockstock, is provided with “neatly raked gravel, bathrooms and dynamos.” Although these advantages are not to be dismissed lightly, the houses are now “the wonder and ridicule of the country.”9 The very names Waugh assigns them betoken his dissatisfaction with them. Newhill is probably the new fad of some gross upstart, Mock House and Castle Mockstock deride their very origins by the acceptance of modern conveniences. Thriving as they look, such edifices appear to repudiate tradition and the past from which they were issued; they have ceased to be Irish altogether, nay, have lost both function and identity. Mock House and Newhill, now leased to sporting Englishmen, are deserted most of the year; Castle Mockstock has been defiled by Lord Mockstock's marrying beneath him; Gordontown, bought by the American Lady Gordon, heralds the invasion of the island by the barbarians from the New Continent. Waugh, viewing architecture as the emblem and the touchstone of civilization, gloomily broods on the rise of change and modernism.

This overture points at Waugh as a committed writer. It proposes a riddle which the anecdote will solve, and announces a revelation. The arrival of Bella's only relative, a distant London cousin named Archie Banks,10 sets the plot going. The interest the young man manifests in the library rare books induces Bella to sell them. Rather than be “fleeced,” she chooses to spend the money from the sale on a Christmas party which is momentarily to restore the splendor of yore. She will muster the families of ancient, reliable lineage and reject the snobbish, uncultured social climbers. Unwonted activity stirs the house for a while, then, once the last details are completed, D-day comes. At 8 o'clock Bella limps downstairs to welcome her guests; at half past twelve nobody has come when Lady Mockstock, the draper's daughter, and Lady Gordon, the American, attempt gate crashing and are duly repelled. Bella, unable to bear the double shock, dies the next day. Later, Archie Banks arrives at Fleacetown to organize the funeral and set the house in order: “… sorting out her effects … [he finds] in her escritoire, stamped, addressed, but unposted, the invitations to the ball.”11

This bare outline is inadequate to suggest the moral of a story which casts a crude light on the shortcomings of the age. Our times are devoid of humanity. The world of tradition and order is upside down as upstart hordes storm in while truly noble families pass out to be ironically taken over by “Banks.” Taste, good fellowship, candor are superseded by vulgarity, envy and dissimulation. Burke's Peerage is no longer to be trusted as American Gordons now pullulate. A strange world, and a sadly insane one!

It would be misleading, however, to think that Waugh extols the virtues of Bella while disparaging the modern barbarians. At no time in the short story is Bella presented as a civilizing influence, even less as a potential counterweight to the growing importance of those who mock lineage and style. On the contrary, far from being invested with the sacred role of Defender of the Past, Bella stands up as a caricature of nobleness and nobility—in the same way as Fleacetown never represents anything better than the more modern houses do. Indeed, the writer is most careful to “describe her [the heroine's] appearance closely …, because it [seems] in contradiction to much of her character. She was over eighty, very untidy and very red; steaky grey hair was twisted behind her head into a horsy bun, wisps hung around her cheeks; her nose was prominent and blue veined; her eyes pale blue, blank and mad. …”12 Later he lays definite emphasis on her decrepitude: “… Bella herself was increasingly occupied with the prospect of death. In the winter before the one we are talking of, she had been extremely ill. She emerged in April, rosy cheeked as ever, but slower in her movements and mind.”13

Although it seems “in contradiction to much of her character,” Bella's appearance reflects her real nature. An old woman, with mad eyes and a slow mind, she never grasps the issues she should be fighting for. Here a comparison with Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay may help understand the inadequacies of Bella and of her house.

Contrarily to the model of St. Paul's cathedral which, with its grace and proportion, becomes an ideal that Huxley's misfits should strive to attain, Fleacetown can by no means be held as symbolic of civilized enlightenment. The humor of the description cannot blind the reader to the reality of its decrepitude. At best Fleacetown can be seen as the sorely degraded, half-ruined image of the homely, comfortable hall of the eighteenth century.

In contrast to Gumbril Sr. who keeps in touch with mankind and has reached wisdom and insight, Bella remains isolated, foolish and blind to reality. Most of her contemporaries have already departed this world, or are about to do so.14 Bella's fight, if considered as a crusade against the infidels, can at best be a singlehanded, rearguard skirmish which stands little chance of stemming the tidal wave of barbarism. After her, nothing will remain of the past.

Besides, Bella is never made to display—let alone embody—any redemptive quality. Whereas Gumbril Sr. consistently demonstrates his liberal humanism, Bella always bases her action on egotistic misconceptions. In order to thwart her cousin Archie Banks' so-called schemes, she does away with the treasures of the Hall Library. She barters books for money, squanders it on a meaningless party, and demeans herself to lower levels than the moderns she combats. The reader realizes that the taint of modernism has touched her to such an extent that she chooses the least meaningful ceremony to revive the past. Or rather, ironically, she selects the right ceremony for the wrong motive, thus depriving it of its essentially positive value. In the party Bella only sees the garish and the tawdry. She warps its meaning for she never senses the humanism that used to pervade such gatherings in Fielding and Addison's times. Her re-decoration of Fleacetown is patchy and of little durable worth; the party is essentially intended as a bolstering up of her sick, reeling mind. In the same way that she dissipates the heritage of the past by selling the books, she misunderstands it by organizing a party to debase her hated neighbors. No doubt that, by doing so, she believes she emulates Sir Roger de Coverley, Squire Allworthy and their likes, when in fact she betrays their philosophy. Then the squire would entertain the village community at the Hall, giving everybody from top to bottom of the social ladder a feeling of community. The reunions, the merrymaking tightened the ties, uniting an already close-knit social group.

Bella utterly misunderstands the inner significance of such functions. She even distorts it to such a point as to endow it with the opposite meaning. Far from trying to unite the county community, she endeavors to disrupt it. Bella cuts, carves, destroys; therefore, the conclusion definitely introduces an idea of retributive justice into the anecdote. Bella is chastised for having sinned against the Spirit of the Past. What's more, by appointing Christmas as the time of revenge, she proves as sacrilegious as Adam and Nina were in Vile Bodies two years before. Bella's death comes as a timely, justified punishment. The notion of fate, so important in Waugh's early works—and already suggested here by the ironic demise of Bella's brother—is made again to intervene in order to show that tampering with morals and tradition is a crime that the gods severely punish.

For all these reasons, “Bella Fleace Gave a Party,” far from being the simple imitation of a well-known story, is a terse but forcible statement of Evelyn Waugh's personal philosophy. It illustrates the writer's obsessive fear that all sanity and values have been suppressed from our world. The Roman Catholic novelist warns his readers that, in the Waste Land, nothing can save Man from his Fall. The choice is not between Bella and the others, but outside them all, indeed perhaps in isolation, confinement and the self. Whatever one may think of the shortcomings of such a philosophy, “Bella Fleace Gave a Party” expresses it perfectly. The short story, seen in this light, remains not only an essential link between Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, but also an archetypal illustration of Evelyn Waugh's embittered human and religious stances.


  1. Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh: a Biography (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1975).

  2. Evelyn Waugh, Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1936).

  3. Ibid., pp. 185–204.

  4. Sykes, p. 164.

  5. Oscar Wilde's “Aunt Jane” plays on the same theme.

  6. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (London: Chapman and Hall, 1934), p. 27. “Bella Fleace Gave a Party” is the first instance of this style, which Waugh was to use so often in his later fiction.

  7. Such technical terms remind us that Waugh, although often disgusted with the “7th Art,” was always attracted by it; he even was a cinema critic for The Isis in his student days at Oxford.

  8. p. 190.

  9. p. 189.

  10. Etymologically, “Noble Banks” or “Rule of the Banks.”

  11. p. 203.

  12. p. 191.

  13. p. 192.

  14. Ibid., pp. 197–98. “Many of those whose names were transcribed were dead or bedridden; some whom she just remembered seeing as small children were reaching retiring age in remote corners of the globe; many of the houses she wrote down were blackened shells, burnt during the troubles and never rebuilt.”

Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: In Evelyn Waugh, Writer, Pilgrim Books, Inc., 1981, pp. 32–9, 70–2.

[In the following excerpt, Davis compares and contrasts Waugh's early short fiction, exploring his techniques and influences.]

Waugh's undergraduate fiction, except for “Anthony: Who Sought Things That Were Lost,” was written in first person and consisted largely of parochial anecdotes. “The Balance,” sub-titled “A Yarn of the Good Old Days of Broad Trousers and High Necked Jumpers,” shows him working toward but not entirely trusting a technique by which he could present as objectively as possible his own subjective reactions and thus transmute autobiography into fiction. From the devices of the film he adapted techniques by which he was able, sporadically, to achieve authorial distance from the characters and to present selected glimpses of physical action economically and vividly.

The plot of “The Balance”1 is not particularly remarkable: Adam Doure, an art student recently down from Oxford, has his romance with Imogen Quest broken off as a result of her mother's objection. In rather self-conscious despair he resolves to commit suicide, sells his books to raise money, and goes to Oxford with the object of saying a dignified, Petronian farewell to his friends. However, only Ernest Vaughan, talented but thoroughly debauched, is able to accompany him, and the farewell dinner degenerates into a series of drunken misadventures culminating in the wreck of an impulsively commandeered automobile. Alone in his hotel room, Adam drinks poison—only to vomit profusely and fall asleep. Wandering into the fields near the river on the following morning, he sleeps again; then, looking into the water, he engages his reflection in a rather sophomoric dialogue about the meaning of life. Finally he comes to an understanding of the balance between life and death: the appetite, which is governed by circumstances, determines whether man wishes to live or die.

Of much greater interest than the story is the variety of techniques that Waugh employed to tell it. Each of the four sections is told in a different narrative mode: “Introduction,” which shows the attitudes of the Bright Young People toward Adam, is almost wholly in dialogue; “Circumstances,” which is by far the longest section, ends with Adam taking poison and uses the conventions of the silent film that Waugh had learned from reviewing and from The Scarlet Woman; “Conclusion,” which concludes with Adam's decision to accept the verdict of chance and live, is developed partly by formal exposition of Adam's mental state and partly by his dialogue with himself; and “Continuation,” which returns to the gay and thoughtless world of Adam's contemporaries, uses a third-person observer to reflect on the lightly malicious gossip. It is not surprising that Conrad Aiken, while praising the story for its “astonishingly rich portrait of a mind” and predicting that Waugh might “do something very remarkable,” made the reservation “if he is not too clever.”2

Waugh did not get beyond his depth in the first and last sections, where the dialogue clearly presages that of the novels, or in the structure, which like that of Decline and Fall shows the central character being separated from an unsuitable world through a counterfeit death. In his most ambitious section. “Circumstances,” however, he obviously found that the techniques of the film scenario were inadequate for his purpose, and he added several elements. First, to expand the speaking parts beyond the limits of the caption, he introduced additional lines of dialogue, which, he says in a note, “are deduced by the experienced picture-goers from the gestures of the actors; only those parts which appear in capitals are actual ‘captions’”. Next, to provide some kind of framework for his script and to point up the contrast between his story and stereotyped movie plots, he selected three members of the audience to present the conventional filmgoers' views, recording their comments in italic type. First introduced are Ada and Gladys, two servants, who make obvious comments on the action and try vainly to place the plot in a familiar category: comedy, “society,” “murder,” or romance. The third spectator, selected for his contrasting views, is a young Cambridge man who desires that the characters talk like ladies and gentlemen, labels without difficulty as “expressionismus” the film's technique, and understands the significance of the action little better than Ada and Gladys.

This machinery is ponderously established, intrusive, and uneconomical, but Waugh did even greater violence to the film convention. Strictly speaking, the characters' internal reactions could not be shown in a film, but Waugh further strained his device to include them—and even added background information in the neutral voice of the detached author.

When Waugh is dealing with dialogue, his devices are fairly successful, though a bit cluttered, as in the luncheon conversation between Adam and Imogen:

She sits down at the table.

“You haven't got to rush back to your school, have you? Because I'm never going to see you again. The most awful thing has happened—you order lunch, Adam. I'm very hungry, I want to eat a steak-tartare and I don't want to drink anything.” [This dialogue is to be inferred by the filmgoer.]

Adam orders lunch.


Gladys is at last quite at home. The film has been classified. Young love is being thwarted by purse-proud parents.

When the story has to deal with a setting, however, the scenario fails to translate into verbal description the swiftness of the film's visual impact, and in fact Waugh sometimes abandons physical detail for generalized evaluation. A good example is the description of Lady Rosemary Quest's house:

An interior is revealed in which the producers have at last made some attempt to satisfy the social expectations of Gladys and Ada. It is true that there is very little marble and no footmen in powder and breeches, but there is nevertheless an undoubted air of grandeur about the high rooms and Louis Seize furniture, and there is a footman. The young man from Cambridge estimates the household at six thousand a year, and though somewhat overgenerous, it is a reasonable guess. Lady Rosemary's collection of Limoges can be seen in the background.

When Waugh is faithful to the limits of his convention, the description is sometimes awkwardly obtrusive. In attempting to give something of the atmosphere of a bookstore, where a minor bit of action takes place, he is forced by his cinematic method to use a great deal of space for description, for analysis, and for a short scene with a wholly irrelevant character.

Waugh's attempt to reproduce the effect of the movie amply justifies itself, however, when he uses its characteristic qualities: the ability to translate ideas and attitudes into visual terms, to control the physical distance of the audience from the action, to select only the relevant details, to shift rapidly from scene to scene without formal transition, and to control the speed of the action. Particularly noteworthy in “The Balance” is Waugh's use of Adam's visions of death: first, a realistic view of the effect his suicide will have on his family, “scenes of unspeakable vulgarity involving tears, hysteria, the telephone, the police”; next, “a native village in Africa” from which “a man naked and sick to death … draws himself into the jungle to die alone”; and, finally, a “hall, as if in some fevered imagining of Alma Tadema, … built of marble, richly illuminated by burning Christians,” where in an atmosphere violent and decadent a Roman patrician leisurely takes his life. Like a film shot, the second vision is spliced into later action to reveal Adam's growing sense of isolation as he vainly seeks someone with whom to share a last feast and as he lies down to die after drinking the poison.3 While the physical details of the third vision are not repeated, the whole series of squalid episodes of Adam's drunken wanderings through Oxford is implicitly contrasted with the decadent splendor of the Roman's death.

As significant as the visual rendering of thought is the effect of the cinematic device on the narrative style, for Waugh is able to give the sense of drunken confusion without using the character's mind as the center of observation. As a result, he can avoid subjective analysis and speed the pace and rapidity of transition, as in this sequence:

A public-house in the slums. Adam leans against the settee and pays for innumerable pints of beer for armies of ragged men. Ernest is engrossed in a heated altercation about birth control with a beggar whom he has just defeated at “darts.”

Another public-house: Ernest, beset by two panders, is loudly proclaiming the abnormality of his tastes. Adam finds a bottle of gin in his pocket and attempts to give it to a man; his wife interposes; eventually the bottle falls to the floor and is broken.

Adam and Ernest in a taxi; they drive from college to college, being refused admission. Fade out.

At least as effective is the series of scenes in which Adam tries to find a dinner companion, for they portray economically a wide variety of Oxford types.

That the story is on the whole a failure can be attributed partly to Waugh's choice of too complicated a variety of narrative methods and partly to his attitude toward the material. Like the circumstances of almost all of Waugh's other central characters, Adam's closely parallel, though they do not reproduce, those of his creator. Like Evelyn Waugh in 1924 and 1925, Adam has left at Oxford a circle of friends whom he misses and from whom he feels estranged; like Waugh, he attends a scrubby art school, where he learns very little; like Waugh, he is without means, is separated from the girl with whom he thinks himself in love, seeks to renew Oxford friendships, and fails, in an ignominious anticlimax, to commit suicide. When he wrote “The Balance,” he was too close to the emotions of Adam Doure to treat them, especially in “Conclusion,” in other than solemn fashion. Moreover, it is difficult to discern any reason besides the claims of autobiography for the art-school scenes. This failure in economy is only one effect of Waugh's incomplete detachment of himself from Adam; the other was the need to justify Adam's difference from his contemporaries and in general to gain sympathy for him. This necessity accounts for the three sections of the story that are outside the film convention (by itself a means of gaining objectivity); for the movie audience, whose incomprehension is intended to deepen the reader's awareness; and for the authorial analysis of Adam's feelings.

“The Tutor's Tale”4 resembles Waugh's later short stories in being thin and formulaic, but it does represent a different kind of objectivity from that of “The Balance.” To narrate the brief emergence from captivity of the supposedly retarded but in fact ingenuous George, Marquess of Stayle and heir to the Duke of Vanbrugh, Waugh resurrected from “The Balance” the character Ernest Vaughan, drunken companion of and foil to Adam Doure and object of Imogen Quest's interest on the story's final page. As tutor to the young man and narrator he is used to set off by his cynicism and experience the dottiness of George's relatives and keepers and George's “fresh and acute critical faculty and a natural fastidiousness which shone through the country bumpkin”. As Ernest notes, sometimes “nature, like a lazy author, will round off abruptly into a short story what she obviously intended to be the opening of a novel”; George's relatives change their minds about sending him abroad and recall him to imprisonment on the family estate. The story is a great deal lighter in tone than “The Balance”; George looks forward to certain release, and Ernest's calm objectivity keeps the audience from empathizing with wronged innocence.

Perhaps as important as his experiments with point of view is that Waugh had begun to people the imaginative world upon which his early novels would draw. Ernest never recurs, but the names Vanburgh (or Vanbrugh), Philbrick, and others in the comedy-of-manners convention do, and a hint of the characters of the Bright Young People has begun to appear. The clearest indication of Waugh's progress from self-pitying autobiography is the shift in his use of Imogen Quest. In the undergraduate effort—a term chosen advisedly—“Fragments: They Dine with the Past,” the character Imogen never appears, but she pervades the dinner party at which her name is not spoken: “… the thought of her was about and between us all; with such shy courtesy did we treat her, who had been Queen, for all who had loved her were gathered there and none dared even speak her name.”5 The character is so vague that she does not have a surname. In “The Balance,” despite her portentous name and “rather a lovely head, shingled and superbly poised on its neck”, Imogen is an ordinary girl, speaking in the argot of the Bright Young People who appear briefly in Decline and Fall and prominently in Vile Bodies. In the latter novel the name is again used of an idealized character, but this time in a conscious travesty of literary creation and considered mockery of the social scene: Adam Fenwick-Symes invents her in his gossip column as “the most lovely and popular of the young married set” who becomes “a byword for social inaccessibility—the final goal for all climbers” who envy her set's “uncontrolled dignity of life.”6 In Imogen's first appearance she is a vague figure created to allow young men the indulgence of self-pitying, nostalgic stoicism. In her final appearance she is used to parody the aspiration of her admirers.

Of course, Waugh had always had, as his diaries reveal, a sharp eye for the inherent absurdities of people and institutions. Social snobbery and self-protection were as central to “Edward of Unique Achievement” as they were to the opening pages of Decline and Fall. In the undergraduate story Edward murders his dim tutor, Mr. Curtis, and escape detection when Lord Poxe, who has drunkenly collapsed next to the body, is the obvious suspect. Poxe, however, is let off with a fine of thirteen shillings because of a fifteenth-century precedent and because the Warden's wife, thinking her husband has killed her lover, confesses her misdeeds, whereupon the Warden hastens to conceal the crime. The chief difference between the story and the novel is not subject but point of view. “Edward” is narrated by a first-person observer, uninvolved except with the Warden's wife, and the cynicism is overt.7Decline and Fall is narrated by an omniscient author so assured that he can descend from mandarin to slang usage and rise again without apology or self-consciousness. …

Even before Waugh completed Chapter 3 of Black Mischief, in which he used England to frame the action in Azania, he was making it the center of a smaller picture. “The Patriotic Honeymoon,” retitled “Love in the Slump” for Mr. Loveday's Little Outing, deals with the marriage of Tom Watch and Angela Trench-Troubridge as “completely typical of all that was most unremarkable in modern social conditions.”8 The two marry out of a sense of desperation on her side and bewildered acquiescence to “one of the few bright fragments remaining from his glamorous [undergraduate] past” on his. They are separated by accident; Tom discovers hunting on his host's new mare and Angela satisfactory sex with the same Etonian-Oxonian friend of Tom's who gives them a cottage near his estate in Devon, which “would be such a good place for her to go sometimes when she wanted a change”. As students of A Handful of Dust will realize, the story is almost a negative image of the novel: Tom, the Beaverish Londoner with neither qualities nor prospects, is cuckolded by a lively country squire, a counter-Tony, in a cottage, as opposed to a flat in London, both “very suitable for base love.”

The themes of the faithless wife and of the mild man whose betrayal he cannot even recognize are repeated in a story commissioned for the John Bull series on “The Seven Deadly Sins of Today.” Waugh chose the one sin to which he can never have felt the slightest temptation: tolerance. In the introduction to the series Waugh asserted, “It is better to be narrowminded than to have no mind, to hold limited and rigid principles than none at all.” The danger, he continued, was “to put up with what is wasteful and harmful with the excuse that there is ‘good in everything’—which in most cases means the inability to distinguish between good and bad.”9 Set in Africa, where everyone else has pronounced opinions on every subject, the story presents the monologue of “a jaunty, tragic little figure, cheated out of his patrimony by his partner, battened on by an obviously worthless son, deserted by his wife, an irrepressible, bewildered figure striding off under his topee, cheerfully butting his way into a whole continent of rapacious and ruthless jolly good fellows.” Reacting against Victorian ideas of marriage, he lets his wife pursue her own interests and activities and is mildly surprised because “after she'd been going out with this fellow for some time she suddenly fell in love with him and went off with him.”10

“Bella Fleace Gave a Party,” completed before Waugh left for British Guiana, deals with the decay of a once lively country house and the failure, through senile oversight, of Bella to maintain her sense of superiority. In contrast, “Period Piece,” dated 1934 in Tactical Exercise shows the betrayed husband losing his wife to his parasitical heir but acquiescing in her return and rejoicing when she bears him a son. Both in his actions and in the tone of Lady Amelia, the story's narrator, one hears “the organ voice of England, the hunting-cry of the ancien régime.11 Privilege is asserted, the outsiders kept outside.12 Though “Period Piece” was almost certainly written after “The Man Who Liked Dickens” and perhaps after A Handful of Dust, its resolution in the birth of a new heir mirrors the ending to the serial version, “A Flat in London,” in which Brenda, subdued and carrying the heir of Hetton, is regarded as unlikely to escape it again.

Ordinarily Waugh did not seem to take his short fiction very seriously, but he was enthusiastic about “The Man Who Liked Dickens” from the time it was written, telling Peters that it was “first-rate” and should command a large fee on the American market.13 Technically it is superior to his other short pieces. The middle, a flashback that recounts the origin and dissolution of the Anderson expedition, is weakened by rather obvious attempts at humor, but in the scenes at the house of Mr. McMaster (Todd in the novel) that enclose the flashback the major themes are implied through dialogue and setting rather than overtly stated, as they had been in “Love in the Slump,” by a knowing, superior narrator. The story shares with its predecessors the theme of the casually faithless wife. In this case, like Virginia Crouchback in Sword of Honour, whose conversational style she anticipates, Mrs. Henty falls in love with a captain of the Coldstream Guards. Henty is less dim than the central male figures of the other short stories; his impotence is the result more of circumstance than of character. The theme of confinement runs through several stories from this period: the dim wife of “Period Piece” has the walled “Garden of Her Thoughts” where nothing grows; the flirt of “On Guard” is rendered a harmless and lonely spinster when her dog bites off her adorable nose; the central character in “Out of Depth” is thrust forward in time to a shattered London whose denizens have degenerated into barbarism.

This story is especially important in the gestation of A Handful of Dust because it introduces the major theme of that novel, which Waugh described as “a study of other sorts of savage at home and the civilized man's helpless plight among them.”14 The central figure, Rip Van Winkle, lives in an “orderly succession of characterless, steam-heated apartments, … cabin trunks and promenade decks, … casinos and bars and supper restaurants.”15 Displaced, he is submerged in delirium, more fully rendered than Henty's in “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” from which he emerges only after perceiving “a shape in chaos” at a Roman Catholic mass. This overtly religious theme is at most implied in A Handful of Dust, but the story presents London as a waste inhabited by “other sorts of savage” and moves a step further toward the portrait of contemporary London as essentially sordid and dull present in Waugh's fiction from Black Mischief.


  1. Evelyn Waugh, “The Balance,” Georgian Stories, 1926 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1926), pp. 253–91; (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1926), pp. 279–323. I cite the latter text parenthetically.

  2. Conrad Aiken, Literary Review 23 (April 9, 1927): 4.

  3. Although I do not use the same terminology, I am indebted for the concepts to Joseph and Harry Feldman, Dynamics of the Film (New York: McLeod, 1952); and to Edward Fischer, The Screen Arts: A Guide to Film and Television Appreciation (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960).

  4. Evelyn Waugh, “The Tutor's Tale: A House of Gentlefolks,” The New Decameron: The Fifth Day (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927), pp. 101–16.

  5. Evelyn Waugh, “Fragments: They Dine with the Past,” Cherwell, September 5, 1923, p. 42; signed “Scaramel.”

  6. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (London: Chapman and Hall, 1965), pp. 114–15. This is the last edition supervised by Waugh.

  7. Evelyn Waugh, “Edward of Unique Achievement,” Cherwell, August 1, 1923, pp. 14–18.

  8. Evelyn Waugh, “Love in the Slump,” Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (London: Chapman and Hall, 1936), p. 167. Subsequently this story, “Incident in Azania,” and “Out of Depth” disappeared from the canon in Waugh's later collections, Work Suspended and Other Stories Written Before the Second World War (London: Chapman and Hall, 1949), and Tactical Exercise (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1954).

  9. John Bull, April 2, 1932, p. 7.

  10. Evelyn Waugh, “Too Much Tolerance,” John Bull, May 21, 1932, p. 24.

  11. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (London: Chapman and Hall, 1965), p. 101.

  12. The same social truth is enunciated in “Winner Takes All,” written in July, 1935, in which the elder son consistently receives the benefit of the younger's efforts. Waugh obviously remembered his father's label of Alec as “the heir of Underhill.” See Alec Waugh, My Brother Evelyn and Other Portraits (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), p. 164.

  13. Letter to A. D. Peters, February 15, 1933.

  14. Waugh, “Fan-Fare,” p. 58.

  15. Mr. Loveday's Little Outing, p. 136.

Frances Donaldson (review date 1982)

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SOURCE: “Old Young Waugh,” in The New York Times, November 14, 1982, p. 25.

[In the following review of Charles Ryder's School Days and Other Stories, Donaldson states that while the collection is of mixed quality, “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing,” and “Bella Fleace Gives a Party” deserve praise.]

There is a story told by Max Beerbohm of how, on his way to his club to find a review that contained a new story by Henry James, he ran into the great man himself. James asked him to accompany him to some art exhibition and instinctively Beerbohm refused. Trying to decide afterwards why he had done so, he came to the conclusion that even for the company of the Master, he could not bear to delay the anticipated pleasure of reading his story.

When asked to review Charles Ryder's Schooldays, a volume including a manuscript by Evelyn Waugh found in his agent's office a couple of years ago and 11 short stories, including an alternative ending to A Handful of Dust, I accepted in something of the spirit of Beerbohm. In spite of a pile of manuscripts overdue for delivery lying on my own desk, I could not wait to lay hands on this splendid trophy. And when I received the book and found that the 11 stories had been published in England many years ago in the collections Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Work Suspended, I still felt rather as someone might who was called upon to review Pride and Prejudice or, if that pushes it too far, the “Just So Stories.”

For in England we have accepted the notion that Evelyn Waugh has passed the tests, whatever they are, that ensure posterity. Nine out of ten Englishmen, asked which of our mid-20th-century authors will survive, are likely to reply, “Well, Evelyn Waugh … Graham Greene …,” and only offer differing opinions with the third choice.

All these stories were written, when Waugh was young and belong to the mood that produced Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. Some are mere idle fancies, such as “Cruise” the letters of a very 1920-ish girl on a sea voyage—and “On Guard”—the tale of Millicent Blake, who possessed a nose that, although not one to appeal to painters, was one “to take the thoughts of English manhood back to its schooldays, to the doughy-faced urchins on whom it had squandered its first affections, to memories of changing room and chapel and battered straw hats.” But at least two, “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing” and “Bella Fleace Gave a Party,” are the stuff of which anthologies are made.

The first is the story of the inmate of a mental hospital who, after many years of sane, even saintly, behavior, is allowed to leave. It is told with the gently satirical interest in aristocratic society and in mental hospitals that Waugh retained all his life, but there liews in ambush one of the most shocking denouements in English literature. The second, “Bella Fleace,” is said to have been taken from a real-life incident and is a perfect vehicle for the writer's power of observation, for his ability to draw character in one or two lines of dialogue and for a melancholy humor as well as wit.

I would not have it thought that the stories themselves are any the worse for being reprints. Indeed, if, as the publishers tell us, they appeared before in America only in a limited edition in 1936, it is a great service to make them freely available. And so we come to the title fragment. It is not in any sense a sequel to Brideshead Revisited, which would be a resumption or continuation of the story; this is an account of an earlier period in the life of the narrator, Charles Ryder. What seems to have happened is that the pages were originally written as part of Brideshead but cut as inappropriate to that book. Then, after the enormous success of the novel in America, Waugh took it up again with a view to continuing it differently. It is not difficult to understand why he finally abandoned the task, because it seems to offer no scope for development. The hero makes no close relationships, and nothing is disclosed about him that seems intended to lead one on.

What remains is simply a glimpse of a few days in the life of and English public school, and, I am told by someone with experience of one, an absolutely authentic view. Undisguisedly set at Lancing, Waugh's own school, it gives, with the minimum of direct description but by narration and the use of dialogue, a picture of the terrible heartlessness of young boys in gangs. By the smallest touches we are told much about the individual characteristics of several of them, as well as of one of the masters and of Charles Ryder. Of the last, it can be said that his hobbies are much like Waugh's own and that there is a coldness, a separateness, in his relationships with other people that exceeds the normal qualities of youth. That is all, but it is enough, and for those who know Waugh's work well, the new edition can be recommended for the Charles Ryder fragment alone.

Anatole Broyard (review date 1982)

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SOURCE: “Books of the Times,” in The New York Times, November 22, 1982, p. 16.

[In the following review of Charles Ryder's Schooldays and Other Stories, Broyard finds the work completely without merit.]

With the exception of Put Out More Flags, I think I've liked all of Evelyn Waugh's fiction, and so it saddens me to report that Charles Ryder's School Days and Other Stories, most of which were published in a limited edition in 1936, is not very good.

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the difference between Waugh at his best and worst is the piece called “By Special Request,” which is an alternative ending to A Handful of Dust. At the end of that novel, Tony Last was disillusioned by the affair of his wife, Brenda, with a man named Beaver, and he went off on a trip to South America, where he was held prisoner in the jungle by an illiterate old man who forced him to read Dickens aloud, over and over again, presumably to the end of his life.

For reasons he doesn't give, Mr. Waugh chose to tamper with that unimprovable ending. In “By Special Request,” Tony merely goes on an idle cruise to places like Haiti and returns home to find that Brenda has been abandoned by Beaver and wishes to give up her flat in London and to live again with Tony in the country. She insists on his canceling the lease on the flat, but unknown to her, Tony decides to keep it. The implicit assumption is that the once-serious and austere Tony is planning to have affairs there himself—unless he means to throw Brenda out or to keep it for her next affair.

The tone of “By Special Request” reminds me of Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays. Tony and Brenda are confined to half-thoughts expressed in self-consciously flat, simple declarative sentences. If the ending is pregnant, it's not a very promising pregnancy, for in each of the possible uses of the flat, both Tony and Brenda lose interest as characters. The available ironies are not significant enough to animate the flatness of the passages between Tony and Brenda.

“Charles Ryder's School Days” is, according to the book jacket, “a recently discovered sketch about the early life and family background of Charles Ryder, the nostalgic hero of Brideshead Revisited.” What this piece comes down to, though, is an incomprehensible fuss about who is elected to the Settle, some sort of honorific club in the university; who is head of the dormitory; who is keen on whom, and why a character named Apthorpe is moved from the lower anteroom to the upper anteroom.

The first story in the book, which gave the earlier edition its title, Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories, is an absolutely predictable piece about a mild-mannered man, who, after having strangled a young woman in his youth, has passed 35 years in a mental hospital, where he has become so sane, useful and well loved that he is generally taken for an exceptional guard rather than a patient. When someone secures his release, it takes no great effort to imagine the first thing he does.

“Cruise” is a series of semiliterate letters written by a debutante traveling with her parents. It must have been a very dark day in Evelyn Waugh's life when he wrote it. “Period Piece,” an elderly woman's account of an ancient and humorless quarrel between two now-dead men seems gratuitous at best. “On Guard” is an excruciatingly cute story about a dog and a young woman. […]

“Winner Takes All” is one of those infernal older-brother versus-younger-brother stories peculiar to the English. In this one, a scheming mother steals all the younger brother's accomplishments for the older one. Waugh's irony here seems to be suffering from something like mental fatigue. Believe it or not, there's also a story about a mad and reclusive old woman who spends her last penny on a magnificent ball and forgets to mail the invitations.

So we have the melancholy spectacle of one of the century's best authors writing badly. Reading Charles Ryder's School Days is like visiting an old friend who's out of sorts. In Evelyn Waugh's work, such occasions are very rare.

Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Waugh Reshapes ‘Period Piece,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 65–8.

[In the following essay, Davis argues that a comparison of the original typescript and the final version of Waugh's frame story “Period Piece” reveals that his revisions, extended the story and added depth and resonance to it.]

Evelyn Waugh's story “Period Piece” is one of his most complex in narrative method—it uses a frame tale, a narratee, and a literary and social context in which the most cynical narrative and social monstrosities are accepted as the norm—and one of his most interesting thematically, for it anticipates by a quarter of a century the resolution of the dynastic plot of Sword of Honour. Furthermore, it is the only Waugh short story for which a manuscript or typescript has been discovered, and a comparison of carbon typescript and printed versions shows how carefully Waugh reconsidered questions of style, character, and narrative strategy.

In the frame tale, Miss Myers reads to her employer, Lady Amelia, a work of “strong” modern fiction. Lady Amelia finds the novel anemic, “painfully reticent,” and unduly concerned with vulgar probability, and she offers in contrast an anecdote from her experience that comprises the central section of “Period Piece.” In that story, Billy Cornphillip, wealthy and dull, marries the would-be artistic Etty, to the distress of Ralph Bland, his nearest relative, presumptive heir, and attractive sponger on women. Billy and Etty produce no heir, but after an escalating series of quarrels between the two men, Ralph elopes with Etty, impregnates and abandons her, and leaves her to return to her husband, who accepts the situation and the child who is legally if not genetically his heir, dispossessing Ralph and his legitimate son.

The twelve pages of carbon typescript—titled “The Case of Lord Cornphillip” and provided, as the stamp shows, by the long-suffering “ALEX McLACHLAN, Literary Typecopying Specialist,” whom Waugh used from the early 1930's until McLachlan's death in 1946—vary from the text in Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories1 in a number of significant ways. Judging from Waugh's letter to his agents about October 3, 1936, the story had not yet been published even though it is elsewhere dated 1934.2 As was often the case, Waugh obviously sought between typescript and publication greater precision and economy in language; he rearranged the order in which events were narrated to make it more logical; he deleted extraneous material; and he added details to strengthen the narrator's link to events and to emphasize her casual, aristocratic brutality.

Waugh's stylistic revisions are best exemplified in his treatment of the quarrel between Lord Billy Cornphillip and his cousin and heir Ralph (in typescript Harry) Bland:


Coming as it did towards the end of a large and gloomy Christmas party this remark could not be disregarded or forgotten. It made the first serious breach between the two cousins. … There is no limit to the extremes to which they [relatives] will go.

“Period Piece”

It was towards the end of a large and rather old-fashioned Christmas party, so no one was in a forgiving mood. There was a final breach between the two cousins. … There is no limit to the savagery to which they will resort.


“Savagery” and “resort” are more precise and emphatic than the words replaced, and the ironic assumption that “old-fashioned” means disastrous strengthens the more obvious contrast between Christmas and implacable resentment.

Revisions of structure are a bit more complex. Because Lady Amelia's narrative is reminiscent and expository rather than dramatic, Waugh was not forced to rely on chronology as a structural principle, and in typescript he made several false steps. Thus in a passage corresponding to pp. 57–58 of “Period Piece,” he originally introduced Bland before he had finished explaining the circumstances which led to Billy's marriage and his wife Etty's reaction to his dullness. In revision, Waugh first established the context of the marriage and then described the intruder Bland. And after Bland has failed to secure a seat in Parliament, the typescript turned to Etty's growing dissatisfaction with Billy before describing Bland's paranoia which leads him to elope with her in revenge. “Period Piece” puts the mania first, then Etty's dissatisfaction, then the elopement. Since Ralph initiates the action, this order is more logical.

Waugh also recognized the blunting of emphasis by unnecessary detail in the typescript. In the final paragraphs of the story, Lady Amelia mentions the occasion on which the present Lord Cornphillip learned that he is Bland's, not Billy's son. Both in typescript and printed text, her nephew Simon reveals the information, but the typescript gives his motive, a quarrel about capital punishment. Waugh clearly saw that the topic was irrelevant to the theme, and the final text merely mentions the revelation.

More important, on two other occasions Waugh deleted material about the fate of Bland. The typescript introduced him with Lady Amelia's memory of her last sight of him playing for minimum stakes at Monte Carlo. In “Period Piece,” she does not “know what became of him” (58). Having dropped from polite society, the revision implies, he no longer exists for people of her circle. Later, in presenting Bland's parliamentary campaign, Billy's “accusation against Ralph of corrupt practices,” and Bland's loss of his seat, both typescript and printed text establish that the campaign is more expensive than Bland's means allow. The typescript summarizes the aftermath, including Harry's bankruptcy and the Queen's displeasure at Billy's behavior; “Period Piece” moves directly from Ralph's losing his seat to his developing paranoia.

However, Waugh augmented where he saw the opportunity. The typescript states that the campaign was “more in fact than Harry could well afford” and ends the sentence there. “Period Piece” continues: “but in those days Members of Parliament had many opportunities for improving their position, so we all thought it a very wise course of Ralph's—the first really sensible thing we had known him to do” (61–62). In the printed story, therefore, Billy has not merely cost Ralph money but ruined his prospects of gaining more, additional motive for Ralph's sense of grievance.

Other additions after typescript seem to be intended to establish Lady Amelia's narrative authority, especially those about Etty's wedding announcement and Lady Amelia's serving as a bridesmaid (57, 58). Others emphasize the callousness with which she accepts the events she narrates and her aristocratic brutality towards her companion, Miss Myers. Near the beginning of the story, after Miss Myers has commented that the author of the novel she is reading aloud “must have come from a terrible home,” the typescript makes the transition to Lady Amelia's reminiscence about her own circle by her characterizing them as “people who come from the most unexceptionable homes,” delivering the judgment “with a sharp glance at her companion.” The printed text picks up Miss Myers' unfortunate phrase and adds a simile which underlines, especially by the use of “ivory,” the rebuke at her unconscious presumption in criticizing her betters, who are “‘people who come from anything but terrible homes,’ she added with a glance at her companion; a glance sharp and smart as a rap on the knuckles with an ivory ruler” (55).

More subtle is the revision of Lady Amelia's bullying of her companion at the end of her narrative, signalled both in typescript and printed text by the arrival of the tea-tray:


You will have plenty of time for your tea, Miss Myers. The library does not close until six o'clock.

“Period Piece”

… I see that Mrs. Samson has made more of those little scones which you always seem to enjoy so much. I am sure, dear Miss Myers, you would suffer much less from your migraine if you avoided them. But you take so little care of yourself, dear Miss Myers … Give one to Manchu.


The typescript sought to impose symmetry by returning at the end to the subject of the beginning: Lady Amelia's taste for novels. The revision assumes her moral rather than her social superiority to Miss Myers, and with its subtle parallel of her diet with the self-indulgence of Ralph Bland, makes both the authors of their own misfortunes and emphasizes the polite rapaciousness which Billy and Lady Amelia share beneath the façade of manners. The fact that Manchu is a dog and casually given that which Miss Myers should deny herself is an added fillip.

Waugh's revisions added to, if they did not entirely create, what depth and resonance the story has, and they show that his sense of craftsmanship extended to a story that by comparison with his novels he considered minor. Obviously his repeated advice to Nancy Mitford was the result of long practice: “No more complaints about headaches. Revision is just as important as any other part of writing and must be done con amore.”3


  1. Mr. Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (London: Chapman and Hall, 1936), p. 55. This edition cited parenthetically hereafter.

  2. For the letter and a physical description of the typescript, see my A Catalogue of the Evelyn Waugh Collection at the Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin (Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing Company, 1981), items E296, A13. The story is dated 1934 in Tactical Exercise (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954). No periodical publication has been discovered.

  3. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Amory (New Haven and New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1980), p. 347.

Jerome Meckier (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Evelyn Waugh's ‘Ryder by Gaslight’: A Postmortem,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 399–409.

[In the following essay, Meckier posits that, although “Ryder by Gaslight” is well-written, Waugh was correct not to publish it.]

Truly posthumous writings, by the author himself, raise different questions than writings about him issued after his death.1 One could ask, for example, which, if any, of the strictly posthumous materials—letters, diaries, and a chapter of Charles Ryder's Schooldays—did Waugh wish succeeding generations to see?2 “Ryder by Gaslight” poses subtler problems than the diaries or letters: namely, does one help or hinder a novelist's growing posthumous reputation by printing a story he seems to have considered a misfire?

Michael Sissons, who gave “Ryder by Gaslight” to the Times Literary Supplement, conjectures that Waugh never went on with the story because “the time wasn't ripe” or else A. D. Peters, his literary agent, talked him out of proceeding.3 Be that as it may, Waugh, by not printing the piece, was consigning it to oblivion with a deliberateness impossible for him to exert upon his diaries and letters. Taking up the matter of posthumous writings, therefore, means behaving as Waugh's literary executor.

In the case of the only chapter about Ryder's schooldays that Waugh finished, one can hardly tell where executory mandate ends and exhumation begins. Time magazine clearly had strong reservations about the story when it first appeared in print, thirty-seven years after Waugh abandoned it. The title of its notice—“A Stillborn Son of Brideshead”—put the blame on Waugh's errant midwifery. Instead, one should fault the resurrection men of the Peters Agency. Sissons, its managing director, describes how Chapter One “dropped” out of an office file on Waugh. As in the Time review, there is the suggestion of a birth. Better to say the opening segment has been forcibly recalled to a posthumous life Waugh never intended it to lead.

As an unpublished fragment, “Ryder by Gaslight” testifies not so much to Waugh's talent as to his sound judgment. His decision to suspend work on the novel and bury the only completed chapter probably ought not to have been reversed. The question to ask concerning Charles Ryder's Schooldays is not whether Waugh wished posterity to have any part of it, but why he clearly hoped it would not.

Even the popularity of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh must quickly have realized, could not carry Charles Ryder's Schooldays to glory. On the contrary, it would have worked against it, the inevitable comparison unveiling the latter's deficiencies. Branding the only existing episode a “twit's guide” to British schoolboy slang, as Time's reviewer went on to do, is surely unfair, but not entirely. The fragment dwells on what Ryder himself calls “the trivial round of House politics.” Who should be on the Settle? Do library privileges need to be extended? What are the niceties of a public school hierarchy in late September 1919? These were not subjects to enthrall a general audience, especially not the American readers of Brideshead Revisited, who had just made the author an international best-seller.

The most that can be said for “Ryder by Gaslight” is that the chapter is remarkably compact and well written. It covers events from September 24, 1919, through the 27th, four days at the beginning of term for a third-year boy in the Classical Upper Fifth at Spierpoint, a school much like Waugh's Lancing. Waugh blends dramatized events, which move forward almost entirely in dialogue, with Charles's reflections on them as they are happening and then, in retrospect, in his diary. An effective flashback to Charles's second term relates his reception of the news of his mother's death. One also savors a vignette of Ryder's father: he stops reading family prayers in August of 1914 on grounds that “there was nothing left to pray for.”

Despite the high quality of flashback and vignette, however, Waugh had reason to feel uncomfortable, in 1945, about preemptions of his work. In Eyeless in Gaza (1936), Aldous Huxley lingered over the death of Anthony Beavis' mother. He also skillfully satirized John Beavis, the boy's absurdly pedantic father. Much of Huxley's novel relies upon chapter-length excerpts from Beavis' diary, a device the novelist exploits again in the final segment of Time Must Have a Stop (1945), when Sebastian Barnack reviews his notes for a book that will presumably be similar to The Perennial Philosophy.

Four in number, the hero's main experiences in “Ryder by Gaslight” seem intended to prove formative. Charles helps Graves, the new Head, to assemble a small hand printing press, an exercise that excites his artist's sensibility. He disowns his own illumination, by hand, of Ralph Hodgson's “The Bells of Heaven,” indicating thereby a capacity for self-criticism. Defiance of “Dirty Desmond,” who is on the Settle in place of more qualified aspirants, gets Ryder and his accomplices caned. Most important, Charles lends his prestige by signing Curtis-Dunne's petition for more liberal library privileges, even though this request comes from a younger boy whose eccentricities have made him unpopular. In all four instances, Ryder must reach decisions—ethical, aesthetic, or both—about where to bestow approval and support, just as he will be called upon to do several times in Brideshead Revisited. In disobeying Desmond O'Malley, a prototype for Hooper, Charles achieves a moral victory over upstarts, unsuited for authority. He also rejects the liberal attitude of the new Head, who believes power will improve O'Malley's weak character.

Unfortunately, Ryder's experience of injustice scarcely matches Stephen Dedalus' first taste of it when struck across the palms by Father Dolan's pandybat. Joyce overwrites the crisis in Chapter One of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He suggests both the hero's genuine dismay and his own realization, upon looking back at his younger self, that the punishment, despite being undeserved and eye-opening about the world, was not the catastrophe it seemed at the time. Having Ryder report on recent events in his diary seems less inventive than Joyce's double perspective. Ryder is older at Spierpoint than Dedalus at Clongowes Wood College, but his aesthetic sense and potential for heroism do not burgeon as impressively. If Waugh's point is that Charles's English schooldays are more realistic than Stephen's in Dublin, the latter still make the better story.

One passage in “Ryder by Gaslight” has frequently been singled out for praise by reviewers. Unfortunately, Ryder's crucial declaration of independence seems mishandled. Charles signs Curtis-Dunne's petition because

today and all this term he was aware of a new voice in his inner counsels, a detached, critical Hyde who intruded his presence more and more often on the conventional, intolerant, subhuman, wholly respectable Dr. Jekyll; a voice, as it were, from a more civilized age, as from the chimney corner in mid-Victorian times there used to break sometimes the sardonic laughter of grandmama, relic of Regency, a clear, outrageous, entirely self-assured disturber among the high and muddled thoughts of her whiskered descendants.

This “new voice” is clearly as important to Ryder as “the voice” of rocks, woods, and mountain torrents that a “gentle shock of mild surprise” carries into the heart of the boy of Winander. But that boy is obviously the Wordsworth who will write “Tintern Abbey,” whereas Waugh, not Ryder, becomes a major satirist; he, not the Ryder of Brideshead Revisited, speaks out as the “self-assured disturber,” a “voice … from a more civilized age.”

Waugh depicts the “disturber,” who is actually civilization's ultimate defense, as a second or secret self and then as a “sardonic” old lady. Individually, the images seem unattractive, only marginally appropriate. Nor do they complement each other very well. The “relic of Regency” can still puncture Victorian pretense but has been pushed to one side unceremoniously. Ryder, by contrast, is just starting out. It will not do to liken the fledgling satirist to an old crone.

Jekyll's split personality makes a dubious model for a model schoolboy, even one beginning to realize that he harbors a rebel within. Hyde is vile and violent rather than “detached” or “critical.” Alluding to Stevenson's “Strange Case” is less efficacious than having an “old artificer” stand for soaring creativity. When Dedalus rebels, he identifies with Lucifer, who was splendid and majestic, at least until the moment of disobedience. When Stephen sees himself as Satan, Joyce preserves the note of mock-heroic self-inflation first sounded in the martyrdom scene with Father Dolan. Waugh accepts Ryder's view of himself as Hyde uncritically. As the debased half of Jekyll's dual nature, Hyde is simian, dwarfish, and seemingly deformed. He, not Jekyll, is “subhuman.” Since Hyde proves increasingly difficult for the doctor to repress, he cannot emblematize an inner voice whose volume Waugh thinks Ryder would be wise to raise.

Waugh had already chronicled Ryder's more important schooldays in the Oxford episodes of “Et in Arcadia Ego.”4 Many consider these the best part of Brideshead Revisited. Waugh's reluctance to continue Charles Ryder's Schooldays can be attributed to its having been precluded not only by other modern novelists but by the author himself.

Brideshead Revisited was already a bildungsroman. In Ryder's case, however, the child does not prove father to the man. Waugh challenges the premise upon which traditional novels of growth and development generally rest. Instead, the profane is prelude to the sacred. Sebastian serves as Charles's conductor to Julia and she, in turn, conducts him to God. The novel's thesis about providential signs and forerunners, a combination of typology and teleology, reverses the process of secularization Waugh maintained had ruined the Western world. It also shows Ryder to be superior as a sign-reader to Dedalus. In Ulysses, the latter contends that artists like himself are born to read the “Signatures” in all things.5 As Waugh's picture of an artist who converts to Catholicism, Ryder parodies the alleged progress of Joyce's famous aesthete. This made it unnecessary, if not impossible, for “Ryder by Gaslight” to compete effectively with Portrait of the Artist.

Having encountered the wading girl in Joyce's climactic fourth chapter, Dedalus forsakes his family's faith and the possibility of priesthood. He dedicates himself to the celebration in art of profane, earthly beauty, which the apparition of the girl, virtually a replay of the Annunciation, providentially symbolizes. Thanks to Julia, Ryder's journey takes him from art to the faith Dedalus resigned. A “rider” means, among other things, an amendment. Waugh tries to amend what he considered Joyce's unfounded jubilation over Dedalus' moment of purely secular self-realization. His declaration of faith in the worthwhileness of an exclusively temporal order, Waugh objects, cannot turn out to be genuinely salvific.

After completing “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Waugh says that he “wanted to discover how the prisoner” at Chez Todd “got there.”6 He wrote his fourth novel as a way of finding out, using the already published story as Chapter Six. It became the conclusion to A Handful of Dust, the finest of the early novels. Inquiring how Ryder reached Oxford, how he schooled himself for the all-important contacts that would lead him from the profane to the sacred or, better, from the first to a perception of the second at work in it, would have been unoriginal. Waugh would have produced a positive yet less compelling variation on his earlier success.

For Waugh to ask how Ryder passed from Spierpoint to Oxford and Brideshead was the wrong interrogative. It was right to be curious about prior events in the case of a man like Tony Last. His plight constitutes a dead end and was designed for a novel that underscores precisely that point about secular humanism. Ryder's future, not his past, demanded further examination. What would become of the thesis about life illustrated by someone like Ryder, not how had his life gone before it describes the circle that brings him back to Brideshead—that was the real question. In 1951, as Waugh began writing Men at Arms, he was undertaking the first of three novels that form the true sequel to Brideshead Revisited.

Waugh never resumed the Ryder project because, having fretted for six years since setting it aside,7 he finally had a better idea. Subsequent events confirmed his decision. In 1951 Anthony Powell published A Question of Upbringing, volume one in the first of four sequential trilogies. Opening scenes at Eton outdo those at Spierpoint as thoroughly as Widmerpool eclipses “Dirty Desmond.” Powell's obnoxious upstart precludes whatever uses Waugh might have had for O'Malley as a threat to traditional standards for determining excellence and advancement. If Waugh did not feel preempted by Huxley and Joyce, he would definitely have been upstaged by Powell. On the other hand, by pushing ahead with Men at Arms, Waugh staked out ground Powell would not reach until The Valley of Bones (volume seven) in 1964.

Charles Ryder's Schooldays was not discarded because Waugh shrank from in-depth self-presentation. Admittedly, he preferred deflection to what Holden Caulfield calls “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”8 But Sword of Honour indicates that he was not averse to the sort of intellectual autobiography Dickens practiced in Great Expectations or Voltaire in Candide. Satirists generally choose indirection when it comes to autobiography: stories that trace growth or change in their philosophical outlook. Indirection serves as a means of securing objectivity, hence of maintaining a uniformly satirical tone.

Candide is hardly Voltaire any more than Pip is Dickens. Yet in each case the young man's intellectual odyssey from a ridiculous optimism to a saner retrenchment of it clearly resembles the author's. “Ryder by Gaslight” is the David Copperfield Waugh decided not to write. Like Great Expectations,Sword of Honour records substantial revisions of its author's previous attitudes. These are found to have been too romantic and must be heavily revised if they are to be salvaged.

Guy Crouchback is the idea behind Ryder extended, reconsidered, and then, even though one hates to use the word, partially deconstructed. His story is Waugh's sober-minded reappraisal of the thesis Ryder encounters in the real world: that one can still “trace the workings of the divine purpose in a pagan world.”9 Crouchback wonders if one can cooperate with it heroically and, going further, presumes to direct it. As Guy's surname suggests from the start, however, the hypothesis controlling Brideshead Revisited has to be modified, especially in light of England's acceptance of Stalinist Russia as an ally against Germany. This development caused Waugh much personal disappointment. Pressure from turns being taken by World War II was breaking in upon Waugh's confidence about determining divine workings even as he wrote to express it. That may help to explain the surfeit of nostalgia in Brideshead Revisited.

Like other modern satirical novelists, Waugh ends his career probing the validity of his own solution to the state of affairs his earlier work spent most of its energy deploring. Sword of Honour tests the realism of Brideshead Revisited in ways no account of Ryder's schooldays could have. It reinvestigates the credibility of a providential supervision for temporal concerns as a solution to the human situation. It does so as sharply as Waugh once tested the persuasiveness of Dickens' Victorian humanism against Tony Last's misadventures throughout A Handful of Dust.10

Despite the epical dimensions of Sword of Honour, Waugh has great difficulty explaining God's ways to Guy. Dickens and Wilkie Collins experienced fewer problems in tracing providential designs for the benefit of their protagonists. Box-Bender resentfully notes that Guy's happiness with Domenica Plessington and Trimmer's son “turned out very conveniently” for him.11 He ought to have said the outcome was providential without being spectacularly so. Waugh manages to preserve for modern fiction a sense of extraterrestrial superintendence, but only by curtailing expectations Victorian novelists had of benefits to be derived from it. Sword of Honour makes clearer than Brideshead Revisited had that recognizing God's hand in men's affairs can be a humbling experience.

God's providence, Waugh wants to emphasize, is both more demanding and less glamorous than Joyce's secularization of it. This involves a concession that Waugh's own treatment in Brideshead Revisited was too melodramatic. Waugh sent Ryder such signs as Sebastian and Julia in succession. He also allowed him to witness the twitch on the thread that pulls a dying Lord Marchmain back into the fold. Waugh put providential care in a context it was often taxing for recipients of its attentions to accept joyously. Marchmain's deathbed repentance, for example, costs Julia her scheduled marriage to Ryder. But Waugh was still not sufficiently removed from the misconception of providence as gratification of an individual's desires. This is the sort of kindness that supplied the wading girl for a Dedalus who had been anxious, since his schooldays, “to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.”12 As a bildungsroman, Charles Ryder's Schooldays would have been obliged to build toward ego-fulfillment for its protagonist. Waugh would have found this inconvenient at a time when, having shown Marchmain and Julia giving in to God, he may have felt obliged to scrutinize further the merits of submission, not of self-assertion.

Dedalus elects to serve earthly beauty in his art as a means of saying “non serviam” to Church and State alike. Guy's insistence that the war with Germany become a modern crusade sounds commendable but is actually his way of refusing to serve God. Crouchback wants his will to be done, his view of things to prevail, not God's. Guy's military career can be called a form of apostasy; it is not just a belated example of the delusion, common in the politically oriented Thirties, that one attains a kind of salvation through immersion in larger causes.

Carlyle never ceased to regard events such as the French Revolution as divine punishments that descend on unjust nations for their crimes. This idea of providence also pervades Victorian masterpieces of melodramatic realism, particularly Bleak House and The Woman in White. Guy eventually rebukes himself for trying to convert war against Germany into a campaign against godlessness in the modern world. Such a framework, Waugh concedes, fails to apply, not because it is now a “pagan world” but because such heretical overviews are an attempt to explain God's ways to God Himself. Tracing divine purposes, Guy realizes, often means detecting the wisdom in whatever God sends.

Crouchback's role becomes virtually a parody of the more heroic mission he would like to have performed. Instead of rescuing Mme Kanyi and her people, he will, to quote Waugh's words, “rescue Trimmer's son from a disastrous upbringing.”13 In place of Guy's grandiose, overlying pattern for international events and Ryder's belief in twitches from God for even the most recalcitrant, Waugh draws back to offer a lesser thesis: “that God creates no man without a special purpose,”14 provided he schools himself to see and accept it.

Crouchback's story is not just a failed attempt to enhance the thesis illustrated by Ryder's; one could argue that it tones down Helena as well. Resolving to obtain proofs of the historicity of the Crucifixion seems no less ambitious than wanting to orchestrate the defeat of godlessness in the modern age. Helena experiences miraculous confirmation that the pilgrimage she undertakes is indeed God's errand. Without vital directions from the Wandering Jew, who addresses her in a dream, Helena would not find her relics. The Jew makes an odd but effective equivalent for the wading girl, the providential messenger or living signpost provided for Dedalus. But Sword of Honour is the real continuation of Brideshead Revisited. In Helena, Waugh casts back into classical antiquity for a semi-historical, mostly legendary example of the sort of providential direction for human endeavor he would like to write about in the modern world. Difficulties Waugh had in finishing Helena—it took him five years—must have filled him with foreboding.

Waugh's recension of Sword of Honour in 1966 from a trilogy to a novel as long as Pickwick Papers or Bleak House is a revision of a revision of Brideshead Revisited. First, Guy's role was cut back to saving Trimmer's son instead of the world. In the recension, Waugh retrenches further by deleting two boys Guy fathered by Domenica. Crouchback tastes victory only in the form of ignominious defeat for a mistaken ideal, his and Waugh's own overestimate of the divine purpose's operations. The pattern was set when the Messiah, executed as a common criminal, accomplished the rescue of each man's soul but not, as many had foolishly hoped, of the Jewish Empire from the Romans.

The recension puts the “workings of the divine purpose” in a more modest perspective. Waugh decides that countless “workings” go on constantly in the profane world. He finds no single “purpose” to redeem the world itself, however, no master plan for national salvation, in Guy's sense of the term, and no clearly pinpointed moments of intercession to bolster the individual's faith, as happens in Ryder's case and Helena's. Instead, Guy must toil past a series of false signs or messengers, bogus forerunners, some of whom are parodies of him and his inapplicable ideals: Apthorpe, Ritchie-Hook, Trimmer, Ivor Claire, and Ludovic. Guy finally discovers a legitimate messenger and model in the last place that Dedalus, in search of Bloom, would ever have looked. He falls back upon his own saintly, unobtrusive father.15 Absence of a master plan for saving the world by means of World War II is part of the elder Crouchback's meaning when he discounts “Quantitative judgements.”16

In Sword of Honour, the secular arena is once again an object of unrelenting derision, and the errant hope of proving that it can be resanctified becomes still another target. Writing in the 1960s, Waugh finds modern secular society just as purposeless, just as circular, as it appeared in Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. The crucial difference is that it is also a place in which, through a multitude of different ways and less ostentatiously than Ryder or Helena imagine, some individuals work out their salvation. Often they do so by learning, as does Guy, not to engage the world beyond a certain point.

Ensconced in the agent's house at Broome, Guy, with his second wife and Trimmer's son, establishes a pocket of sanity. Superficially, it is not unlike Mr. Pickwick's withdrawal to Dulwich after emerging, sadly disillusioned, from the Fleet. But Waugh's is clearly the more religious resolution. Dickens' secular Edens, surrogates or facsimiles of the real thing, invariably serve as final resting places; they become ends in themselves. Waugh's never take seriously the idea of the City of God as a temporal phenomenon. As did Huxley, who collapses Pala in Island, Waugh contends that a religious solution to the human situation has to be personal, never society-wide or national.

The protagonist of “Ryder by Gaslight” is at a much earlier stage in the struggle between participation in the world and recusancy; he is only beginning to contemplate what forms of service to render and which to withhold or refuse. Waugh apparently found this stage interesting to recall in 1945, but he must have realized it would have been a step backward for him as a thinking novelist, indeed an escape from responsibility. No matter how long Ryder's schooldays lasted, his emerging image of himself as a rebel (“detached,” “outrageous”) would have been insurmountable. It would have prevented him from learning to appreciate beauty and heroic humility in the necessity of Guy's surrendering unconditionally to God's will.17

Waugh's career as a satirical novelist need not have been over in 1966 with the revision of Sword of Honour into a single novel. Although resignation appears to have replaced indignation (the “self-assured disturber”), death makes it impossible to say what might otherwise have happened. Waugh took nearly a decade to round off the trilogy, six of those years between volumes two and three. This suggests he had great difficulty scaling down his former conception of the “divine purpose.” It was harder to do than fashioning Helena as a trial version of a person who discerns remarkable coincidence between the task she elects and the “special purpose” for which she was created. The two form a painful discrepancy for Crouchback. One thing seems certain: Waugh could never have resumed Charles Ryder's Schooldays once he finished The End of the Battle. To do so would have been to return to 1919 as though nothing had happened in the meantime. This would have been more duplicitous than Pennyfeather's return to Scone as his own cousin.

In at least two ways, “Ryder by Gaslight,” more so than diaries or letters, confirms the growing estimate of Waugh as one of the century's foremost satirical novelists. Not the lesser of these ways is by its evident inferiority to the incomparable novels Waugh chose to pursue to their close. On several of these, to mention the second way, a postmortem shows that “Ryder by Gaslight” can shed light.18


  1. Bruce Stovel, on the other hand, defines “posthumous material” broadly enough to encompass reprintings of Waugh's journalism, checklists of holdings at the Humanities Research Center, and studies of additions and deletions Waugh made to his novels in manuscript. See “Waugh at Play,” Ariel, 14 (July 1983), 60–81.

  2. The editor of Waugh's letters exonerates himself for collecting them but impugns Mark Davies, who published the diaries. Waugh allegedly “foresaw” his letters being issued. See Mark Amory, ed., The Letters of Evelyn Waugh (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), p. vii.

  3. See the Times Literary Supplement for 5 March 1982, pp. 255–58. Waugh apparently worked on the story in September-October of 1945.

  4. When Thomas Hughes followed Tom Brown's scholastic career, he began with the hero's public school life, then moved on to Oxford.

  5. James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1946), p. 38.

  6. See “Fan-Fare” in Life (8 April 1946), p. 58.

  7. Scott-King's Modern Europe,The Loved One, and Helena—all of which were written between Brideshead Revisited and Men at Arms—cannot be dismissed as dereliction of duty. Nevertheless, they are, among other things, postponements of it. Waugh worked on “Ryder by Gaslight” and Helena simultaneously, putting the former aside first, then delaying to complete the latter until 1950.

  8. J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (New York: Signet Books, 1959), p. 5.

  9. Waugh's declaration of theme appeared on the inside flap of the dust jacket for Brideshead Revisited. It is reprinted in Martin Stannard, ed., Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 236.

  10. See Jerome Meckier, “Why the Man Who Liked Dickens Reads Dickens Instead of Conrad: Waugh's A Handful of Dust,Novel, 13 (Winter 1980), 171–87.

  11. Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966), p. 796.

  12. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Viking, 1958), p. 65.

  13. Waugh provides this statement as part of a succinct summary of the controlling ideas at work in the war trilogy. The summary appears on a card addressed to W. J. Igoe for 4 August 1961. See Letters, p. 571.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Waugh's most pointed remarks about Joyce follow closely upon completion of the war trilogy. Waugh told Julian Jebb (April 1962) that Joyce “started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.” See “Evelyn Waugh” in Writers at Work (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), pp. 110–11. It is not clear how much direction Waugh gave Frederick J. Stopp for Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist (1958), but he must have relished the title. Rather than alluding to Joyce, it suggests Waugh is the archetypal artist.

  16. Waugh, Sword of Honour, p. 699.

  17. Unconditional Surrender was the title of the third and final volume in the trilogy now known as Sword of Honour, where it gives its name to Chapter Eleven.

  18. A version of this essay was presented at the special Waugh session on his posthumous writings during the 1984 meeting of the Modern Language Association in Washington, D.C.

Martin Stannard (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: In Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903–1939, W. W. Norton & Company, 1986, pp. 114–19, 296–99, 344–49.

[In the following excerpt, Stannard discusses some of the short stories as they relate to Waugh's development as a writer and his career as a novelist.]

The ‘novel’ which had begun as a ‘cinema film’ was knocked into shape as a long, avant-garde short story. ‘I have finished my story’, [Waugh] noted on 26th August, ‘which I have called “The Balance” and took it to be typed. It is odd but, I think, quite good.’1 Christopher Sykes states that it was, in fact, rather bad. That is unfair. The tale, of course, lacks the accomplished touch of Waugh's later stories and he himself thought it second-rate. It has never been reprinted. But, at the lowest estimate, it is an arresting piece of experimental writing and was recognised as such when it appeared. From a biographical viewpoint it is even more intriguing. As his first sustained attempt at fiction, written during a protracted period of misfortune, completed less than two months after the aborted suicide, it represents an effort (as earlier with ‘Anthony’) to rationalise his disordered life through artistic expression.

‘The Balance’ draws heavily on personal experience. It is the only piece of Waugh's fiction which included the Oxford book auction, the Art School setting or the attempted suicide. Other details—the carelessness of the heroine for the hero's love, the failure as an artist, the pretentious valedictory Latin note and the apparent indifference of his Oxford cronies—can leave us in no doubt. Waugh was summing up his life here.

The ‘balance’ concerned is ‘the balance between appetite and reason’. A bold experiment in narrative technique, the story is for the most part written as a scenario for a silent film about the characters involved. Large captions indicating place, time, and occasionally, dialogue, break up the page and shift the scenes. The characters speak a great deal but this is, presumably, not heard by the audience. Gladys and Ada (a cook and a parlourmaid) and someone ‘with a Cambridge accent’ sit in the stalls offering bemused or arrogantly ‘arty’ comments: ‘These Bo'emians don't'alf carry on, eh, Gladys?’ or ‘It is curious the way that they can never make their heroes and heroines talk like ladies and gentlemen—particularly in moments of emotion.’ The film, the second of four sections, ends with Adam Doure's (the hero's) death by suicide in an Oxford hotel bedroom and the audience leaves uttering banalities. But there follows a ‘Conclusion’ in lucid analytical prose, in which Adam revives from his coma and remembers vomiting ingloriously over the balcony during the night, despite all efforts to hold down his poison.

He takes stock of the situation and recalls an incident when, as a child, he had fallen from a chair balanced precariously at a great height:

Later he learned to regard these periods between his fall and the dismayed advent of help from below, as the first promptings towards that struggle for detachment in which he had not, without almost frantic endeavour, finally acknowledged defeat in the bedroom of the Oxford hotel.

The first phase of detachment had passed and had been succeeded by one of methodical investigation. Almost simultaneously with his acceptance of continued existence had come the conception of pain—vaguely at first as of a melody played by another to which his senses were only fitfully attentive, but gradually taking shape as the tangible objects about him gained in reality, until at length it appeared as a concrete thing, external but intimately attached to himself. Like the pursuit of quicksilver with a spoon, Adam was able to chase it about the walls of his consciousness until at length he drove it into a corner in which he could examine it at his leisure. Still lying perfectly still, with his limbs half embracing the wooden legs of the chair, Adam was able, by concentrating his attention on each part of his body in turn, to exclude the disordered sensations to which his fall had given rise and trace the several constituents of the bulk of pain down their vibrating channels to their sources in his various physical injuries.2

The metaphorical parallel between Waugh's and Adam's new position of detachment is self-explanatory. As Adam walks along the ‘towing path away from Oxford’ he thinks abstractedly of his fellow guests in the hotel that morning:

All around him a macabre dance of shadows had reeled and flickered, and in and out of it Adam had picked his way, conscious only of one insistent need, percolating through to him from the world outside, of immediate escape from the scene upon which this bodiless harlequinade was played, into a third dimension beyond it.3

It is a dangerous and largely futile business attempting to correlate an author's life with incidents in his fiction. Waugh suffered greatly in later years from misguided critics searching for models of his fictional characters. He always insisted, quite rightly, that the good writer created and transformed, never transcribed. But ‘The Balance’ is, perhaps, the most significant exception to this rule in his opus. Indeed, it alluded to autobiographical secrets (such as the attempted suicide) not revealed until the publication of A Little Learning (1964). Quite apart from any aesthetic consideration of the story's technical merit, one of the reasons for his refusal to reprint it must have been the embarrassing intimacy of its subject-matter. It gave too much of himself away. There is a great deal of the young Waugh in Adam Doure and the author's friends must have recognised the correspondence. All the evidence points to the fact that his hero's vision of the world as a ‘bodiless harlequinade’ and his resulting ‘struggle for detachment’ were Waugh's own.

The third section, ‘Conclusion’, ends with a dialogue between Adam and his reflection as he leans over a bridge after the destruction of the suicide note. He has found no secret, it appears, only ‘bodily strength’ in the discovery of the true nature of ‘the balance’, that necessary state of mental equilibrium in a phantasmagoric and unreliable world. Unlike the Romantic and Victorian dilemmas, this is not seen as a balance between ‘life and death’, but between ‘appetite and reason’ in which ‘the reason remains constant’ (but largely ineffectual) and ‘the appetite varies’. The implicit difficulty in this realisation is that appetite has no absolute value as a directing principle; its object achieved, it either ceases to exist or is re-directed and re-defined. Even the appetite for death ‘is appeased by sleep and the passing of time’. There is no ‘reason’, no ‘honour to be observed to friends’, no ‘interpenetration, so that you cannot depart without bearing away with you something that is part of another’. Even Adam's art is only ‘the appetite to live—to preserve in the shapes of things the personality whose dissolution you foresee inevitably’. And in the end ‘circumstance decides’, not the individual. The paradox suggested by this vision is of man simultaneously isolated (‘no interpenetration’) and left without individual identity.

For the artist seeking to depict this dilemma the problem of his own subjectivity generates further complications; he must somehow detach himself from the life he describes while at the same time suggesting that detachment in all but the most superficial respects is impossible. This led to Waugh's use of the film scenario here and largely governed the more subtle stylistic detachment, the apparent comic indifference, of his early novels. They are not flippant, as so many reviewers presumed; quite the reverse.

He became a serious writer as much interested in stylistic innovation as Joyce or Gertrude Stein. He was even concerned with the identical aesthetic problem of developing a new form of literary expression which banished the author's intrusive voice. But there is an essential difference between Waugh and the ‘serious’ avant-garde. Behind all their experiments lies the assumption that there exists a reality, disjointed and cacophonous, but a reality waiting to be described in all its complexity. In ‘The Balance,’ indeed in all Waugh's later work, this assumption is challenged. Circumstance decides but, however accurately observed, these constituent events are not ‘truth’, merely an accurate description of falsehood. Neither man's actions, nor his words, can embody an empirical truth. Circumstance alone decides and, at this stage (1925–6), circumstance is seen as the inadvertent product of collective action.

The last section is entitled ‘Continuation’, the implication being that no conclusion is possible, that the individual, swept along by circumstance, can exert little influence over his condition. The scene is the elegant luncheon table of a country house. The hostess, mother of one of Adam's Oxford friends, has invited all the bright young people of her son's set. They sit about gossiping. Adam has not been invited. He flickers briefly in the conversation and then is extinguished. They pass on to the next trivial issue. Imogen Quest, the heroine, wants desperately to meet a man who is ‘short and dirty with masses of hair’. Throughout the brief interlude there are constant references to the guests smoking at table—something Waugh, with his fastidious manners, found repulsive. The hostess thinks the scene charming and ‘chic’. Waugh offers no authorial comment but the implication is clear enough. He is mocking them. There is a scarcely suppressed rage at their treatment of Adam, a bitter resentment that his ‘reality’, his complex psychological and moral ‘being’, is no more to them than a shadow in a piece of amusing tattle.

At the root of many of Evelyn's complex emotional difficulties, surely, there lay this obsessive fear of enforced anonymity. What happened to Adam must never happen to him. He would not be absorbed into the crowd. In the Diaries of the period we see: ‘This morning a letter from Richard [Greene] telling me that the Greene family are quarrelling with me. I just don't mind. This sort of thing has happened before so often that it has ceased to shock me. I shall have to regard all my friendships as things of three to six months. It makes everything easier.’4

While at work on [Black Mischief] in March 1932, Waugh wrote his story for the John Bull series, eventually entitled ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of Today’. His short advertisement for the tale appeared in April:

Twenty-five years ago it was the fashion for those who considered themselves enlightened and progressive to cry out against intolerance as the one damning sin of their time.

The agitation was well-founded and it resulted in the elimination from our social system of many elements that are crude and unjust. But in the general revolution of opinion that has followed, has not more been lost than gained?

It is better to be narrow-minded than to have no mind, to hold limited and rigid principles than none at all.

That is the danger which faces so many people today—to have no considered opinions on any subject, to put up with what is wasteful and harmful with the excuse that there is ‘good in everything’—which in most cases means inability to distinguish between good and bad.

There are still things which are worth fighting against.5

Waugh's approach is fundamentally aggressive. This ‘preface’ precisely describes his distaste for his father's benevolent optimism. The story which followed was entitled ‘Too Much Tolerance’.

The tale (never re-published) was printed under the heading ‘Real Life Stories’ and is told in the first person. It describes his meeting (probably in Djibouti) with a whimsical, middle-aged liberal humanist who (like Arthur) has reacted against the strictures of a repressive Victorian childhood. He sees no fault in anyone but, as confidence grows between narrator and subject, a life of betrayal and humiliation is revealed. ‘As I watched’, it concludes, ‘he finished his business and strode off towards the town—a jaunty, tragic little figure, cheated out of his patrimony by his partner, battened on by an obviously worthless son, deserted by his wife, an irrepressible, bewildered figure striding off under his bobbing topee, cheerfully battering his way into a whole continent of rapacious and ruthless jolly fellows.’6 ‘Jolly fellows’, of course, is heavily ironical. The anti-hero of the story had been quite unable to discriminate between the various races and their internecine factions: ‘“Can't understand what all the trouble's about. They're all jolly chaps when you get to know them.”’ ‘British officials, traders, Arabs, natives, Indian settlers—they were all to my new friend jolly good chaps.’7

To Waugh there were fundamental racial distinctions to be made, particularly between the Arabs and the Indians. Africa was an analogue for the world at large. Rather than adopting his father's gently tolerant belief in the essential goodness of man, Waugh saw the world as largely populated by a rabble of potential or actual savages, ‘rapacious’, vigilant for the first signs of weakness to move in for the kill. This savagery was all the more dangerous when disguised beneath the trappings of civilization.

Waugh wrote several other short stories during or immediately after the composition of Black Mischief and all can be related to this theme, just as the theme itself becomes a structural leit-motif of the novel. ‘The Patriotic Honeymoon’, ‘Bella Fleace Gave a Party’, ‘Cruise’ and ‘Incident in Azania’ are light pieces written hastily for a quick cash return. But Waugh wrote nothing badly and all touch on serious themes: infidelity, death, the dereliction of the English language and the consequent, implicit inability of the characters to comprehend their own active cruelty. In Waugh's phrase, they ‘have no mind’; beneath their complacent, dull surfaces, they are mad, bad and dangerous to know, insane with the vanity of benevolence, driven by malice, or simply effete. Violence and betrayal characterise their world. …

[Mid-1933] It was a period of considerable anxiety and one in which he appears to have associated himself with the recurrent figure of the lost man. Both ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ and ‘Out of Depth’ centre on this image. The first effectively represents the scenes of Tony Last's imprisonment by Mr Todd (only the names and other minor details being altered) and will be best dealt with later in the context of A Handful of Dust. ‘Out of Depth’ … merits close examination here as a of his mood. It is a substantial piece, subtitled ‘An Experiment Begun in Shaftesbury Avenue and Ended in Time’.8

He wrote it in July 1933, immediately after finishing the Passing Show series, ‘I Step Off the Map’ (a running title which possibly had more than literal significance). The story concerns a forty-three-year-old American, Rip Van Winkle. Born a Catholic he has become a fashionable, cosmopolitan agnostic. Like Waugh, he had ‘reached the age when he disliked meeting new people’. Unlike Waugh, though, he has lived immune from questions about ‘time and matter and spirit’. Taking dinner at Margot Metroland's he meets a Mr Jagger (‘Kakophilos’ in the revised 1936 text) who speaks in ‘a thin Cockney voice’. The man is introduced as a magician and appears to be fraudulent (his accent slips from sonorous, ‘poetic’ intonation to shrill East End vocables).

Jagger is cold, rude and threatening. Later in the evening when Alastair Trumpington and Rip return to the man's flat, he parades in a ‘crimson robe embroidered with gold symbols and a comical crimson hat’, garments which provoke unrestrained hilarity in the two drunken boulevardiers. Jagger asks them which period of history they would choose to visit were it possible for them to become time-travellers. Alastair randomly selects the age of Ethelred the Unready and Rip, with equal facetiousness, states that, being an American, he ‘would sooner go forward—say five hundred years’. Leaving the man's house in search of more drink, they turn a corner and drive broadside into a mail van ‘thundering down Shaftesbury Avenue at forty-five miles an hour’.

Rip awakens in the same place but in the twenty-fifth century. All signs of ‘civilisation’ have disappeared. The tube station is a flooded hole in the ground. Symbolically, Eros (the Greek god of Love) is missing from its pedestal in what was Piccadilly Circus. No buildings exist other than fifty or so huts on stilts to raise them above the tidal floods and mud flats of the Thames. The night is characterised by a penetrating silence. Darkness and chaos rule. The people of this ‘Lunnon’ are savages, shy and ignorant, their aesthetic sensibility and language decayed: ‘They spoke slowly in the sing-song tones of an unlettered race who depend on an oral tradition for the preservation of their lore’. In his incongruous evening suit, Rip appears first as an object of mystery.

Silently the savages surround him and begin ‘to finger his outlandish garments, tapping his crumpled shirt with their horny nails and plucking at his studs and buttons’. Their curiosity is soon supplanted by suspicion: gently they place him under guard, feeding him as the days pass on ‘fish, coarse bread and heavy, viscous beer’, squatting on their haunches to discuss him in unintelligible patois. Rip closes his eyes and says to himself, ‘“I am in London, in nineteen-thirty-three, staying at the Ritz Hotel. I drank too much at Margot's. Have to go carefully in future. Nothing really wrong. I am in the Ritz in nineteen-thirty-three.”’ Forcing his ‘will towards sanity’, he is at last convinced of the truth of his proposition. But when he opens his eyes again he sees ‘… early morning on the river, a cluster of wattle huts, a circle of barbarous faces’.

‘Lunnon’, the surrounding villages, and by implication the world, are ruled by negroes, some of whom arrive in a launch to barter goods. The Londoners spend their time raking the debris of their civilisation in a form of crude archaeology. In return for ‘pieces of machinery and ornament, china and glass and carved stonework’ the black overlords (dressed smartly in vaguely fascist uniforms of leather and fur) provide ‘bales of thick cloth, cooking utensils, fish hooks, knife-blades and axe-heads’. Once discovered, Rip is taken by the leader on a ‘phantasmagoric’ journey down river. ‘“This is not a dream,”’ he says to himself. ‘“It is simply that I have gone mad.” Then more blackness and wilderness.’ Something, however, saves his sanity:

And then later—how much later he could not tell—something that was new and yet ageless. The word ‘Mission’ painted on a board: a black man dressed as a Dominican friar … and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. … Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which had survived the age of the world. In a log-built church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation … ; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.

‘Ite, missa est.’9

The tale ends with Rip, back in the twentieth century, coming round in hospital. Talking to the priest at his bedside, he asks the cleric how he (the priest) came to be there. Sir Alastair apparently had asked for him. Alastair wasn't a Catholic but he had suffered a disturbing dream about the Middle Ages and had felt the need for a priest. Learning that Rip was in the same establishment, the priest had come along to see how he was. ‘“Father,”’ Rip replies in the last line, ‘“I want to make a confession … I have experimented in black art.”’

In some ways it is a simple fable, dexterously told. Waugh himself presumably considered it slight as he refused to have it reprinted. In one sense it is a Christmas story reaffirming the continuity and lucidity of Catholic teaching. Rip's return to the Church from the apathetic sleep of agnosticism signals his unconscious recognition of the link between civilisation and faith. The horror he experiences, though, is not unlike that of Conrad's Marlow in Heart of Darkness: ‘And this, also [London], has been one of the dark places of the earth.’10 As has been said, there is no evidence of Waugh's having read this work. Unlike Graham Greene, Waugh found Conrad an unsympathetic writer. But the comparison remains useful both for the similarities and differences it throws up.

The second half of Waugh's tale is strongly reminiscent of Marlow's voyage on the Congo, even to the ‘phantasmagoric journey downstream’ and Rip having his head measured with callipers. Both works suggest the temporary nature of civilisation. ‘The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires’11 are powerful emblems of man's attempts to impose idealisms upon chaos. To both Waugh and Conrad, this materialist idealism is delusory. Both refute nineteenth-century concepts of progress and question the validity of seeing history as a linear sequence of cause and effect. Yet there is an obvious point at which they part company. Where Conrad suggests that chaos and darkness must inevitably reclaim all attempts at control, Waugh remains a stolid, fundamentalist theologian. The artefacts and culture of a civilisation may decay but the Faith, that island of sanity in a raving world, will survive.

The story is of particular interest from a biographical point of view in that it represents Waugh's first overtly apologetic work of fiction. From this, one inevitably looks forward to Brideshead Revisited (1945) and what renders this tale even more peculiar is that there was a twelve-year gap before Waugh's defence of his faith finds its way back into his fiction. His ‘Open Letter’ had stressed the idea that he was not, as a writer who was a Catholic, required to produced overtly propagandist art. Suddenly, only two months later, he did precisely that.


  1. Ibid., 26 August, 1925, p. 218.

  2. Evelyn Waugh, ‘The Balance. A Yarn of the Good Old Days of Broad Trousers and High-Necked Jumpers,’ Georgian Stories 1926, ed. Alec Waugh (Chapman & Hall, 1926), p. 286.

  3. Ibid., p. 287.

  4. Diaries, 18 May, 1925, p. 212.

  5. JB, 2 April, 1932, 7.

  6. ‘Too Much Tolerance,’ JB, 21 May, 1932, 21, 24.

  7. Ibid., p. 21.

  8. ‘Out of Depth’ was reprinted with substantial revisions in Waugh's collection, Mr Loveday's Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (Chapman and Hall, 1936), pp. 121–38, and in Charles A. Bradey (ed.), A Catholic Reader (Buffalo, NY, Desmond and Stapleton, 1947) with a commentary by Brady, pp. 78–9. Waugh did not include it in Penguin Books' Work Suspended and Other Stories (Harmondsworth, 1943), nor has it appeared in subsequent Penguin editions with this title. Quotations are from the Mr Loveday text unless otherwise stated.

  9. ‘Out of Depth,’ Mr Loveday's …, pp. 136–7.

  10. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (first published 1902; reprinted Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1973 and 1976), p. 7.

  11. Ibid., p. 7.

Katharyn W. Crabbe (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Decline and Fall,” in Evelyn Waugh, Continuum, 1988, pp. 25–36.

[In the following excerpt, Crabbe praises Decline and Fall as hysterically funny and very appealing, while exploring the depth and complexity of Waugh's plot and structure.]

Decline and Fall, Waugh's first novel, is for those who love farce, one of the funniest of English novels. The constant appearance, disappearance, and reappearance in another identity of the characters puts one immediately in mind of the opening and closing doors and the circular structures of plot that characterize farce. Although Waugh's approach is often oblique and ironic rather than straightforward and broadly humorous, it is stunningly effective. Even now, more than fifty years after its original publication, Decline and Fall is readily available in bookstores and libraries, and each succeeding generation learns to laugh at the Candide-like existence of Paul Pennyfeather.

Although Waugh had hoped Decline and Fall would be a real money maker, it was not. It was, however, very well received by the reviewers, and it brought his name before a much larger audience than his biographical study, Rossetti, could ever have done. The Observer found it “richly and roaringly funny,”1 and J. B. Priestley noted that “Mr. Waugh has done something very difficult to do, he has created a really comic character.”2

The title of the novel cannot but remind the reader of the other great Decline and Fall, Gibbon's history of the Roman Empire. In alluding to Gibbon, Waugh suggests to the reader that his book, too, will trace the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. A second choice for the title, which would have struck the same note but which would have been a little less accessible to the general reader was “Untoward Incidents.” Waugh suggested the title to his editor at Duckworth's (where the novel was eventually rejected) and explained, “The phrase, you remember, was used by the Duke of Wellington in commenting on the destruction of the Turkish Fleet in time of peace at Navarino. It seems to set the right tone of mildly censorious detachment.”3 As a description of the authorial tone of Decline and Fall, “censorious detachment” is hard to beat.

As the novel opens, Paul Pennyfeather is a student in Scone College of Oxford University and is innocently unaware of the chaotic forces underlying modern society. When he runs the length of the quad in his underwear after his trousers are forcibly removed by the drunken members of the Bollinger Club, Paul is dismissed from his college for “indecent behavior.” He leaves Oxford with the words of the college porter in his ears: “I expect you'll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior.” Turned out of the house by his greedy guardian who sees a chance to appropriate Paul's inheritance for his own daughter, Paul indeed becomes a schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle, a minor public school in Wales. His fellow masters are Grimes, a pederast who, ironically, comes to represent the forces of life in the novel, and Prendergast, the representative of organized religion, who, again ironically, becomes a symbol of death.

Paul's favorite student at Llanabba is Peter Beste-Chetwynde whose mother, Margot, is an international white slaver. Paul falls in love with Margot and is about to be married to her when she sends him to France to help clear the way for her latest group of South American-bound prostitutes. He succeeds and returns to London only to be arrested on the way to the altar through the efforts of his college chum, Potts (now in the employ of the League of Nations). Convicted of procuring, Paul is sentenced to prison. Margot arranges to have him removed from the prison to a private hospital, ostensibly for an appendectomy. When the proprietor reports to the authorities that he has died on the operating table, Paul escapes to Margot's retreat on Corfu to consider his future. Eventually, he returns to Scone, sporting a new mustache as a disguise and posing as his own cousin.

One of the great appeals of Waugh's fiction is likewise one of the great appeals of those adolescent adventure stories that were the backbone of the nineteenth-century boy's books—the hero is almost always a young man on his own. In Waugh's vision in the early novels, however, the hero has had independence thrust upon him, that is, he is an exile from a society of which he would love to be a part. This is especially true in the first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.

Paul Pennyfeather, for example, is an orphan. His parents died when he was at public school. His guardian, who has control of Paul's money until Paul is twenty-one, has no compunctions about confiscating the money and throwing Paul out. His teachers are similarly exploitative, more interested in the founder's port than in justice. His employer, Dr. Fagan, and his fiance, Margot, are equally predatory.

Paul's essential feature is his outsideness or his status as an exile. Indeed, exile is one of the few consistent aspects of his life. His parents, the narrator reveals, “had died in India at the time when he won the essay prize at his preparatory school.” Having survived the first exile (public school) of the English gentleman, Paul is, in short order, exiled from his college and from his home, the house of the prosperous solicitor in Onslow Square. As the novel progresses, Paul finds himself even further estranged from the world he thought he knew and the code he thought it followed: “For generations the British bourgeoisie have spoken of themselves as gentlemen, and by that they have meant, among other things, a self-respecting scorn of irregular perquisites,” he reminds himself. This code, which may work for the British bourgeoisie who can remain safely within the social framework they understand, is woefully inadequate in the chaotic modern world in which the very walls and towers of the old order are being taken down and replaced by vast constructs of chromium and glass. Paul's code, the code of the gentleman, is perfectly admirable, and his ingenuous character is a reflection of that charming construct, but the code cannot, and does not, prepare him to meet the new world that has evolved around him.

Note, for example, that in his first interview with Dr. Fagan, Paul resolves to tell the truth about his past: “I was sent down, sir, for indecent behavior.” Dr. Fagan's response, “I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal,” simply and wittily illustrates that the world outside Scone College is playing a different game by a set of rules that Paul has not yet even begun to understand.

Similarly, Paul's failure to understand the nature of Margot's business, Latin-American Entertainments, Ltd., and his innocent observation that the League of Nations “seem to make it harder to get about instead of easier,” suggest his inability to understand the world or to understand that anyone of his class could be less than honorable. Introducing the first of a long line of doubles in his fiction, Waugh has the narrator observe that Paul Pennyfeather has mysteriously disappeared and will be replaced by a shadow whose only interest “arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.” In doing so, he suggests that there is something in the air of England at the time that is eliminating the British gentleman and replacing him with an empty facade.

Back in his familiar habitat with Potts, Paul becomes again what he had once been: … an intelligent, well-educated, well-conducted young man, a man who could be trusted to use his vote at a general election with discretion and proper detachment, whose opinion on a ballet or a critical essay was rather better than most people's, who could order dinner without embarrassment and in a creditable French accent, who could be trusted to see to luggage at foreign railway stations, and might be expected to acquit himself with decision and decorum in all the emergencies of civilized life.

The difficulty, of course, is that the life Waugh surveys in Decline and Fall is not what one would call civilized. Thus, as soon as Paul leaves the restaurant and the discussion of Otto Silenus and re-enters the modern world as it is reflected in the new King's Thursday, the man he was educated to be disappears and the shadow he has become appears in his stead.

Paul Pennyfeather is a fine young man with no vices when he is at Scone studying for the church. Despite his virtue, Paul is not very well treated by the authorities at his college. The moral failure of the faculty and administration is clear in the master's deciding to dismiss Paul from the college because he would probably not be able to pay a heavy fine. The Junior Dean and the Domestic Bursar are interested only in the amount of money collected in fines and what that implies for the quality of the after-dinner port. Even the chaplain, who might be expected to demonstrate more charity than the others, fails to acknowledge that Paul has been treated unfairly and that his life has been ruined. The chaplain's concern is solely for himself and for the return of a book he had lent Paul: “Oh, Pennyfeather, before you go, surely you have my copy of Dean Stanley's Eastern Church?

Having left Scone, Paul has a series of experiences that are equally hard on the church and churchmen. He first meets Mr. Prendergast, a defrocked clergyman who “lost his faith” because he could not understand, metaphorically, the first thing about his own religion: “You see, it wasn't the ordinary sort of Doubt about Cain's wife or the Old Testament miracles or the consecration of Archbishop Parker. I'd been taught how to explain all that while I was at college. No, it was something deeper than all that. I couldn't understand why God had made the world at all.

Prendy, the reader learns, resigned his ministry for the same reason Paul decided to refuse Digby-Vaine-Trumpington's twenty pounds—it seemed the only honorable thing to do. That certainly sounds like a positive value. The sad condition of religion in the modern world, however, is revealed when Prendy discovers the “Modern Churchman,” defined as “a species of person … who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.” For strong religious feeling, the only representative in Decline and Fall is the lunatic murderer of Prendergast, who has visions of a wonderfully bloody apocalypse and who regards himself as the “sword of Israel” and “the Lion of the Lord's Elect.”

Finally, when Paul returns to Scone to read once more for the church, his education seems to focus not on doctrinal development but on heresies: “There was a bishop in Bithynia, Paul learned, who had denied the Divinity of Christ, the immortality of the soul, the existence of good, the legality of marriage and the validity of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. How right they had been to condemn him.” And in the “Epilogue,” “So the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed … Quite right to suppress them.” Only at a remove of several centuries is it possible for Paul (or modern man, whom he represents) to be certain of anything.

Not only are the public institutions of education and religion ineffectual against the disintegration of modern society, the family as an institution seems helpless as well. Paul's guardian cheats Paul out of his inheritance; Lady Circumference regards her son as “a dunderhead” who “wants beatin' and hittin' and knockin' about generally, and then he'll be no good.” Indeed, the very names of Lady Circumference and Lord Tangent suggest that the connection between them is slight at best. The Llanabba bandmaster pimps for his sister-in-law; Grimes regards marriage simply as a hole card to be played only when he is in more trouble than he can manage; and Margot's ill-developed sense of family is so slight as to allow her to demolish the family seat, King's Thursday, and to feel that the primary importance of the family title is that “it may be nice for Peter to have [it] when he grows up.”

One can continue to enumerate institutions that fail in Decline and Fall. Medicine does not save Tangent, whose heel was merely “grazed” by Prendergast's bullet. At the end of the novel, Paul is taken to Fagan's sanatorium not be cured but to have his death faked so that he can escape from prison. Similarly, the criminal-justice system, which regards Paul as the corrupter of Margot and is itself presented as corrupt (in the behavior of the prison guards) and lunatic (in the behavior of the warden) clearly provides no protection for the innocent abroad in the land.

If every social organization—educational, religious, political—is so obviously unable to hold off the forces of chaos in the novel, how, then, does Waugh manage to bring Paul Pennyfeather to a happy ending of sorts? It is here that the circular structure of the novel, which brings Paul back to the position he occupied at the beginning, and the central powerful symbol of the wheel at Luna Park are particularly helpful.

In the “Prelude” of the novel, Paul Pennyfeather is in “his third year of uneventful residence at Scone”; that is, he is nearly at the end of his conventional education. He has spent the evening at a meeting of “the League of Nations Union” and has heard” a most interesting paper about plebiscites in Poland.” His idea of relaxation is to read a little of the Forsyte Saga, an Edwardian rendition of the instinct to possess and the shattering of social values following World War I. He knows nothing of the behavior or even of the existence of the Bollinger Club, a group representing all that is degenerate, ignorant, prejudiced, and destructive.

The “Epilogue” recapitulates the “Prelude.” From the opening sentence, “It was Paul's third year of uneventful residence at Scone” and Stubbs' observation, “That was an interesting paper tonight about the Polish plebiscites,” there is every indication that Waugh intends the reader to hear what he has heard before. But I think we must differ with James F. Carens's assessment that “[Paul] dies, he reappears, but he is not reborn. Nothing that has happened has had any effect upon him,”4 for Paul's responses are vastly different the second time around. This time, he is finishing his real education.

The second time around, Paul knows about the Bollinger Club and has sense enough not to attract their attention. In his dialogue with Peter Pastmaster, Paul's responses to the boy's drunken questions are a series of assertions, “I remember.” And it is remembering that helps to keep him safe. Something less prosaic and more threatening, however, has also happened to Paul, and, it seems to be argued, is helping to keep him safe. Paul has replaced the worldly vision of The Forsyte Saga with the history of the church. His view of the “ascetic Ebionites [who] used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed” is the view of a detached scholar rather than that of a participant in life. It is true that his detachment will protect him from the wasteland of Llanabba Castle and Blackstone Gaol, but it will also separate him from the voluptuous richness and excess of Margot Metroland and those other “dynamic” characters of whom Professor Silenus, that Dionysian spirit, once spoke. The modern world has cast him out just as he would cast out the “ascetic Ebionites” and the notorious Bishop of Bithynia.

Waugh also uses the descriptions of Paul's three celebratory meals to call attention to the circularity of the world he is describing. The first is with Grimes and Prendy at Llanabba Castle; the second is with Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and Peter Beste-Chetwynde at the Ritz, and the third is with Dr. Fagan and Alastair at Fagan's sanatorium where Paul's death has just been falsely reported. The parallels are instructive.

At the first dinner, which takes place in part one, Paul, Prendy and Grimes celebrate Paul's “recent good fortune” (on the face of it the twenty pounds he has from Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, but in reality his liberation from the closed existence he has had at Scone College) and Grimes's impending marriage. The irony is lavish here, since what is depicted is Paul's first compromise with his image of himself as a gentleman. His earlier toast, “To the durability of ideals,” is a wonderful illustration of the way Waugh makes meaning change by changing context. When Paul first uses the phrase, “the durability of ideals,” he is really talking with himself about who he is and about the nature of the English gentleman. He explains at some length that in refusing Digby-Vaine-Trumpington's money he is satisfying “a test case of the durability of my ideals.” When, however, Grimes reveals that he has saved Paul from himself by accepting Trumpington's money for him, Paul feels “… a great wave of satisfaction surge up within him.” When he repeats the toast, “To the durability of ideals,” he, like the reader, is conscious of the irony involved.

The meal motif is picked up in the scene depicting Paul's wedding luncheon at the Ritz, where a new toast is introduced. “To Fortune—a much maligned lady” is the utterance of a contented man who has once again closed his eyes to all of the ungentlemanly activities of the world around him. Alastair's ingenuous observation “No one could have guessed that when I had the Boller blind in my rooms it was going to end like this” seems to signal a happy ending; in fact, it only signals another complication as Inspector Bruce of Scotland Yard arrests Paul as an international white slaver and closes another episode in his eventful life.

The third celebratory meal takes place in part three after Paul is freed from prison through a scheme in which he is falsely declared to have died in a hospital. Dr. Fagan, once the head of Llanabba school and now the proprietor of a private hospital, articulates the importance of Paul's “death,” by noting that “it is the beginning of a new phase of life.” When Dr. Fagan proposes the toast “To Fortune—a much maligned lady,” he is toasting the end of Paul's life as a convict and his rebirth as a student of theology.

The final version of the toast occurs in the closing scene when Peter Beste-Chetwynde (now Peter Pastmaster) appears in Paul's rooms in college. In the “Epilogue” as in the “Prelude,” the “annual gathering of the Bollinger” coincides with Paul's “third year of uneventful residence at Scone.” At Scone, as at the Ritz years earlier, Peter is a little drunk. In fact, he is so drunk that, having reiterated Paul's toast, “To Fortune—a much maligned lady,” he immediately finds himself unable to recall how it goes.

Paul's values and those of Otto Silenus form an interesting and informative contrast. Silenus, who in mythology was a forest spirit, the oldest of the satyrs, and the foster father and teacher of Dionysus, finds an ironic namesake in the young architect whose instincts are fundamentally anti-social (his artistic credo is “the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form”) and whose counsel is to avoid participation in life and to seek stasis. To make his point, he compares life to a ride on the great wheel at Luna Park. The great wheel is a rotating disk and the challenge is to stay aboard it once it begins to spin. Professor Silenus explains,

People don't see that when they say “life” they mean two different things. They can mean simply existence, with its physiological implications of growth and organic change. They can't escape that—even by death, but because that's inevitable they think the other side of life is too—the scrambling and excitement and bumps and the effort to get to the middle. And when we do get to the middle, it's just as if we never started.

Paul, on the other hand, is of a type open to much human experience but with the perspective of the old, the traditional, the poetic, the nonmechanistic about him. His love for Margot is born of a response to her physical beauty, a beauty which seems at first immortal but which he comes to fear is all too transitory. His imaginative vision of King's Thursday is pure nineteenth century romanticism:

“English spring,” thought Paul. “In the dreaming ancestral beauty of the English country.” Surely, he thought, these great chestnuts in the morning sun stood for something enduring and serene in a world that had lost its reason and would so stand when the chaos and confusion were forgotten.

For Otto Silenus, however, Margot's beauty is not poetic at all. For him, “in all her essential functions—her digestion for example—she conforms to type.” His strictly mechanistic view is also reflected in his first question to Paul: “What do you take to make you sleep?” Paul, by contrast, takes nothing to make him sleep and rests easily throughout the novel—in Scone College, in King's Thursday, and back in Scone.

Withdrawal from life may be advisable, but it is not a very positive solution to the problem. If this is a world in which people are rewarded strictly according to the laws of chance rather than according to the laws of merit, then there is nothing a person like Paul can do except refuse to live, for he does not seem to be blessed with traditional luck. If, on the other hand, Paul's bad treatment at the hands of the world is appropriate, what has he done to deserve it? His only error is innocence—ignorance of the ways of the world. Seen in that light, the structure of the novel is not comic but ironic, for it is a structure in which a fundamentally blameless fellow is treated much more badly than he deserves. On the other hand, Paul is not real, he has no feelings or motives and, in the way farce works, he isn't damaged by anything that happens to him. He simply comes back, good as new, after his pratfalls.

Thus Decline and Fall tells a very funny story with a very discomfiting implication. True to the conventions of farce, characters in Decline and Fall disappear through one door to reappear, in a different form, through another. Paul's “great friend,” Potts, reappears as the League of Nations representative whose work leads to Paul's arrest and conviction. Dr. Fagan, the headmaster of Llanabba Castle, reappears as the proprietor of the private hospital where Paul “dies” and as the author of a book on Welsh culture called Mother Wales. Grimes, the pederastic master at Llanabba, is first transformed into the “manager” of one of Margot's South American enterprises and then into a convict. Prendergast, the other master, becomes a modern churchman, and Philbrick the butler, that master of intrigue and disguise, finally appears in Oxford in an open motor car, looking very like one of the idle rich.

Thematically, the fact that nearly all the characters in Decline and Fall play multiple roles is significant. First, it suggests that reality is not very stable in this world, and that one might well be exceptionally careful in making judgments, because things are almost never what they seem to be. In addition, it is significant in determining the ways one can think about the characters in the novel. If Paul Pennyfeather is sometimes a nice young man studying for the ministry, sometimes a social celebrity, and sometimes a convict, how is one to think about him as a real person with real emotions, real motives and believable responses to events? The short answer is that one cannot. One cannot talk sensibly about how this character might reasonably be expected to act because one has no real sense of who he is. He is a type, and the type is the innocent. But he is never flesh and blood.

In Decline and Fall, as in his next two novels, Waugh restricted his characters to these comic types in order to avoid engaging his readers' emotions. Instead, he encourages his readers to a distanced, intellectual enjoyment of his indictment of a world where chance reigns supreme, ideals are superfluous if not outright dangerous, and the laws of cause and effect have been suspended.


  1. Gerald Gould, review of Decline and Fall in Stannard, p. 81.

  2. J. B. Priestley, review of Decline and Fall in Stannard, p. 84.

  3. Waugh, Letters, p. 27.

  4. James F. Carens, The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966), p. 11.

Robert Murray Davis (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “The Failure of Imagination: Waugh's School Stories,” in Evelyn Waugh and the Forms of His Time, edited by Virgil Nemoianu, The Catholic University of American Press, 1989, pp. 178–88.

[In the following excerpt, Davis examines an untitled early fragment of a story and “Charles Ryder's Schooldays” in an attempt to discern the autobiographical nature of Waugh's stories.]

The publication of Evelyn Waugh's biography, diaries, letters, and collected journalism over the past ten years had confirmed without much altering the suspicion of earlier readers that there is in his novels a very clear and at the same time uneasy relationship between what he lived and what he imagined. His heroes, all the way from Pennyfeather to Pinfold, obviously share some of their creator's experiences, and just as obviously Waugh isolated and inflated some of his own fears and fantasies into such diverse types as Adam Fenwick-Symes, Basil Seal, and Guy Crouchback. The conversion of fact into fiction or, more recently, the embodiment of psychic patterns in the fiction has furnished material for a kind of high-level gossip (which Waugh would by no means have deplored) or even for studies of the way in which his imagination worked. However, Waugh's efforts to escape into realism, into a more or less direct presentation of the persona of the everyday, discursive-prosewriting self, throw considerable light on his mind and method precisely because he failed to do so.

Two obvious occasions in which he flirted with self-revelation in fiction are Work Suspended and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, but in both he used techniques of displacement, first into invented circumstances, next into a split between conscious and unconscious mind, resolved only by suppression of the unconscious which Pinfold and his creator regard as victory. Less well known, but more interesting as attempts at self-presentation, are two fragments, written twenty-five years apart, in which Waugh tried and failed to make realistic fiction from biographical fact. The first is a fragmentary novel, written at the end of 1920 while he was still a schoolboy;1 the second is “Charles Ryder's Schooldays,” written about the time of his forty-second birthday in 1945.2

The untitled fragment—actually a fragment of a fragment, since the manuscript at the Humanities Research Center ends in mid-sentence—is a highly self-conscious attempt to enter “the family trade of literature.” The work is dedicated “To Myself,” and the dedicatory letter speaks of the difficulties faced by an author whose “surroundings … have been entirely literary.” Willing to accept responses like “Another of these precocious Waughs … one more nursery novel,” he concludes that he has “not been crushed in the mill of professionalism.” As evidence from the diaries and from the fragment itself indicate, Evelyn aspired to authorship in order to compete with his brother Alec, the elder by five years. In 1920, Alec was clearly dominant. His first novel, The Loom of Youth, portrayed school life so realistically that Evelyn could not attend his brother's—and father's—school, and Alec's war service was enviable but not emulable. On the other hand, Evelyn had a low opinion of Alec's friends and on occasion an even lower opinion of his style. During Evelyn's Lancing years, Alec's appearances frequently inspired Evelyn to turn from schoolwork to writing. In fact, his first note about the novel—assuming that the manuscript at HRC and the one mentioned in the Diaries are the same—calls it “the study of a man with two characters, by his brother” (Diaries, 107) and came about a week after Alec and his first wife—commemorated in A Little Learning as Evelyn's guide and playfellow—rescued him from a boring day at Lancing.

The story opens with Peter Audley's waking to a bleak March day in 1918 and follows him to his pit, or study; to breakfast; to a boring history lesson; and to preparations for Physical Training. A telegram summons him home for the visit of his brother Ralf, on leave after three years in the trenches. Greeted by Ralf and by Moira Gage, the vicar's daughter, he is just beginning to analyze his brother when the manuscript breaks off.

As one might expect in a schoolboy's novel, the autobiographical elements are obvious. Selchurch is recognizably Lancing; Peter Audley and Ralf are, like the Waughs, five years apart; Moira Gage, as far as the story goes attached to neither brother, is modeled on Barbara Jacobs, though Moira is made Peter's contemporary rather than two or more years his senior. Waugh does relocate the family home from Hampstead to “the Hall” at Bulfrey Combe, a small rural village, and he makes Peter and Ralf three years older than the Waugh brothers.

Some Waugh critics would no doubt attribute the last two modifications of fact to Evelyn's desire to present his alter ego as more mature and more highly placed socially, but the fragment is remarkable because it is far less self-aggrandizing than exploratory. There is not much evidence from which to infer Waugh's attitude toward the setting because very little of the surviving manuscript is set in Bulfrey and the characters never reach Bulfrey Combe. Judging from the contrast between Bulfrey Combe, which “still kept most of the appearance of a country village,” and Bulfrey, “a small town with two or three streets of cheap shops, a bank, and a small glass factory which formed the nucleus of a large area of slum which was gradually spreading its grimy tentacles along the roads,” he was establishing the village as a refuge, already threatened, from the changes accelerated by the war. As the vicar's daughter, Moira was given a more stable background than Barbara Jacobs, whose parents battled over progressive versus traditional education as well as many other topics.

Waugh's motive for altering the ages of the chief characters was based more on social history than on personal aggrandizement. In March 1918, Evelyn was fourteen and a half; Peter is seventeen and a half for two reasons: first, to allow Waugh to place him at Selchurch in the summer term of 1914, so that he can contrast the opulence, ease, and intellectual distinction of that period with the privation, academic slackness, and war mania of 1918; second, so that Peter is faced with the immediate prospect of leaving school for the battlefront, and he knows and resents the fact that the Officer Training Corps (OTC) has not prepared him to function in that world. (One might compare Peter's reflections on the OTC exercise with Alastair Trumpington's and Cedric Lyne's experiences of maneuvers and battle in Put Out More Flags and Guy Crouchback's in Sword of Honour.) Furthermore, he is not at all sure that he can measure up to his brother's attitudes and accomplishments because “Ralf saw everything so abstractedly with such imperturbable cynicism. Peter flattered himself that he would not be able to stand it; Ralf had won the D.S.O. some months ago.”

Although Peter has begun to judge Ralf's witty utterances as calculated for effect, the fragment ends before Peter can assert himself as rival in war, love (note the effect of making Peter and Moira contemporaries), or words. What does emerge is a portrait of Lancing and by extension of English society which accords very closely with much of Waugh's editorial journalism in the Lancing College Magazine; in “The War and the Younger Generation” in 1928; by implication in Vile Bodies; and finally in A Little Learning: his generation had been denied the pleasures promised for their youth and frustrated in the possibility of testing themselves in battle. As Peter says, in an argument over discontinuing sports prizes to divert energy and attention to the war, “Everything has been done … to make school life excessively unpleasant. … What little of the old life does remain, is what keeps it just tolerable.” More seriously, Waugh, Peter, and their contemporaries, cast into a world where old values had been destroyed or corroded, were left to find their own. At no time in his life did Waugh have much confidence in the individual's ability to do so. In 1920, portraying a class of history students given no stimulation and anticipating no rewards, Waugh asserted that “Youth[,] far from being the time of burning quests and wild, gloriously vain ideals beloved of the minor poets, is essentially one of languor and repose.” The language is very similar to the passage in Brideshead Revisited which celebrates “The Languor of Youth,” “the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse.”3 However, the judgment is very different: in 1919 the languor is the result of slackness rather than the condition for spiritual fermentation. It was much easier to look back at 1922 than forward to it.

In 1920, Waugh could objectify in the war his fears of the adult world, his resentment of the system that was preparing him for it so badly, and his early, grudging respect and resentment of the elder brother who seemed to be winning the prizes—manhood, marriage, literary success—to which Evelyn aspired by means that he could not yet clearly imagine. Perhaps this is the real reason that the novel was never completed. However, Evelyn provided himself with more obvious means of escape from authorship. His first diary entries marvel at the amount of work involved—“each chapter will have to be about two sections of College bumph.” When he took home the manuscript for Christmas vacation, he found

Alec apprehensive of a rival, Mother of my ruin through becoming a public figure too soon. Father likes it. Meanwhile I plot on and on at it, trying to make it take some form or shape. At present it seems a mere succession of indifferently interesting conversations. However, I believe it is fairly good and I am pretty sure to be able to get it published. It's a bloody sweat, however.

(Diaries, 108)

Even the prospect of fame soon vanished because of “my family's disapproval and my own innate sloth,” and by 10 January 1921 he had abandoned the effort. It is also possible that he could not imagine what was to happen—to him as much as to his characters—and that, having outlined his social themes but finding himself unwilling to face even an imaginative rivalry with Alec, he welcomed the return to schoolboy status.

Twenty-five years later, Waugh found a more difficult if less complex transition to a very different kind of postwar world. Although, judging from his diaries and letters, he was not dissatisfied with the kind of man he had become, he exhibited considerable doubts about the kind of writer he was to be in the future. Early in the process of writing Brideshead (his hero was still named Peter at this stage) he speculated that it might be the first of his novels—by which he apparently meant the novel in the English realistic tradition—rather than his last. Two years later, he promised his readers that future work would be concerned with style and with the presence of God in the world of the novel. In 1945, while he was letting his war experiences settle into usable form and was perhaps unwilling to test his ability to deal with the postwar world, he began research for Helena. But the success of Brideshead made it unnecessary, even unwise, for him to work very hard, and four months after he first mentioned Helena he turned to his own past, reading “my Lancing diaries through with unmixed shame” and for the next month working on “a novel of school life in 1919—as untopical a theme as could be found” (Diaries, 636) After the diary entry made on his forty-second birthday, we hear no more of the story “Charles Ryder's Schooldays” until my Catalogue of the University of Texas materials in 1981 and the independent discovery of a carbon typescript at his agent's office later in the same year.

“Charles Ryder's Schooldays” begins the day after the first entry in Waugh's Lancing diaries; like them, it deals with resentment at the new appointments by and the very existence of a new house tutor. Unlike the diaries, the story presents the tutor's appeal to Ryder for cooperation and compassion and ends with Ryder's scorning apologies and offer of compensation from the man—with very much the same words Waugh recorded in A Little Learning. There is little consecutive action; there is a good deal of detail about the customs by which the boys stratify themselves.

There are at least three obvious and not always discrete ways of looking at the story: in the context of Brideshead, to which it forms a prequel; in the context of the Diaries, though I am more interested in style than in content; and in the context of the earlier school story as another attempt at self-creation. In the first context, Waugh's epigraph to Brideshead, “I am not I” and so on, clearly does not apply to the Charles Ryder of the story or, as B. W. Handford shows,4 to anyone else in it. First, Charles' experiences are drawn more directly from those of the youthful Waugh than at any other place in Waugh's fiction; second, because in the story there is no “I” because Waugh tells the story in third rather than first person. The two are very closely related, I think: Waugh wanted to use the mass of material, no doubt rediscovered as he was rearranging his life and his effects at Piers Court after a six-year absence, but he also wanted to distance himself as author and person not only from his abhorred earlier self but from the character of Ryder. As he must have come to recognize, along with a number of subsequent critics, the chief problem with Brideshead is that many perceptive and otherwise sympathetic readers regard Ryder as a very unpleasant character. However, it is not at all clear how far the author shares this view or is even aware of the possibility that someone might conceive it. This was a problem that no amount of revision of the text of the novel could resolve. By using third person, Waugh was able to set Ryder in a physical and social context rather than let him create and dominate it. In fact, Waugh uses setting in a much different way than he had in the 1920 fragment. There all was subordinated to Peter's viewpoint. Discomforts are imposed from without by the system. In “Charles Ryder's Schooldays,” the characters are dwarfed and dominated by the scene, the system is internalized, the boys oppressing each other and themselves by accepting and elaborating on a social code designed to regulate attitudes as well as behavior.

Besides third person, Waugh uses two other techniques to place and judge Ryder: in conversations among the boys, he does not include identifying tags, so that individual personality is shown to be submerged in schoolboy argot; and in diary entries by Ryder he shows the boy's immature habit of simplifying character and event into adolescent commonplaces. Compare, for example, the episode of the master—Gordon at Lancing, Graves at Spierpoint—and the printing press. In the Diaries, Waugh wrote:

In the afternoon, as it was raining, Fremlin and I returned early from our walk and helped Gordon to mend his printing press. It would be priceless to have one but they are rather costly. He invited us to tea and we sat round his fire talking scandal and eating toast till chapel. Perhaps he isn't really so bad after all.

(Diaries, 28)

In “Charles Ryder's Schooldays,” the press is at first merely mentioned and provides Charles—more wistful internally and more callous externally than the Waugh of the diaries—with daydreams of “the tall folios, the wide margins, the deckle-edged mould-made paper, the engraved initials, the rubrics and colophons of his private press” (296–297). Later the master enlists Ryder and Tamplin (clearly based on Fremlin) to help him assemble it. Tamplin escapes, but Charles remains to finish the job and Graves confides in him about O'Malley's need for Ryder's support as head of the dormitory. In Charles Ryder's diary for 28 September this is reuced to

After luncheon Tamplin and I were going for a walk when Graves called us in and made us help put up his printing press. Tamplin escaped. Graves tried to get things out of me about ragging Dirty Desmond but without success.

Charles cannot admit, in writing, in his official schoolboy self, his desire for a press, and he wilfully misunderstands the tutor's motives, as Waugh did not entirely do. Elsewhere, similar incidents are treated by Ryder as diarist in a more curt and simple fashion than in Waugh's diaries, where the level of vocabulary is far higher and the complexity of sentence structure far greater than in Ryder's diary:

I don't think we shall be able to rag Woodard long, but meanwhile we are making hay. He is trying to make us use the new pronunciation in Latin, and it is an endless source for supposed misunderstanding. We have also some splendid attempts such as SOOBYOONGTEEWAY for the pronunciation of Subjunctive. He got quite bored when, on his using the new pronunciation in Greek, his pronunciation was greeted with a longdrawn wail of oooh! He threatened to send us all to our House-masters, and I believe he will carry out the threat.

(Diaries, 20–21)

Peacock deigned to turn up for Double Greek. We mocked him somewhat. He is trying to make us use the new pronunciation; when he said oú there was a wail of “ooh” and Tamplin pronounced subjunctive soobyoongteeway—very witty. Peacock got bored and said he'd report him to Graves but relented.

[Ryder's entry, 25 September 1919]

And throughout the story, the contrast between Ryder's style and that of the omniscient narrator is even greater.

Of course, the diaries do not have a plot—though, to use E. M. Forster's distinction, they do have a story—and while the story did not progress far enough for a line of action to emerge, we can discern threads which would probably have been woven into a design that was in part dictated by events already mentioned in Brideshead. Chief among these is the death of Ryder's mother (here and in the manuscript of Brideshead killed by a German shell in Bosnia; in pre-1960 Brideshead dying of an unspecified cause; and in 1960 dying of exhaustion, perhaps to show her self-sacrifice in a way that death as a result of combat would not). Waugh must have recognized that Charles' response, or rather his lack of response, to his mother's death in Brideshead was inadequate, not merely in terms of Ryder's psychology but in novelistic terms, and by emphasizing in the story Charles' memory of the news and associating it with the Spierpoint setting, he may have been preparing to link her death with Charles' rejection of Spierpoint values, his outward callousness, and his inward refusal—unlike the youthful Waugh—to analyze himself or others. A second major theme is adumbrated in the series of models for young Ryder, especially the masculine and intellectual A. A. Carmichael, contrasted with the almost maternal and emotional Frank Bates as “that one the ineffable dweller on cloud-capped Olympus, this the homely clay image, the intimate of hearth and household, the patron of threshing-floor and olive-press.” Charles' worship of these deities, like the atheism or agnosticism of the Sixth Form, embodied most brilliantly in Symonds, who reads the Greek Anthology in chapel, is obviously intended to anticipate Charles' account of his irreligious background in Brideshead. Set between the two masters is Graves, who attempts to draw Ryder out of his contemptuous rejection of human responses. Even in the fragment he emerges not simply to illustrate a point but to stand as a complex character to set off rather than complement Charles' attitudinizing.

However, the complexity of character, especially in the conception and treatment of Charles, created what proved to be insuperable problems. For one thing, the Charles of Brideshead was much more reserved and sophisticated than the Waugh revealed in A Little Learning and other memoirs. The Ryder of the fragment, on the other hand, is far less sophisticated in style and general response and far less active intellectually and academically than the Waugh of the diaries—though, like the Ryder of Brideshead, he is a restaurant snob. Moreover, it does not seem possible that the rather cold and priggish Ryder of Spierpoint—however much he was beginning to reject conventional reactions—could have become the Oxonian “in search of love” who went to Sebastian's luncheon party “full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall … which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city” (Brideshead, 31). By attempting to use the harsh fact of what Waugh repeatedly felt to be caddishness, Waugh had blocked the way towards the nostalgia that is the older Ryder's most endearing quality. The “I” of Charles Ryder was not, and finally could never be, the “I” of Evelyn Waugh.

Alec Waugh believed that life could, in fact should, be lived in watertight compartments, and this dictum so impressed Evelyn that he used it in his diary, in both school stories, and at least by implication in A Little Learning. In fact, as I argued in Chapter 4, Waugh's acceptance of this belief found embodiment in the technique of his first five novels, where he used fragmentation, caricature, and discontinuity as major principles of selection and organization and distancing as a feature of characterization. If the method of the realist novel is, as various critics have argued, linked to liberal, humane values, and if Forster's “only connect” is a formal as well as a thematic principle, then Waugh was never in serious danger of becoming a realist, and the unwitting fragmentation of Charles Ryder in the story is evidence that he could not breach and perhaps not even formally recognize the gap. Various recent critics, including Ian Littlewood, have shown that he objectified conflicts rather than analyzing them.5

Perhaps, as is clearly the case in “Charles Ryder's Schooldays,” Waugh could not bring himself to deal directly with the causes of his own coldness and misanthropy. It is certain that he did not complete any serious attempt to portray anything like his own character, either in the schoolboy fragment Work Suspended or in “Charles Ryder's Schooldays.” Had he been able to do so, as J. B. Priestley argued in his review of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold,6 he might have been able to cure himself. At least he might have been able, as he never was in art or, as far as one can tell, in life, to imagine himself in a realistic mode. We cannot know, and probably he would have doubted, whether this was a Good Thing. If so, he would not have sought the methods of displacement and deflection that make him one of the most original novelists and master stylists of his generation. But then art is art, not therapy, and the fragments and failures are much less important, and finally less vital, than the completed fictions created by an incomplete man.


  1. The text of the story, titled “Fragment of a Novel,” is printed in Evelyn Waugh, Apprentice, ed. Robert Murray Davis (Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1985).

  2. Work Suspended and Other Stories, Including Charles Ryder's Schooldays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982). “Charles Ryder's Schooldays” has an introduction by Michael Sissons.

  3. Brideshead Revisited (Boston: Little, Brown, 1946), p. 79.

  4. Times Literary Supplement, 9 April 1982, p. 412.

  5. Ian Littlewood, The Writings of Evelyn Waugh (Totowa, N. J.: Barnes & Noble, 1982). Though in no sense a work of scholarship, this book contains isolated insights about Waugh's style.

  6. J. B. Priestley, “What Was Wrong with Pinfold,” New Statesman, 54 (31 August 1957), 244.

Robert R. Garrett (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Decline and Fall: ‘Grimes, You Wretch!’” in From Grimes to Brideshead: The Early Novels of Evelyn Waugh, Bucknell University Press, 1990, pp. 37–57.

[In the following excerpt, Garrett explores the nature of the humor in Decline and Fall, praising Waugh's use of language and narrative structure.]

In September 1927, staying with his parents at Underhill and still working on Rossetti, Waugh observed in his diary: “How I detest this house and how ill I feel in it. The whole place volleys and thunders with traffic. I can't sleep or work. I … have begun on a comic novel.”1 Sometime later he read the first ten thousand words to Anthony Powell, and at some point he read the early chapters to Dudley Carew as well:

What he read to me that night, sitting in the chair where Arthur was wont to proclaim that beautiful Evelyn Hope was dead, were the first fifty or so pages of Decline and Fall. A happiness, a hilarity, sustained him that night, and I was back giving him my unstinted admiration as I did at Lancing. It was marvellously funny and he knew that it was. As was his habit in those old, innocent days, he roared with laughter at his own comic invention.2

According to Powell, the novel was originally called Picaresque: or the Making of an Englishman. But, Powell recalled, “Some months after the reading aloud of these chapters—probably a moment towards the end of the same year—I asked Waugh how the novel was progressing. He replied: ‘I've burnt it.’”3 He had not, in fact, but by November the manuscript seems to have been set aside and then ignored until after Christmas.

The later chapters advanced slowly. Early in the new year he wrote to Harold Acton: “The novel does not get on. I should so much value your opinion on whether I am to finish it.”4 Once again, as with “The Temple at Thatch,” he seems to have been ready to defer to Acton's critical judgment. In this case, however, Acton claims to have been enthusiastic about the manuscript. A draft of the novel was complete in April, but, worried about its length, Waugh wrote to Powell, who was working at Duckworth:

I hope the novel will be finished in a week. I will send it to you as soon as it is typed & then want to revise it very thoroughly and enlarge it a bit. I think at present it shows signs of being too short. How do these novelists make their books so long. I'm sure one could write any novel in the world on two post cards.5

In May he submitted the manuscript to Duckworth, where it was rejected on “the odd grounds of its indelicacy” (Waugh later wrote), with demands for alterations he declined to make.6 Chapman and Hall soon accepted the novel but also stipulated some bowdlerizing changes. This time Waugh acceded, and Decline and Fall was published in September 1928, subtitled An Illustrated Novelette.

The facetious subtitle announced the novel's modest pretensions. As far as Waugh was concerned, it was a potboiler; weightier literary work might come later, but at the moment he needed money to get married. It also was something in the nature of an inside joke designed to amuse friends, for whom he inserted private allusions ranging from the Christian names of his two closest friends, Alastair and Olivia, to the surname of his detested Hertford tutor, Cruttwell. The names of two derisory minor characters so closely resembled those of two young men of Waugh's acquaintance that in the second printing new names were prudently substituted. The names of other friends and acquaintances had already been edited out in manuscript. The ideal reader was a recent Oxonian with Waugh's own aristocratic predilections and schoolmastering experience—someone like John Betjeman, for example. Perhaps swayed by the dedication to himself, even Harold Acton signified his approval; Waugh replied in acknowledgment: “I am glad to think it amused you a little. Anyway I enjoyed writing it which is more than I can say about Rossetti.”7 Fearing, however, that it might be damaging for a serious man of letters, or art critic, or whatever he might become, to have a comic novel in his canon, Waugh considered publishing it (Alec Waugh recalled) under a pen name.

Yet Decline and Fall's comic accomplishment owed much to its lack of artistic ambition. Aside from urgent practical motives, Waugh's chief stimulus was playfulness, for in writing the novel he was burlesquing his own recent experience. He did not write it carelessly or in a spirit of holiday levity; he was serious about the novel, but he knew the novel itself was not a serious thing.

The challenge Waugh set himself was to exploit the comic potential of his material, “that the texture of life should be made to yield a comic response.” Unlike life, which could be and in Waugh's case often was refractory and disheartening, language was something he could control and manipulate with confidence and élan; living was a skill he had not mastered, but writing was a game he could play well and one that yielded satisfying consolation when played successfully. Much of the “meaning” of Decline and Fall lies simply in its deployment of language to achieve comic effect. In this first novel, Waugh achieved a concentration of comic style that he never really surpassed; Decline and Fall had no broad artistic ambitions or thematic motives to divert him from comic play or to persuade him to defer immediate effects for larger purposes. The page in hand was everything; the next page would take care of itself. His ambition was straightforward; as he insisted at the very beginning, “IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.”

Comic density and intensity were the goal; consistency was not a dominating concern. Waugh readily sacrificed consistency in tone, point of view, satire, or rhetoric if immediate comic impact could be gained by doing so. At one point, grandiloquent parody might serve the purpose, while in the next paragraph it might be severe understatement and, in the next paragraph yet, flagrant hyperbole; or he might at one point adopt the perspective of one of his characters, then a few sentences later suddenly step back from the same character with bland indifference. Behind all such variations, however, is a principle of understatement and precision, and Decline and Fall's comic tone is based on a continual tension between the skillfully controlled language of the narration—selective, concise, lucid, exact, reticent (usually)—and the freewheeling, idiosyncratic energy of the novel's characters.

Playing with language meant, for Waugh, not primarily wit (he seldom played with words in the sense of puns or double entendres, for example) or elaboration, but sharpness and compression: packing the most significance into the fewest words. One of his gifts was finding the strikingly apt word or phrase; he preferred a single, well-aimed shot to a fusillade. But this effort of precise and accurate diction was part of a larger goal. Whether understating with clipped brevity or launching into mock grandiloquence, his object was to assert control over his material, and by extension over life, with skillfully deployed comic rhetoric. Near the beginning of Decline and Fall, for example, there occurs an often cited passage describing the annual Bollinger Club dinner:

… from all over Europe old members had rallied for the occasion. For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes; all that was most sonorous of name and title was there for the beano.


The passage is an adjectival extravagance, but scarcely an uncontrolled one: the rhetorical force of the description springs from the strong vocabulary and the carefully measured, rhythmically orotund sequence of balanced parallel phrases, alliterated almost like Old English prosody, building to the slangy anticlimax, “beano.”8 Though a long sentence, it has the effect of compression. Its comic force derives not simply from the jocular rhetorical deflation at the end, but even more from the mismatch between the promiscuous diversity of the Bollinger membership and the nicely calculated order and diction of their description.

Constantly crowded against this precise, controlled narrative voice is the spontaneous, quirky energy of the novel's characters. The narrator does not describe them; the characters describe themselves by their speech. We meet Lady Circumference, for example, talking to Paul Pennyfeather and Doctor Fagan about her son Lord Tangent:

The boy's a dunderhead. If he wasn't he wouldn't be here. He wants beatin’ and hittin' and knockin' about generally, and then he'll be no good. That grass is shockin' bad on the terrace, Doctor; you ought to sand it down and resow it, but you'll have to take that cedar down if you ever want it to grow properly at the side. I hate cuttin' down a tree—like losin' a tooth—but you have to choose, tree or grass; you can't keep'em both. What d'you pay your head man?


It is not psychological depth or complexity or even plausibility that Waugh was interested in extracting from the figure of Lady Circumference, but her “comic texture”—idiosyncratic character expressed in uninhibited, slangy speech. Though the vitality of the character is likely to attract a reader's sympathy (and Waugh's as well, I think), the narrative voice itself remains formally uncommitted and unappreciative.9 Another passage, chosen more or less at random, will show some of the main features of Decline and Fall's comic grammar:

Ten men of revolting appearance were approaching from the drive. They were low of brow, crafty of eye and crooked of limb. They advanced huddled together with the loping tread of wolves, peering about them furtively as they came, as though in constant terror of ambush; they slavered at their mouths, which hung loosely over their receding chins, while each clutched under his ape-like arm a burden of curious and unaccountable shape. On seeing the Doctor they halted and edged back, those behind squinting and mouthing over their companions' shoulders.

“Crikey!” said Philbrick. “Loonies! This is where I shoot.”

“I refuse to believe the evidence of my eyes,” said the Doctor. “These creatures simply do not exist.”


Here the narrative voice initially seems to share the perspective of Doctor Fagan and Philbrick as they view with alarm the advancing musicians (as they turn out to be). Satire on the Welsh is a recurrent amusement in the early chapters of Decline and Fall; the particular tactic here is an extended metaphor crowding together vivid zoo and madhouse images in a series of rhythmic and balanced phrases and sentences. Scarcely a word fails to contribute to the joke, the smooth urbane mastery of language by itself creating an ironic contrast to the Welsh provincials.

But with the switch from description to dialogue, the narrative voice at once recedes from the perspective of Doctor Fagan and Philbrick to a more remote vantage point, which surveys the musicians, Fagan, and Philbrick from roughly the same ironic distance. From this perspective, the latter are no longer privileged observers but comic objects themselves, with Philbrick's emphatic vernacular and dramatic, crudely violent impulse posed against the suave ironic incredulity of Doctor Fagan. Their responses reveal their humors, and the juxtaposition of their clashing humors is the comic point. This single short passage thus contains several characteristic … of Decline and Fall's comic grammar: the concentration and marshalling of vivid language; the willingness, even eagerness, to shift point of view if the shift will augment the immediate comic effect; dialogue recorded without comment to display quirks of individual character and their comic confrontation.

Another passage shows some of the same methods. The subject is Margot Beste-Chetwynde's and Paul Pennyfeather's projected wedding:

Society was less certain in its approval, and Lady Circumference, for one, sighed for the early nineties, when Edward Prince of Wales, at the head of ton, might have given authoritative condemnation to this ostentatious second marriage.

“It's maddenin' Tangent having died just at this time,” she said “People may think that that's my reason for refusin'. I can't imagine that anyone will go.”

“I hear your nephew Alastair Trumpington is the best man,” said Lady Vanbrugh.

“You seem to be as well informed as my chiropodist,” said Lady Circumference with unusual felicity, and all Lowndes Square shook at her departure.


This passage is often cited for its shockingly casual disclosure of little Tangent's death, but its comic grammar is more complex. The first paragraph, with its mock deference to the notion of Society, Lady Circumference's nostalgia for Victorian decorum, the French “ton,” and the polysyllabic formality, momentarily establishes an elevated style of discourse and manners, in order to prepare for the sharp contrast of Lady Circumference's blunt style and savage insensitivity. Her rejoinder to Lady Vanbrugh's feline comment further compresses several comic elements: the countess gossiping with a chiropodist; the unusual and ambiguous authorial comment—“with unusual felicity”; the mock-heroic cliché “shook at her departure,” applied absurdly to the aristocratically fashionable Lowndes Square. What ties all the techniques and jokes together is the play with language to achieve immediate and striking comic effect.10

Waugh was also playing with recent personal history.

The book Waugh had in mind when he began writing was a burlesque of his schoolmastering experience, especially his initiation into schoolmastering at Arnold House in North Wales. “The Balance,” too, had sprung from his misery in Wales, but having escaped Wales, freed himself from schoolmastering, and reconciled himself to Olivia Greene's romantic indifference by the time he began writing Decline and Fall, he could look back on his griefs at Arnold House with greater emotional detachment and with a greater appreciation of their comic aspect. As Paul Pennyfeather, sitting comfortably in a London restaurant with his equally conventional Oxford friend Potts, reflects on his experience at Llanabba, it all seems a phantasmagoric aberration: “Llanabba Castle, with its sham castellations and preposterous inhabitants, had sunk into the oblivion that waits upon even the most lurid of nightmares” (145). In 1927, Waugh's own perspective on Arnold House was comparable, and Decline and Fall exaggerates the bad-dream metaphor into Alice in Wonderland dislocation, combining his departure from Oxford and his exile in Wales to create a myth of unheroic descent into a bizarre scholastic underworld, a purely comic Dotheboy's Hall. Beneath all the exaggerations and inventions of the novel, Paul's history follows a pattern similar to Waugh's: banishment from the agreeably sheltered life of an Oxford undergraduate, followed by a plunge into a strange and unsettling new world. Waugh's descent from Oxford to Arnold House provided the original comic impetus of Decline and Fall.

Although Decline and Fall parodies Waugh's experience, Paul Pennyfeather is not a close self-portrait of Waugh himself. A studious, mild-mannered undergraduate leading a blamelessly dull life, Paul is entirely unacquainted with Waugh's bohemian, pleasure-loving Oxford; he has certainly never visited the Hypocrites, and the circumstances of his expulsion from the University scarcely resemble Waugh's routinely unsuccessful departure. But Paul's middle-class background deliberately echoes Waugh's. Paul arrived at the University “after a creditable career at a small public school of ecclesiastical temper on the South Downs, where he had edited the magazine, been President of the Debating Society, and had, as his report said, ‘exercised a wholesome influence for good’ in the House of which he was head boy” (15–16)—very much like Waugh at Lancing. The difference between Paul and Waugh is that Paul seems hardly to have changed at Oxford; he seems, in fact, modeled on Waugh not as he departed from Oxford in 1924, but as he arrived from Lancing two and a half years earlier: spending his early months at Hertford quietly, reading and daydreaming, eating in hall, taking walks by himself in the country, making few friends; on Waugh as he might have remained but for the Hypocrites and Harold Acton. In ridiculing Paul's quiet sobriety, Waugh was mocking one possible version of himself. Not long before writing Decline and Fall, he had interviewed to become an Anglican clergyman; was there in Waugh the stuff of a placid suburban vicar?

Paul's relation to Waugh is thus ambiguous, partly autobiographical, partly antithetical. Although sometimes derisively conventional and dull-witted, polite to a fault, Paul is at other times a sympathetic figure—decent, ingenuous, abused, but uncomplaining. In this latter aspect he caricatures the unassuming, unlucky hero of Waugh's diaries, a semifictional character Waugh had been developing across the years for his own consolation and diversion. Paul Pennyfeather is such a diffident and unassertive hero that it is easy to overlook his importance to Decline and Fall and to Waugh's subsequent fiction. The buffeted, baffled, unworldly hero, of which Paul was the prototype, enabled Waugh to maintain an ironically detached perspective on his own experience and even on himself; self-caricature prevented self-absorption and self-pity. Paul Pennyfeather might take himself seriously, but Waugh can laugh at him; and in thus comically distancing himself from his protagonist, Waugh opened up to himself all the comic possibilities of his own experience, painful as it may have been at the time. The virtue of the reticent Pennyfeatheresque hero is amply demonstrated by his absence in Work Suspended and Brideshead Revisited, in which discursive first-person narration involved Waugh in unprecedented difficulties.

Waugh had a rough plot idea when he began writing—to follow Paul Pennyfeather's descent from Oxford to Llanabba—but Decline and Fall soon became improvisational, especially as the action began to move away from its autobiographical origins. Even in the novel's early chapters, when he was still drawing material from his schoolmastering experience, Waugh seems to have let the plot develop as his daily inspiration directed, picking up and incorporating stray and unconnected bits of material as he wrote. The figure of Lady Circumference, for example, was closely modeled on Alastair Graham's mother, with whom Waugh was already well acquainted. But as he wrote some of the novel's early chapters he happened to be staying at her Warwickshire house, and the erratic hospitality he enjoyed there gave him immediate material and perhaps motive for sketching Lady Circumference's character. For example, as a friend of Alastair's who had often visited Barford before, Waugh was considered not so much a guest as a member of the household, and Mrs. Graham expected him to pull his own weight:

This morning there was great trouble with a large truculent under-gardener who is under notice to go and will not allow his successor to use his cottage. Mrs. G.: “Here am I left without a man in the house”—looking hard at me—“if Hugh were alive he'd have kicked him out.”11

This incident must have been fresh in Waugh's mind when he introduced this exchange into the novel:

“… Greta, Mr Pennyfoot knows Alastair.”

“Does he? Well, that boy's doing no good for himself. Got fined twenty pounds the other day, his mother told me. Seemed proud of it. If my brother had been alive he'd have licked all that out of the young cub. It takes a man to bring up a man.”

“Yes,” said Lord Circumference meekly.


While this sort of extemporaneous borrowing helped to fill in the novel's first half, it became the governing method of the later chapters, when the novel wandered far beyond its original field of action.

By about the middle of Decline and Fall as it now stands, Waugh seems to have exhausted his schoolmastering experience, and from that point the novel grows remote from his personal history. As he resorted to other sources for material, his inventions became more exotic. His personal experience was limited in range, but he gathered scraps of material from here and there, piecing together current newspaper topics, gossip, sightseeing snapshots, and various of his own private interests. Margot Beste-Chetwynde's and Grimes's involvement in prostitution, for example, as well as Potts's sleuthing, was prompted by the well-publicized release in December 1927 of a League of Nations report on international white slave traffic. He set Margot's villa on Corfu because he had been impressed by the amenity of the island during a very brief stop there the year before, returning from a visit to Alastair Graham in Greece. Because its sources were eclectic, the second half of Decline and Fall grew more diffuse, topical, episodic, and peripatetic than the first half, and threatened to veer off into random satiric adventures.

Fortunately, however, by the time the autobiographical inspiration flagged, a new and accidental influence—Captain Grimes—had already begun to channel the novel's energies in a new direction. Grimes was modelled on one of Waugh's colleagues at Arnold House. “Young, the new usher, is monotonously pederastic and talks only of the beauty of sleeping boys,” he noted in his diary a few weeks into his second term.12 Young nonetheless proved a convenient drinking companion, and one evening as they drank together, he divulged some highlights of his personal history:

… Young and I went out and made ourselves drunk and he confessed all his previous career. He was expelled from Wellington, sent down from Oxford, and forced to resign his commission in the army. He has left four schools precipitately, three in the middle of the term through his being taken in sodomy and one through his being drunk six nights in succession. And yet he goes on getting better and better jobs without difficulty.13

Waugh was greatly impressed by the narrative, “all very like Bruce and the spider.” Several years later, with military rank and a wooden leg, Young became Grimes; and then, without, it seems, any clear intention on Waugh's part, Captain Grimes grew into the hero of Decline and Fall, the embodiment of the novel's sympathy with impulsiveness and anarchy.

On his first entrance Grimes appears an unlikely hero: “The door opened, and a very short man of about thirty came into the Common Room. He had made a great deal of noise in coming because he had an artificial leg. He had a short red moustache, and was slightly bald” (30). But when he discloses his history to Paul, his distinction emerges; he has a genius for falling “in the soup” and landing on his feet. Grimes is an emblem of spontaneity and irrepressibility; he is the weed poking up through the crack in the sidewalk. While his past more or less duplicates Young's, Grimes's powers of survival grow mythic. He cannot be extinguished. “I can stand most sorts of misfortune, old boy, but I can't stand repression,” he remarks to Paul in prison, shortly before escaping (230). He glides undaunted through embarrassment and disaster. Mr. Prendergast, diffident and timid, a foil to Grimes's insouciant recklessness, is tormented by “Doubts,” but as Grimes himself explains:

When you've been in the soup as often as I have, it gives you a sort of feeling that everything's for the best, really. You know, God's in His heaven; all's right with the world. I can't quite explain it, but I don't believe one can ever be unhappy for long provided one does just exactly what one wants to and when one wants to. The last chap who put me on my feet said I was “singularly in harmony with the primitive promptings of humanity”. I've remembered that phrase because somehow it seemed to fit me.


Grimes's revival in the second half of the novel, after apparently drowning, and his later escape from prison confirm his superhuman vitality. He becomes “one of the immortals,” “a life force”:

Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at some time, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb.


After this panegyric, Grimes's reappearance would be anticlimactic; and his role in the novel, though not his spirit, here comes to an end.

If the figure of Paul Pennyfeather suggests the pre-Oxford Waugh, Paul's encounter with Grimes is analogous to Waugh's experience with the Hypocrites. Unexpectedly, the reprobate Grimes has a wholly salutary influence on Paul. Sober, studious, unadventurous, Paul has led a wastefully narrow life at Oxford:

For two years he had lived within his allowance, aided by two valuable scholarships. He smoked three ounces of tobacco a week—John Cotton, Medium—and drank a pint and a half of beer a day, the half at luncheon and the pint at dinner, a meal he invariably ate in Hall. He had four friends, three of whom had been at school with him.


Paul's idea of nightlife is attending a meeting of the League of Nations Union to hear a paper on Polish plebiscites (“You talk as though all that were quite real to you,” Waugh once remarked, incredulously, to a friend discussing central European politics).14 After an evening of plebiscites, Paul retires to his rooms to read The Forsyte Saga, presumably Waugh's notion of respectable, dull reading, and smoke a pipe in solitude before bed. Imaginatively straitened by conventional ideas and personal inhibitions, Paul very much needs an infusion of Grimes's zest. “Paul had no particular objection to drunkenness—he had read rather a daring paper to the Thomas More Society on the subject—but he was consumedly shy of drunkards” (16). He is shy of life, in fact, academically cloistered and very unfamiliar with the exuberant variety and unpredictability of the world beyond Oxford, or even beyond his own small circle at Oxford, for he has never even heard of the aristocratic Bollinger Club, with its boisterous revelries.

After this bland closeted life at Oxford, Paul is astounded by Llanabba, whose inmates (except for Prendergast) are unreservedly eccentric. From a circle in which it is considered the height of daring to challenge a conventional opinion, even in an essay, Paul is dropped into a happy society of criminals and charlatans: Dr. Fagan with his absurd elegance, his fraudulent school, and his two horrible daughters; Philbrick the protean imposter; Grimes himself; and, superadded to the ordinary inhabitants, the Sports-day visitors, including the ill-matched pair of Lady Circumference, an earthy aristocrat in the Squire Western tradition, and Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the cosmopolitan adventuress, with her unexpected consort, the excitable Chokey. When all these characters assemble at the Sports, the conversation becomes a chaos of dissonant voices, representing in small scale the world of random and diverse human energies beyond Paul's straitened experience:

“I had such a curious conversation just now,” Lord Circumference was saying to Paul, “with your bandmaster over there. He asked me whether I should like to meet his sister; and when I said, ‘Yes, I should be delighted to,’ he said that it would cost a pound normally, but that he'd let me have special terms. What can he have meant, Mr Pennyfoot?”

“‘Pon my soul,” Colonel Sidebotham was saying to the Vicar, “I don't like the look of that nigger. I saw enough of Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the Soudan—devilish good enemy and devilish bad friend. I'm going across to talk to Mrs Clutterbuck. Between ourselves, I think Lady C. went a bit far. I didn't see the race myself, but there are limits. …”

“Rain ain't doin' the turnip crop any good,” Lady Circumference was saying.

“No, indeed,” said Mrs Beste-Chetwynde. “Are you in England for long?”

“Why, I live in England, of course,” said Lady Circumference.

“My dear, how divine!”


Even Prendergast gets drunk at the Sports and contributes with unwonted spirit, chatting volubly and shooting little Tangent in the foot. Though reticent and bemused, Paul is not unaffected. Llanabba's cheerful defiance of middle-class convention begins to erode the drab values he has brought with him from Onslow Square, school, and Oxford, and what begins as an awful ordeal turns into a liberating experience.

While Grimes best represents the spirit of Llanabba, another spirit beckons to Paul from Oxford: the ghost of his own past, embodied in the person of Arthur Potts, one of Paul's four friends. A monitory figure, Potts is what Paul was at Oxford, and what he might become. Potts, like Grimes, resembles one of Waugh's fellow ushers, in this case a certain Attwell whom Waugh knew briefly at Aston Clinton:

He was educated at King's School, Worcester, and retains a slight accent, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he seems to have led the dullest life imaginable. He is very keen on education and I have only just begun to cure him of talking to me seriously about it. … He took a second in English Literature and is not wholly uneducated, but he has a mean and ill-digested mind with a sort of part rationalism and part idealism.15

Even down to the keenness on education, this describes Potts almost perfectly. Potts, for example, writes to Paul at Llanabba:

There is a most interesting article in the Educational Review on the new methods that are being tried at the Innesborough High School to induce co-ordination of the senses. They put small objects into the children's mouths and make them draw the shapes in red chalk. Have you tried this with your boys?


The absurdity of such rarefied theory in the context of Llanabba reveals the great gap between Paul's arid Oxford education and the more fruitful lessons of Llanabba. While Potts combines rationalistic theories with a horrible complacency (“Are your colleagues enlightened?”), Paul has encountered actual life—irrational, intractable, disruptive, immensely vigorous.

Like good and bad angels in a morality play, Potts and Grimes compete for Paul's soul. The lines of battle emerge from Alastair Trumpington's offer to compensate Paul for his expulsion from Oxford. Recognizing the offer as “a test-case of the durability of my ideals,” Paul deliberates conscientiously about whether to accept the money. The spirit of Grimes and Llanabba urges Paul to cast off his scruples. Even Prendergast counsels common sense: “My dear boy, it would be a sin to refuse” (55). On the other hand, the spirit of Potts whispers in Paul's ear, priggishly:

If I refuse, I shall be sure of having done right. I shall look back upon my self-denial with exquisite self-approval. By refusing I can convince myself that, in spite of the unbelievable things that have been happening to me during the last ten days, I am still the same Paul Pennyfeather I have respected so long.


The alternatives are clear—and Paul not surprisingly chooses Potts, explaining to Grimes: “I'm afraid you'll find my attitude rather difficult to understand. … It's largely a matter of upbringing” (55). But the significance of the incident lies not in Paul's characteristic decision nor even, really, in Grimes's equally characteristic intervention—wiring Potts in Paul's name to send the twenty pounds—but in Paul's unexpected reaction when Grimes confesses that he has done so. Against all his upbringing and education, Paul is delighted: “‘Grimes, you wretch!’ said Paul, but, in spite of himself, he felt a great wave of satisfaction surge up within him. ‘We must have another drink on that’” (56). Potts, “something of a stinker,” as Grimes astutely infers, writes in response: “I cannot pretend to understand your attitude in this matter” (56–57); but Paul has been liberated from the puritan self-righteousness of Potts and initiated into the more tolerant ethos of Llanabba:

“To the durability of ideals,” said Paul as he got his pint.

“My word, what a mouthful!” said Grimes; “I can't say that. Cheerioh!”


Free-spirited and impulsive, Grimes has defeated Potts—at least for the moment.

Paul's Llanabba has become the equivalent of Waugh's Oxford—not the insipid Oxford of Potts, but the sparkling Oxford of Harold Acton and the Hypocrites.

The Grimesian spirit governs Decline and Fall, but not without a murmur of dissent here and there, and particularly in the somewhat digressive chapter on the background of King's Thursday, which Waugh added in revision to help fill out the book.

This chapter focuses on Margot Beste-Chetwynde's Hampshire country house, the modernistic creation of one Otto Silenus, whose name recalls the book about Silenus (“a Falstaff forever babbling o' green fields”) that Waugh had projected in 1925. The Silenus of Decline and Fall, however—mechanistic and indeed scarcely human—has little to do with Falstaff or green fields. A satiric allusion to the functionalist, factory-inspired “international style” creeping into England in the 1920s from Germany, Silenus combines the “significant form” aesthetics of Clive Bell and Roger Fry with the technocrat's passion for efficiency:

The problem of architecture as I see it … is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best. All ill comes from man. … Man is never beautiful; he is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces.


The unruly inefficiency of human energy saddens him:

“I suppose there ought to be a staircase,” he said gloomily. “Why can't the creatures stay in one place? Up and down, in and out, round and round! Why can't they sit still and work? Do dynamos require staircases? Do monkeys require houses?”


And Silenus himself hums with turbo-electric energy, recharging as he lies sleepless at night, “… his brain turning and turning regularly all the night through, drawing in more and more power, storing it away like honey in its intricate cells and galleries, till the atmosphere about it became exhausted and vitiated and only the brain remained turning and turning in the darkness” (152). Rationalist and utilitarian, puritanically unornamented, the international style asserted values profoundly inimical to Decline and Fall's celebration of spontaneity, diversity, and quirkiness—the Grimesian virtues. Gropius's leading academic champion, Nikolaus Pevsner, several years later summarized the ideological implications of the new architecture:

The profound affinity of this modern enthusiasm for planning (architectural as well as political) with the style of Gropius's Fagus factory is evident. The forms of the building reveal the mind of an artist but also of a concentrated thinker. … The warm and direct feelings of the great men of the past have gone; but then the artist who is representative of this century of ours must needs be cold, as he stands for a century cold as steel and glass, a century the precision of which leaves less space for self-expression than did any period before.

However, the great creative brain will find its own way even in times of overpowering collective energy, even with the medium of the new style of the twentieth century which, because it is a genuine style as opposed to a passing fashion, is totalitarian.16

A manifesto not greatly unlike Waugh's parody, but Pevsner wrote in earnest admiration, and the terms of his praise unmistakably suggest that there will be no place for someone like Grimes in the brave new world of the international style.

The new King's Thursday's chilly modernity contrasts sharply with the exaggerated backwardness of the old house, and it is in sketching the background of the original King's Thursday that Waugh's reservations about Grimesian anarchy emerge.

As part of his field researches for Rossetti, Waugh visited Kelmscott, William Morris's country house west of Oxford, shortly after he began writing Decline and Fall. A gabled Elizabethan manor house of Cotswold stone, sitting snugly within a small enclosed garden, Kelmscott stands, still relatively isolated, among meadows flanking the upper Thames. Surprised by Kelmscott's compactness, Waugh wondered how it could have accommodated Morris's large household: “The rooms are very low and dark and the whole effect rather cramped and constricted. We could not conceive how so many people lived there.”17 The diminutive scale was a characteristic disappointment—“I had imagined it all so spacious”—for someone who preferred the grand scale of Brideshead. But during his study of Rossetti Waugh had developed a sympathetic appreciation of Morris's values and the little estate where Morris “found sacramentally embodied all that he held of high account of beauty and sweetness and dignity,” as Waugh observed in Rossetti. “Here, in small compass, lay everything for which his art and his work was striving—peace, fellowship, love, childhood, beauty, simplicity, abundance” (183–84), Waugh wrote; then he quoted a character in Morris's utopian fantasy News From Nowhere, which concludes with a journey up the Thames to a house based on Kelmscott: “O me! O me! How I love the earth and the seasons and weather, and all things that deal with them, and all that grows out of them—as this has done” (184).

As Waugh thought about the sort of chic house suitable for Margot Beste-Chetwynde, Kelmscott seems to have come to mind as the exact antithesis to her turbulent modern spirit. Paul Pennyfeather first arrives at King's Thursday on a pleasant spring day:

The temperate April sunlight fell through the budding chestnuts and revealed between their trunks green glimpses of parkland and the distant radiance of a lake. “English spring,” thought Paul. “In the dreaming ancestral beauty of the English country.” Surely, he thought, these great chestnuts in the morning sun stood for something enduring and serene in a world that had lost its reason and would so stand when the chaos and confusion were forgotten? And surely it was the spirit of William Morris that whispered to him in Margot Beste-Chetwynde's motor-car about seed-time and harvest, the superb succession of the seasons, the harmonious interdependence of rich and poor, of dignity, innocence and tradition?


But such sentiments prove inept when the house itself bulks into view, for the venerable old King's Thursday, “enduring and serene,” has been demolished and replaced by the creation of Otto Silenus.

The old King's Thursday was absurdly backward, but for all its absurdity it preserved certain William Morris values to which Waugh responded sympathetically:

The estate-carpenter, an office hereditary in the family of the original joiner who had panelled the halls and carved the great staircase, did such restorations as became necessary from time to time for the maintenance of the fabric, working with the same tools and with the traditional methods, so that in a few years his work became indistinguishable from that of his grandsires.


Waugh's reading of Morris and his admiration for a well-cut dovetail here converged, products respectively of Rossetti and of his own recent carpentry lessons.

But such calm and stability do not prosper in the modern world as it is imagined in Decline and Fall. Governed by random, violent energy, that world resents the quiet enjoyment of life wherever such tranquillity might be lurking. When the slow-moving Pastmasters abandon King's Thursday, Margot Beste-Chetwynde quickly razes it, capriciously and perversely considering the rare old house common: “I can't think of anything more bourgeois and awful than timbered Tudor architecture” (140) (“I find that I am beginning to detest Elizabethan architecture owing to the vulgarities of Stratford-on-Avon,” Waugh had written in his diary).18 The image of Margot knocking down the old King's Thursday suggests Waugh's conflicting impulses: he was sympathetic with both the reckless impulsiveness of Margot and the quieter values enshrined in the old house, but in 1928 he was much more deeply enchanted with Margot.

A decade later, Waugh was mourning the demolition of many of London's old houses, but Decline and Fall is scarcely touched by such tender sentiments. The half-hearted attempt of Jack Spire, editor of the London Hercules, to save King's Thursday is derisive:

Mr Jack Spire was busily saving St Sepulchre's, Egg Street (where Dr Johnson is said once to have attended Matins), when Margot Beste-Chetwynde's decision to rebuild King's Thursday became public. He said, very seriously: “Well, we did what we could,” and thought no more about it.


Spire is a transparent allusion to J. C. Squire, who (Waugh thought) represented the folklore image of a merry-old, cricket-playing England that Waugh considered as spurious as modern timbered architecture. The Waugh of Decline and Fall scorned, or affected to scorn, sentimental wistfulness for preindustrial life, or at least for the quaint trappings of agrarian England. A year later he compiled a catalogue of what he considered antiquarian offenses:

… arts and crafts, and the preservation of rural England, and the preservation of ancient monuments, and the transplantation of Tudor cottages, and the collection of pewter and old oak, and the reformed public house, and the Ye Olde Inne and the Kynde Dragone and Ye Cheshire Cheese, Broadway, Stratford-on-Avon, folk dancing …

(Labels, 55–56)

and so on at great length. Under the guise of historical preservation, entrepreneurs traded on nostalgic sentimentality to spawn middle-class tourist “attractions.” Writing in 1929 in praise of the slums of Naples, he asserted: “In England, the craze for cottages and all that goes with them only began as soon as they had ceased to represent a significant part of English life. In Naples no such craze exists because the streets are still in perfect harmony with their inhabitants” (Labels, 56). The old King's Thursday harmonized with the indolent Pastmasters, who had never themselves arrived in the twentieth century, but the antiquarianism of people like Jack Spire or the Pastmasters' neighbors was self-indulgent, soft-boiled, dilettante:

“I thought we might go over to tea at the Pastmasters',” hostesses would say after luncheon on Sundays. “You really must see their house. Quite unspoilt, my dear. Professor Franks, who was here last week, said it was recognized as the finest piece of domestic Tudor in England.”


After calling on the Pastmasters, “they would drive away in their big motor-cars to their modernized manors” and sit “in their hot baths” (138). Perhaps this sort of weekend nostalgia was close enough to Waugh's own wistfulness to make him feel a little uncomfortable; perhaps Margot's wrecking ball was an oblique attack on his father's theatrical Victorian sentimentality. In any event, Decline and Fall does not go easy on nostalgia.

For all its confusion of grim factory style and splashy Art Deco—bottle-green glass floors and black glass pillars, malachite bath and kaleidoscopic drawing-room—Silenus's King's Thursday nonetheless represents the vital energy of the era. A “new-born monster to whose birth ageless and forgotten cultures had been in travail,” it is an architectural image of 1920s England. In 1928 Waugh was twenty-four years old, his appetite for experience was keen, and the “new-born monster,” despite its aesthetic horrors, represented the world as it lay before him. Despite his fond backward glance at the old King's Thursday of the Pastmasters, he confronted the contemporary world with high relish for its “vitality and actuality.” Decline and Fall's strongest sympathies are with the impulsive, anarchic energy of Grimes and Margot; and their impulse is to knock down old houses when the fancy strikes them.

From architecture Decline and Fall turns to other adventures: Margot's recruitment of prostitutes; Paul's trip to Marseilles; his arrest, trial, and conviction for abetting Margot's business; prisons; Paul's “death” at Dr. Fagan's bogus nursing home; his revival at Margot's villa at Corfu. Grimes turns up now and then in the later chapters, but Paul's continuing education is largely taken over by Margot. Wealthy, worldly, exquisitely elegant and fashionable, “the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées” (89), she is superficially very unlike the peg-legged, hand-to-mouth Grimes, but like Grimes she is spiritually anarchic, wholly amoral, beyond conventional standards of judgment. Although her restless energy leaves a wake of destruction, with Paul one of her victims, he easily forgives her; just as Grimes is one of the immortals, Margot too is a goddess. Neither can be confined by stone walls. Margot combines and burlesques two extremes, the criminal underworld and the high opulent style, spanning the novel's range of sympathies.

As Margot drives the action forward, Paul is pulled along behind. Though often baffling, his schooling in life continues, confirming and supplementing the lessons of Llanabba. Beyond the cramped circle of conventional respectability and neat academic theory to which he was previously limited, a multifarious and chaotic world flourishes. It can be ignored or condemned, but it refuses to be suppressed. The most spectacular collision between Grimes's and Potts's worlds is provoked by Sir Wilfrid Lucas-Dockery, the professorial prison warden whose enlightened reforms at Blackstone Prison, as irrelevant to actual prison conditions as Potts's educational ideas were to Llanabba, are dramatically refuted by the bloodthirsty visionary who decapitates Prendergast: a sad end for Prendergast, but a happy example of anarchy triumphant. Paul's passage through the underworld gives him the liberal education he was not getting at Oxford.

But Paul is not Grimes, nor was meant to be. At Llanabba, at King's Thursday, and in prison, he learns the limitations of his own background; but he can never quite escape it. His narrow, conventional self keeps surfacing. When Philbrick, for example, narrates one of his criminal fantasies, Paul responds indignantly: “‘But, good gracious,’ said Paul, ‘why have you told me this monstrous story? I shall certainly inform the police. I never heard of such a thing’” (70)—exactly what Potts would have said and done. Hopelessly naive about Margot Beste-Chetwynde's South American brothels, Paul travels to Marseilles, only to shrink from the crowded street life of the slums: “He turned and fled for the broad streets and the tram lines where, he knew at heart, was his spiritual home” (181). As he moves through the implausible events of the novel's latter half, he grows less censorious about the irregularities he encounters, but he can never really become a free spirit himself.

And in the end he returns to Oxford and to all appearances resumes the life he had led before his expulsion, reading divinity at Scone and bicycling to talks on Polish plebiscites, while a dull character named Stubbs replaces the dull Potts as his friend. After Paul's liberation from Potts at Llanabba, he seems to have fallen straight back into Potts's dreary milieu, a flagrant case of recidivism. But he actually belongs neither to Potts's nor to Grimes's world now, and instead stands aloof from both. Although his Oxford life is superficially unchanged, it has become a charade:

On one occasion he and Stubbs and some other friends went to the prison to visit the criminals there and sing part-songs to them.

“It opens the mind,” said Stubbs, “to see all sides of life. How those unfortunate men appreciated our singing!”


Paul doesn't answer; the gap between his varied experience of the world and Stubbs's complacent insularity is too wide to bridge. Though back in his old Oxford routine, Paul is no more at home at Oxford now than he had been at Llanabba. Outwardly occupied with his bland, studious routine and his circle of tedious acquaintances, Paul is nonetheless wiser and rather tougher now, aware of how much life pullulates beyond the smooth and tidy quadrangles of Scone. With this knowledge, there can be no genuine return to Potts.

Aware that Stubbs and Potts and their kind are his kind, however, and represent his future, he acts a deliberately chosen role, resigning himself to essay societies and cocoa, subduing his uneasy knowledge of his own futility, living at second hand in the passions of dusty theological controversies:

There was a bishop in Bithynia, Paul learned, who had denied the Divinity of Christ, the immortality of the soul, the existence of good, the legality of marriage, and the validity of the sacrament of Extreme Unction! How right they had been to condemn him!


Timid scholarly ferocity substitutes for any real engagement with life. The world boils with heterodox energy, with eccentrics and criminals, heretics and lunatics, with irrepressible weedlike vigor, but all that is outside and Paul has shut the door on it. Just beyond his rooms, in fact, the Bollinger Club is again partying noisily. Until the very last night of his first undergraduate career, Paul had never heard of the Bollinger, and if he had known of them he would have disapproved. Now, very much aware of them, he is neither sympathetic nor disapproving; but he does not want to get involved again, does not even want to be reminded of his earlier involvement with the Bollinger and all its consequences.

Peter Beste-Chetwynde, stumbling into his rooms, is a further reminder of the past, and Paul resents the intrusion. Peter is “dynamic” and Paul is “static”; Paul acknowledges this truth and disciplines himself to be content with his lot. When Peter leaves, Paul goes to bed—to sleep his life away, as it were, while others live theirs, awake.

Peter and Paul, in fact, both originate in Waugh himself. Peter is very drunk, but evidently more as a consequence of boredom than of celebration: “Oh, damn, what else is there to do?” he complains (252). Waugh too was sometimes a Bollinger in spirit, riotous and reckless; but he derived little solid comfort from his excesses, and, like Paul, he sometimes wanted to retreat, to close the door against the noisy outer world. Though bubbling throughout with comic effervescence, Decline and Fall ends on a subdued note of withdrawal.

The fruitless circularity of Paul Pennyfeather's experience, the uncertain mood of the ending, a series of playful religious and ecclesiastical allusions, and a knowledge of Waugh's later career—all these elements of the novel have, in some combination, led more than one critic to detect a deliberate and profound moral argument in Decline and Fall. Jerome Meckier, for example, finds the novel's meaning concealed in “symbolic shorthand”; in fact, “Symbols are always the key to Waugh's art.” With this in mind, Paul's circular experience can be seen as a modern parody of the fruitful cycle of the seasons and the sacred cycle of the Christian calendar, models that expose the futility of the contemporary secular world. Paul, then, is “a parodic Christ”; Philbrick the butler is a “bogus Messiah” whose fantastic autobiographical inventions are a parody of the Transfiguration; Prendergast is a “parodic martyr”; and so on.19

This is one way to read Decline and Fall, of course—anyone who puts out money for the book owns his own copy—but it seems a particularly pedantic and humorless reading, and one that certainly would have astounded Waugh himself; the furthest thing from his mind was an allegorical parody of secular society or a history of the moral decline of Christian civilization. Decline and Fall is a mythic transformation of intensely private experience into broad comedy: an amorphous lump of his own life moulded into aesthetically satisfying shape. It had very little to do with his politico-religio-moral ideology, whatever it may have been at the time. The wistful and despairing tone of the ending suggests the novel's roots in Waugh's unsettled feelings, the comic possibilities of life competing with, and consoling him for, painful experience.

But the governing spirit of the novel is not at all ambiguous. Decline and Fall belongs to Grimes and Margot and their fellows, the characters who live most dangerously and most fully:

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.

Decline and Fall is vernal and youthful, eager for experience, in love with the living and the actual. It is the novel of a young man on the outside, familiar with disappointment but unscarred, inclined to wistfulness but brimming with inventiveness and anarchic zest. Waugh's comic genius never flourished more happily.


  1. Diaries, 3 September 1927.

  2. Dudley Carew, A Fragment of Friendship (London: Everest Books, 1974), pp. 81–82.

  3. Anthony Powell, Messengers of Day, Vol. 2 of The Memoirs of Anthony Powell (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978), p. 22.

  4. To Harold Acton, undated (early 1928) (Letters, p. 25).

  5. To Anthony Powell, 7 April 1928 (Letters, p. 27).

  6. Preface to Decline and Fall, revised ed. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1962), p. 11.

  7. To Harold Acton, undated (September/October 1928) (Letters, p. 28).

  8. The comic rhetoric of this passage is discussed in detail in Walter Nash, The Language of Humour (London: Longman, 1985), pp. 22–25.

  9. Jeffrey Heath, Picturesque Prison, warns against being seduced into liking Waugh's bad characters: “The discrepancy between the levels of action and parable creates an ambivalent tone of condemnation and compassion; as a result of this deceptive tone Waugh is able to ambush readers who mistakenly sympathize with characters whom he in fact deplores” (122). I think that this comment confuses fiction with life. Characters like Lady Circumference—based on the mother of Waugh's friend Alastair Graham—might be boring and awful as houseguests or neighbors and might even be morally deplorable; but they may be fascinating and even sympathetic characters in fiction, where they are aesthetic objects to which we respond with different standards. Replying, years after Decline and Fall, to an interviewer who mentioned fictional characters like Pistol and Moll Flanders, Waugh remarked: “Ah, the criminal classes. … They have always had a certain fascination.” To assert that the dramatic interest of Falstaff (to take another example) is that he demonstrates Shakespeare's disapprobation of robbery, cowardice, lying, lechery, and drunkenness not only would be banal, but would altogether mistake Shakespeare's, and our, attitude to Falstaff.

  10. Good discussions of Waugh's comic style may be found in William J. Cook, Jr., Masks, Modes, and Morals: The Art of Evelyn Waugh (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971); and in Littlewood, Writings of Waugh, pp. 36–65.

  11. Diaries, 2 October 1927.

  12. Ibid., 14 May 1925.

  13. Ibid., 3 July 1925.

  14. Claud Cockburn, “Evelyn Waugh's Lost Rabbit,” The Atlantic, December 1973, p. 54.

  15. Diaries, 8 February 1927.

  16. Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of the Modern Movement: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1937), pp. 205–6.

  17. Diaries, 6 October 1927.

  18. Ibid., 11 September 1925.

  19. Jerome Meckier, “Circle, Symbol and Parody in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall,Contemporary Literature 20 (1979): 51–75.

Frederick L. Beaty (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Decline and Fall,” in The Ironic World of Evelyn Waugh: A Study of Eight Novels, Northern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 32–51.

[In the following essay, Beaty analyzes the ironic tone of Decline and Fall.]

For Decline and Fall, in manuscript subtitled “The Making of an Englishman,” Waugh invents a complex of shocking disparities through which to demonstrate the reeducation of his central character, Paul Pennyfeather, whose initial beliefs about the world are shattered by his experiential discoveries of its actual nature. The series of riotous picaresque adventures that strip away Paul's illusions about honor, love, society, education, the church, the law, the prison system, and even human nature detail his fall from blissful naiveté to a painful awareness of evil. Although exposure to the chaos of modern life forces him to question the behavioral codes of his stable, upper middle-class background—precepts which he confidently assumed to be adequate and appropriate for coping with any difficulties—the conflict between idealism and disillusionment is never wholly resolved. Ultimately he comes to realize that since neither approach offers the complete truth about life each must, as in Hegelian dialectics, be used to temper the other. The novel as a whole may therefore be viewed as an ironic parody of the Bildungsroman—one which, neither debasing the genre nor treating it seriously, merely plays with it in unexpected ways.1

Contributing much to the success of irony in Decline and Fall is the positioning of a detached narrator between author and central character. The novel's apparent cynicism toward suffering and death is therefore not necessarily the sentiment of the author, who has distanced himself from the work, but rather of an indifferent storyteller who represents the usual callousness of humanity. The disinterested pose of the narrator serves negatively, however, to stimulate the increased emotional involvement of the reader, who might consider obtrusive condemnation of evil as preachy or, especially in this fallen world, where innocence is often equated with stupidity, might regard overt sympathy with the victim as sentimental.

The narrator's disengagement also permits him, in the Belgravia interlude, to add an unusual dimension as he steps back from his story to comment interpretively on his own art, temporarily breaking the artistic illusion in a way typical of romantic irony.2 This brief digression, strategically placed midway in the novel to show how incomplete Paul's education still is, allows the narrator to play ironically with both the central character and the reader about the nature of reality.3 For a few hours Paul emerges from the disjointed world into which ill circumstances have thrust him to reenter a civilized milieu where he believes a gentleman can feel at home, although the betrayals he has suffered in Oxford and West End London would seem to belie his trust in such an environment. His conviction that he is once again a solid person in a solid world is also contrasted ironically with his fading memory of recent misadventures amid the “sham” of Llanabba as if they were only “nightmares.” But the narrator, while confirming the dichotomy of Paul's two worlds, offers no clear resolution of which is reality and which is illusion. He merely explains that he is obliged to return Paul to the shadowy subworld, where the extraordinary adventures which are “the only interest about him” will be resumed.4 Implying that a passive character like Paul is incapable of the heroism expected by readers of 1920s thrillers, the narrator comments that the “book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather, so that readers must not complain if the shadow which took his name does not amply fill the important part of hero for which he was originally cast” (163).

In presenting the circumstances that lead eventually to Paul's “disappearance,” the narrator, whose customary stance is almost complete objectivity, can indicate the confusion in Paul's life merely by detailing the physical objects in a certain environment as clues to the actions and characters associated with it. In such cases, metonymy functions ironically by indirectly conveying ideas about people and places without ever stating them. Although Waugh had toyed with this technique in “The Balance” by hinting information about Adam's friends through the contents of their rooms, he developed it fully for the first time in Decline and Fall. The particulars of Silenus's Bauhaus renovations at King's Thursday suggest the architect's own sterile, mechanically oriented mind. The description of Margot's “Sports Room” in her London home proclaims the kind of jobs being offered to the “young ladies” whom she interviews there: the lights are in testicular glass balls; the furniture is “ingeniously” constructed of phallic bats, polo sticks, and golf clubs; and a wall is decorated with the painting of a prize ram, presumably a symbol of male potency. The masters' common room at Llanabba, which Paul surveys apprehensively upon first encounter, provides him as well as the reader, through its material jumble, with a foretaste of the school's zany teaching staff. Scattered about in defiance of order are pipes, academic gowns, “golf clubs, a walking stick, an umbrella and two miniature rifles … a typewriter … a bicycle pump, two armchairs, a straight chair, half a bottle of invalid port, a boxing glove, a bowler hat, yesterday's Daily News, and a packet of pipe cleaners” (19–20).

Lack of cohesion also exists in social relations. Paul, an orphan, has no real family, and his uncaring guardian exploits him and his inheritance whenever possible. In the Fagan and Trumpington families the generations show little understanding of each other, and the elder Circumferences seem to have no genuine love for their son. Marriage becomes just another contractual business to Margot Beste-Chetwynde, Maltravers, Silenus, and Grimes, while the many instances of casual sex provide no lasting connection. The relations between instructors and students, at both Llanabba and Oxford, are a burlesque of the ideal, for each group takes advantage of the other. Paul's best friend, Potts, betrays their friendship, and Philbrick's tales suggest that there can be no trust between any men. Members of the upper class—the Circumferences, Peter Pastmaster, and the parvenu Maltravers—ignore their traditional obligations of leadership in favor of self-interest. Members of the Bollinger Club, in their destruction of items symbolizing music, art, and poetry, prove themselves not just indifferent but hostile to culture. From the perspective of the ironic narrator, all this indicates a civilization that has lost its bearing—one in which traditional bonds no longer hold it together. Hence Silenus's analogy of a turning carnival wheel is an apt symbol of frenzied circular motion with only centrifugal force and no advancement. As Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”5

Even Scone College—that Oxonian Eden from which Paul is banished and to which he returns only in reincarnation—is itself part of the fallen world. Yet until its evil is thrust upon him, he is as oblivious as was the youthful Waugh, who reminisced in his autobiography about an Oxford that seemed “a Kingdom of Cokayne,” where he “was reborn in full youth” after a cocoonlike development in a public school.6 Blind to the perils that surround him, Paul is rudely shaken out of his chrysalis existence and then borne along on a stream of events that, at every turn, frustrate his hopes and desires. Naively assuming that external appearances are the indications of ultimate validity, he discovers to his repeated sorrow that people are not what they seem. Inexperienced and highly vulnerable, he becomes the victim of many schemes and situations in a world ruled not by justice or reason but by capricious fortune.

Paul's true education begins with the opening episode at Scone. This fast-moving sequence of events, seen from several perspectives, serves as catalyst for all subsequent action and, as a particularly successful display of ironic artistry, merits detailed analysis. Even the names of the characters seem unsuitable. “Pennyfeather” symbolizes an insignificance at odds with the main character's central position. “Sniggs” and “Postlethwaite,” by their ludicrously undignified sounds, hint at the fraudulent nature of these college dons, while the uncommonly pretentious names of Bollinger members (Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and Lumsden of Strathdrummond) imply a boastfulness not in keeping with true aristocrats. Other touches of irony intrude through inappropriate words, phrases, or tones. “Lovely” is the narrator's term to describe both the depredations of the Bollinger Club and the subsequent meeting of college officials to assess punishment. The hyperbolic “What an evening that had been!” (1) characterizes destruction during the Club's previous reunion. When the drunken Lumsden encounters Paul, the laird's primitive instincts are implied in an analogy likening him to “a druidical rocking stone” (5). Another irony pivots upon the mention of “outrage,” which the college dons fear may occur if they interfere with the Bollinger attack on Paul, whereas an outrage of a different sort does occur because they do nothing. When Paul is described as one who “does the College no good” (7), the ostensible reference to academic reputation cloaks an actual allusion to financial gain. The chaplain's enigmatic suggestion that the “ideals” Paul has “learned at Scone” may be of use in the business world is subject to several interpretations. It may insinuate that someone like Paul, whose values seem to be less than ideal, should do well in a profession not noted for idealism. It may imply that what Paul has recently learned in college about human behavior is contrary to what a university ought to teach. Or it may indicate the naiveté of a chaplain mouthing his usual, but in this case highly inappropriate, platitudes to a departing student.

The action of the Scone episode also abounds in contradiction, some of which cuts in more than one direction. The willful and extensive damage to several college rooms during the Bollinger Club's rampage, for which its members are assessed relatively low fines, contrasts with the damage noticed in Paul's room—two slight, certainly unintentional, cigarette burns, for which the bursar assesses comparatively high charges. These minor burns, in turn, contrast with the colossal injury done to Paul himself by that same bursar, who witnessed yet did not interfere with Paul's debagging; and the moderate fining of the Bollinger members, compared with Paul's expulsion for something of which he was completely innocent, represents a further miscarriage of justice. In the realm of cause and effect, substantial losses to the unpopular students—china, a piano, a Matisse painting, and a manuscript—result in only minimal benefit to the dons of some Founder's port. Conversely, the seemingly insignificant mistaking of Paul's tie, the stripes of which differed only by a quarter of an inch in width from those of the Boller tie, sets off a chain of disastrous occurrences that result in the complete obliteration of Paul's identity.

Underlying and controlling these sharply contrasting events at Scone are broader incongruities of perspective; and the hilarity of the episode derives largely from the clash between the distinctive attitudes of Paul Pennyfeather, the college authorities, and the Bollinger members about Paul's inadvertent fall from innocence. The wielders of academic power—the bursar, the junior dean, the master, and the chaplain—think and behave, in view of their obligations, contrary to what the reader and Paul would expect. Even the porter, by assuming Paul's guilt, echoes their demoralizing point of view. The dons who gleefully watch the Bollinger mayhem from a darkened window, without any intention of halting it, dwell upon their own potential benefit from the anticipated fines—the more horrendous the destruction, the greater the gain. Hence Sniggs can utter, according to his own logic, the illogical prayer, “Oh, please God, make them attack the Chapel” (3). A hypocritical conscience besets them momentarily when they think a titled student has run afoul of the Bollinger members but evaporates when they realize that the victim is only Pennyfeather, “some one of no importance” (6). The same double standard is exhibited by the master, who decides to expel Paul ostensibly for running through the quad “without his trousers” but actually because he is not wealthy enough to profit the college through substantial fines. In a burlesque of sweetness and sympathy, the chaplain bids Paul look on the bright side of his disgrace—that he has discovered so early his “unfitness for the priesthood” (8). But the porter's juxtaposed observation—that most students who are “sent down for indecent behaviour” (8) become schoolmasters—implies Paul's suitability for a profession usually thought to abide by principles as high as those of the clergy.

Members of the Bollinger Club, far from living up to their aristocratic titles, prove themselves to be barbarians. Their overweening sense of self-importance is skillfully undermined in the opening passages describing the gathering of old members for the annual “beano.” Through repeated wrenching of tone involving overstatement deflated by pejorative adjectives or demeaning nouns, the narrator alerts the reader to the discrepancy between their social status and their true character: “Epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; … illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands” (1-2). Their behavior at reunions suggests their belief that they are above the gentlemanly code, just as Lady Circumference's defiance of grammar implies her assumption that she is not bound by conventional rules. Liberated by alcohol, the Bollinger members give vent to their atavistic hunting instincts, perpetuated, long after being essential for survival, in the ritualistic sport of county families. Their quarry may be a caged fox, which they pelt to death with champagne bottles, or unpopular students, whose prized possessions they destroy. To indicate the bestiality of their reversion to habits of primitive ancestors, the narrator employs animal analogies—“confused roaring” (1) and “baying for broken glass” (2). The absurdity of their pretensions is further exposed when the oafish Lumsden, whose dubious distinction stems from wild chieftain forebears, becomes incensed at Paul for wearing what appears to be a Boller tie. In Lumsden's way of thinking, such presumption in a middle-class Englishman merits public disgrace.

Paul's acquaintance with Dionysian forces has been more theoretical than actual, and his confident unawareness of the evil around him has reduced his ability to cope with it. So oblivious has he been to the very existence of the Bollinger Club that he cannot conceive of having done anything to incur the wrath of its members. What transpires in his mind while he is being debagged or what his response is to the college authorities when they expel him is never recorded. The detached narrator so rarely delves into characters' innermost thoughts that the reader is often held in a state of uncertainty that heightens the irony of this crucial situation. Although it is possible to deduce from external evidence that neither the guilty Bollinger members nor the witnessing dons, who presumably offer only partial and therefore misleading evidence to the master, have the slightest interest in justice, the bitter reaction of their abused, maligned victim is revealed only when Paul utters his valedictory curse on all the malefactors.

The world into which Paul is thrust also evaluates according to outward manifestations rather than true worth. Every phase of his life as a schoolmaster is fraught with discrepancies. He is initially forced to seek employment because his guardian views expulsion from Oxford as sufficient reason to abrogate Paul's inheritance; the employment agency, though euphemistically recording “indecent behaviour” as “education discontinued for personal reasons” (12), uses Paul's disgrace to refer him to a school of the lowest category; and his employer finds it an excuse to hire him at reduced pay. Even the appearance of the Llanabba school building, misnamed a castle, accentuates the discrepancy between the genuine and the sham, for what had originally been a Georgian country home (and remains so from the back) has had a pretentious medieval fortress superimposed upon its front. Compounding the incongruity of the structure is the irony of Paul's inability to notice it because he arrives at night in a closed taxi.

The instructional system itself is a jumble of contradictions, for Llanabba is dedicated not to teaching and learning but to the semblance of education for wealthy boys who cannot gain admission to a reputable public school. The disparate assessments of young Lord Tangent, first by the unctuous headmaster, Dr. Fagan, and later by Tangent's brutally candid mother, stem from the conflict between rosy façade and harsh reality. Fagan, explaining that “many of the boys come from the very best families,” characterizes “little Lord Tangent …, the Earl of Circumference's son,” as “such a nice little chap, erratic, of course, like all his family, but he has tone” (16). Lady Circumference cuts through the veneer with “The boy's a dunderhead. If he wasn't he wouldn't be here” (85). Although Fagan may equivocate about the quality of his pupils, his less guarded statements and actions expose his fraudulence. While spouting the positive philosophy of educationists, paying lip service to “professional tone,” “vision,” and the “ideal of service and fellowship” (15–16), he encourages his masters to practice something quite different. Under his tutelage, Paul learns to “temper discretion with deceit” (24)—passing himself off as an expert in athletics or organ playing even when he has no competence whatever. On advice from another master, Paul forgets about teaching the boys anything and concentrates upon merely keeping them quiet with busywork. While he struggles with the down-to-earth problems of his situation, the high-flown educational theories offered by his pompous friend Potts further emphasize the discrepancy between educational philosophy and its misapplication at Llanabba.

That Fagan's choice of masters is dictated not by pedagogical considerations but solely by the impressions they make on his patrons is clear from his comments on unsatisfactory employees. Fagan tells of one master “who swore terribly in front of every one” (76) when bitten by a parent's dog; of another he states, “He is not out of the top drawer, and boys notice these things”; of a third, “He used to borrow money from the boys … and the parents objected” (16). Fagan's primary concern is to perpetuate the scholastic charade, which is staged to gain financial support from the school's affluent patrons. The masters, therefore, as part of “the act,” must be favorably received on the superficial level; and their real characters do not matter. When Fagan declines to inquire into the details of Paul's “indecent behaviour,” he lays bare his cynicism and contempt for ideals in his most self-betraying remark: “I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal” (15).

Against this background, the incident of the £20 offered Paul by Alastair Trumpington to compensate for the ruination of his Oxford career is presented through a delightful series of ironies undermining the inviolable honor code of English gentlemen. Paul's moral dilemma occurs when Potts's incensed refusal of the money is countermanded by less idealistic colleagues at Llanabba. In fact, when Paul admits with double entendre that the £20 represents “a temptation,” the Rev. Prendergast, following through in the religious vein with advice unexpected of a clergyman, replies that “it would be a sin to refuse” (52). Paul's subsequent struggle with his conscience, in which temptation is overcome by the need to keep his self-respect and to prove “the durability of … ideals” (53) bred into him as a gentleman, appears incompatible with his facile accommodation to Fagan's dishonest ways. Since Paul seems to feel no guilt for having compromised educational values, his belief that it would be dishonorable to accept compensation for personal damages becomes particularly absurd, New dimensions in the irony are introduced when the unscrupulous Grimes resolves the problem quite simply. Having forged an acceptance in Paul's name, Grimes explains: “I'm a gentleman too … and I was afraid you might feel like that, so I … saved you from yourself” (54). Paul's delighted response, “in spite of himself,” with a toast “to the durability of ideals” (54) explodes the original meaning of these words. In this altered context a tribute to the undeviating code that Grimes ignores signifies (whether or not Paul realizes it) a more pragmatic orientation toward ideals. Waugh's narrator makes a final comic pass at this episode during the later sports event, when Lady Circumference tells Paul that, according to her sister's account, her nephew Trumpington has recently been fined £20. Only Paul and the reader can deduce the unstated—that Trumpington, to allay his conscience for a previous wrongdoing, has committed another by getting the money under false pretenses.

Though Waugh's account of the Llanabba sports event provides verbal pleasures and unexpected occurrences of small dimension, the main ironic thrust in this section is on a much grander scale. The conflict between assumed appearance and underlying reality is, in fact, presented on two levels—the chaotic sports themselves serving as a microcosm for the competitive tensions of society at large. While Fagan virtually ignores matters necessary for the actual sports (a defined racing course, proper equipment, and rules for judging), he lavishes attention on unessential trivia (flags, fireworks, gilded programs, and champagne cup) designed to curry favor with influential parents. But his elaborate preparations have an uncanny way of backfiring by inducing consequences opposite to what he intends. His desire to effect style by using a real pistol for starting the races brings about the accidental wounding of Lord Tangent. His hope of lending dignity with a band results in unbearably monotonous music and the bandmaster's attempts to pimp for his sister-in-law. The predetermination of athletic winners from among boys of prominent families, which obliges Grimes to declare Clutterbuck a winner despite his cheating, precipitates the embarrassing scene in which Lady Circumference refuses to award the prize. Thus Fagan's misguided hopes of gaining favor turn the gala into a fiasco, and the fraudulence with which the sports are staged totally destroys the sportsmanship supposedly generated by healthy competition.

The visiting parents also lack any sense of fair play in their social competitiveness, as the unresolved tensions among three class-conscious groups illustrate. The Clutterbucks, with a brewing fortune but as yet no seat in Parliament, are defensive about their nouveau-riche status. The obtuse Earl of Circumference and his horsey, outspoken countess exude the smug self-confidence of landed aristocrats. Margot Beste-Chetwynde, fortified by beauty, extraordinary wealth, social standing in Mayfair, and a son who is heir apparent to an earldom, feels so secure that she dares to challenge conventional standards of propriety. She defiantly flaunts her black American lover, whose unconvincing claims to culture further add to the incongruous situation in which everyone seems to be jockeying for position. Amidst expressions of racial prejudice, social antagonism, and political bias, the parental gathering is wrecked by the very people Fagan expected to beguile.

The other principal characters whom Paul meets at Llanabba are also at variance with their outward aspects. The two masters, Grimes and Prendergast, each of whom possesses a serious defect that periodically upsets his equilibrium, are to some extent ironic inversions of one another. Prendergast is well-bred and well-meaning, but his basic inclination to do good is thwarted by lack of strong belief in anything, including himself. Consequently he cannot carry through his intentions or deal with simple problems such as sharing the bath. Unable to resolve theological doubts, he has given up his vocation as parish priest. Yet he fares no better at Llanabba, where his self-pitying, defeatist attitude makes it impossible for him to keep order among the students, win their respect, or associate easily with the other masters. In contrast, Grimes, though vulgar by nature and confirmedly hedonistic, has the self-assurance to be outgoing with his colleagues and to discipline the boys, who respect him partly because his artificial leg has led them to conclude, erroneously, that he was wounded in the war. Most crucial, he has no “doubts.” He is as confident of his “old boy” connections with Harrow as Browning's Pippa is of providential care and knows they will repeatedly get him out of “the soup.” Hence a distinguished public school, the traditional breeding ground of English gentlemen, serves paradoxically as a perpetual safety net for one who is clearly no gentleman.

If the Rev. Prendergast is a burlesque of the questing Anglican clergyman and Capt. Grimes of the immoral schoolmaster, the butler Philbrick is a caricature of the criminal on his way to success. He seems to have no fixed identity but delights in playing different roles in a kaleidoscopic monodrama. The various autobiographical tales he offers to create a protean, polymorphous self are so imaginative as to indicate a superb con artist. All one can be sure of is that a butler with diamonds, pistol, and police on his trail is no ordinary servant. Although Prendergast's overdeveloped conscience is instrumental in his undoing, an ironic detachment from conventional morality enables Philbrick, like Grimes, to flourish, at least for the time being, in a mad world.

Grimes's eventual downfall provides an excellent example of what Muecke labels an irony of events in which the very act designed to prevent an unwanted result becomes the instrument for producing it.7 Just as Fagan's efforts to impress his patrons at the sports event have the opposite effect, so Grimes's marriage to his employer's daughter Flossie turns into agony. Having become engaged to her as a means of protecting his job the next time his homosexual indiscretions are discovered, he weds her when in danger of being fired, not knowing that his consequent unhappiness would destroy his ability to stay in the job. He realizes with horror that, despite his lack of sexual interest in women, his primrose path of dalliance has led him directly, in another irony of events, to revolting domesticity; and his fears are reinforced by the vicar's nuptial sermon on “Home and Conjugal Love,” which becomes farcical when viewed against the cynicism that brought the couple together.

Grimes's changed status generates further ironies. Especially with his father-in-law constantly belittling him, he suffers a marked alteration in personality. Just as Prendergast, under the influence of drink, had once become self-confident enough to cane twenty-three boys, so Grimes, under the impact of marriage, becomes despondent, self-pitying, and paranoid. While he at first sees a painful irony in the fact that the elder Clutterbuck's letter about an attractive job in the brewery arrives too late to prevent the marital fiasco, the reader sees an even more poignant irony in Grimes's subsequent misinterpretation of this genuine offer as only a cruel hoax perpetrated against him—one to which any response would be useless. Flossie's attitude toward the unsatisfactory relationship with Grimes is divulged ironically when she refuses to wear mourning after his ostensible suicide. Her cryptic explanation—“I don't think my husband would have expected it of me” (148)—sidesteps her real reason. A hidden irony, of which neither Flossie nor the reader could be aware at this point, arises from the fact that Grimes is still alive.

Whereas the first book begins by focusing on the fall of an innocent, the second book begins by developing King's Thursday, Margot's country home, as an ironic symbol of progress. The Bauhaus monstrosity that Paul finds at the end of an avenue of great chestnuts presents modernity at its worst. Not only is this combination of concrete, steel, and glass quite unappealing in itself, but it is further diminished by comparison with the fine example of Tudor architecture that had until recently stood on the same spot. Although Waugh implies amusing inconsistencies about the earlier mansion—that its original character had been “preserved” by the inaction of indifferent, impecunious earls, and that its crumbling beauty had been most admired by modern preservationists who did not have to cope with its discomforts—the main thrust of the irony is directed toward the new building and the bad taste of its rich new owner. Margot, contrary to the assumptions of neighbors and antiquarians that her wealth would surely restore the ancient structure, demolishes what she considers “bourgeois and awful” to replace it with “something clean and square” (155–56).

Just as illogical is her choice of an architect whose chief qualifications are a rejected factory design and the decor for a film without any human characters. Prof. Silenus's preference for the machine over man, shown in his parody of Hamlet's praise of humanity, has caused him to reduce architecture—domestic as well as industrial—to a problem of accommodating machines rather than people. Since he considers human beings to be only inferior machines, he tells Paul that in ten more years Margot “will be almost worn out” (169). Believing that the machine is the perfection to which humanity should aspire, he makes himself ridiculous by imitating its actions as he tries to eat a biscuit. His fixed expression and the regular motion of his hand and jaws illustrate the assertion of Henri Bergson, one of Waugh's favorite philosophers at the time, that “the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.”8

The mystery surrounding Margot's wealth is presented as an evolving irony, with both Paul and the reader initially in the dark. Gradually through a series of clues the reader is enlightened, whereas Paul, dazzled by Margot's beauty and glamorous world, remains blind to all indications that she is engaged in international prostitution. Grimes's explanation that he got a job with her syndicate because he had no problem controlling himself around women should have suggested to Paul the sexual nature of her enterprise. Her incisive manner in questioning prospective employees could have alerted him to the type of women she is dealing with, while her preference for inexperienced girls, who do not even need to know Spanish to work in Latin America, might have aroused more than mild curiosity or puzzlement. Certainly Philbrick's warning that the League of Nations Committee will soon be after Margot, to which Paul ingenuously replies, “I haven't the least idea what you mean” (196), should have raised serious suspicions. But Paul interprets everything according to his erroneous perception that Margot can do no wrong. When sent to Marseilles, where some of the girls are having emigration difficulties, he naively assumes, upon finding them in a red-light district, that Margot is showing her usual concern for the welfare of employees “unwittingly exposed to such perils” (203); and the officials' oblique allusions to the League of Nations and its efforts to stop white slave traffic are totally lost on him. Comprehending neither the girls' situation nor the winks and innuendos of the authorities, he concludes his negotiations with the perfectly innocent remark, which they take to be ironic humor, that the League of Nations seems “to make it harder to get about instead of easier” (207).

The involvement of Arthur Potts in the exposé of Margot's syndicate is another ironic thread running through this section of the novel. Having once been Paul's best friend, he becomes his nemesis. Had Paul been shrewder, he might have attached some significance to Potts's recurring appearances as a League of Nations representative just when Margot is transacting business—at King's Thursday with Grimes, in London with the interviewees, and in Marseilles through Paul's assistance. But not having learned enough about either Margot's profession or Potts's work, Paul sees no relationship and cannot fit the pieces of the puzzle into one another. Indeed it seems unlikely to him that, as Potts apparently thinks, his journey to France could interfere with his forthcoming wedding. Yet it is Potts's evidence at the trial that convicts Paul and does prevent the ceremony from taking place. Paul's expectations of a bright future, indicated by his toast to Fortune as “a much-maligned lady,” are shattered by his arrest and prison sentence while the guilty Margot, whom the judge calls “a lady of … stainless reputation” (216), goes scot-free.

Much of the irony in Paul's prison experience is satiric, for Waugh attacks avant-garde theories of penology that seem to lack practical value. He appropriately names the first house of correction to which Paul is sent Blackstone Gaol, after one of Britain's most famous legal theoreticians, Sir William Blackstone; and for his prime target he creates the character of Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, a former sociology professor turned prison governor. Sir Wilfred, who dabbles in psychoanalysis for the rehabilitation of prisoners, is one of Waugh's fatuous do-gooders whose theories crumble upon contact with reality and who therefore do more harm than good. Disapproving of Paul's request for continuation of the solitary confinement to which he had happily adjusted, the governor, believing that Paul has become misanthropic as the result of inferiority feelings, devises a complicated scheme “to break down his social inhibitions” (234). In trying to apply another of his favorite ideas—that inmates should continue the professional interests of their former life—Sir Wilfred is completely frustrated because Paul's alleged profession, white slave trafficking, cannot be carried on in prison. Even so, the self-deceived governor assumes that, in addition to bringing about a revolution in sociological statistics, he can improve Paul's self-image by removing prostitutional crime from its customary “sexual” classification and placing it in the less reprehensible “acquisitive” category (226).

One of Sir Wilfred's hypotheses—“that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression” (226)—has most unexpected results throughout the prison. There are several attempted suicides in the arts and crafts school because of easy access to sharp tools, and the men in the bookbinding shop eat the library paste because it tastes better than their porridge. Finally there is a murder—of Prendergast, now prison chaplain, who has reappeared as a “Modern Churchman” with no need to “commit himself to any religious belief” (188). That he should be done in by a bloodthirsty religious fanatic who considers him “no Christian” is certainly ironic, though possibly not inappropriate, justice. But that the saw with which the former carpenter cuts off Prendergast's head should have been supplied by prison authorities is the climactic example of Sir Wilfred's theories gone awry. Although the saw may have provided the carpenter a means of self-expression, the result is the opposite of what the governor intended.

While Paul is in prison, his comprehension of both human nature and moral complexity is enhanced to the point that he ceases to be a naif. Since his reflections about Margot during many weeks of solitary confinement lead him to conflicting conclusions, he is forced to step back from his infatuation with her and take a more realistic view. Though sure that by shielding her from prosecution he has done what the code of an English gentleman demands, he also realizes that, despite her gifts of books, flowers, sherry, and exotic food, she has not done right by him. Moreover, he suspects that there is “something radically inapplicable” about the gentlemanly code when the woman he has protected is so obviously guilty and therefore unworthy of his sacrifice (252). But in trying to imagine Margot adapting to prison life—“dressed in prison uniform, hustled down corridors by wardresses, … set to work in the laundry washing the other prisoners' clothes” (253)—he is convinced that such circumstances would be inconceivable. Interpreting the troublesome contradiction in terms of “one law for her and another for himself” (253), he is able for the first time to approach a problem ironically, acknowledging that there is no absolute right or wrong in either of the radically disparate perspectives.

Even so, Paul is still not sophisticated enough to perceive the deviousness of Margot's thinking, which she never elucidates. Waugh's superb use of irony, however, makes it possible for the reader to surmise what transpires in her mind without ever requiring the narrator to explain. While one cannot be certain which choice Margot expects Paul to make—being released immediately if she marries Home Secretary Maltravers or waiting until he has served his sentence to marry her himself—Paul's decision to wait is apparently not what she wants. Although the reader is never told why she finally goes to see him in prison, one can deduce that she wishes to conclude their relationship in an amicable fashion. Yet her method is so oblique—she herself admits “how difficult it is to say anything” (263)—that Paul fails to comprehend. The clues to Margot's underlying thoughts are two seemingly unrelated, though juxtaposed, statements—that Lady Circumference has snubbed her and that “poor little Alastair” is falling in love with her (260)—first expressed in her letter to Paul and later reiterated in their prison conversation. But Paul sees no connection between these assertions or any significance beyond their literal meaning, nor can he follow her subsequent reasoning. Since his replies reveal his own very different train of thought, the conversation takes place on two planes that never intersect.

His inquiry about Alastair leads Margot to lament that she is being cut socially by people who no longer regard her as “a respectable woman” (261); but this response then prompts Paul to ask about her “business,” to which he would logically attribute society's rejection. Although in answering his direct question Margot asserts that she is selling out because “a Swiss firm” has created difficulties, she insists that the ostracism must be caused by her age. When Paul again fails to grasp the connection she is trying to convey—that high society thinks her too old to be carrying on with young men such as Alastair—she abandons indirection and simply announces her decision to marry Maltravers. Since she never explains why such a marriage would be the best solution to her multifarious problems, all that Paul learns from their meeting is that, to his astonishment, he is pained not by the breaking off of their engagement but by his own failure to care. The reader, on the other hand, is able to conclude, from what is already known about Margot and Maltravers, that Margot needs married respectability and political influence to protect her prostitution syndicate from the law and that Maltravers would also be the sort of husband to ignore her nymphomania if she shared her income with him. Clearly, what is never explicitly stated in the conversation is far more important than what is said. This disparity between thought and spoken word, in combination with the characters' divergent ways of interpreting the same ideas and with the basic discrepancy between pretense and reality, creates an unusually ingenious way of presenting the episode.

But if resignation is the key to Paul's survival, such is not the case with Grimes, whose free spirit cannot bear restraint. His marriage to Flossie, which was expected to save him and his career from homosexual disgrace, has instead landed him, through conviction for bigamy, in a prison from which no inmate has successfully escaped. In a burlesque of adventure-story flights from incarceration, the narrator offers a mock-heroic account of Grimes's disappearance that is bolstered by the author's sketch of Grimes riding a white charger into the heavens and bearing a pennant inscribed “Excelsior.” Although circumstantial evidence points to the likelihood that the prisoner perished in the bog, Paul confidently believes that Grimes is immortal—an elemental life force, indeed the sex drive itself. In a parodic imitation of Pater's imaginative criticism of La Gioconda, Paul employs wildly extravagant allusions to convince himself that a man who “had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, … taught the childish satyrs the art of love,” and withstood divine wrath “while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears” (269) will follow his usual pattern of turning up alive elsewhere. While Pater's ecstatic eulogy of the Mona Lisa as the embodiment of eternal life and the summation of all human experience is appropriate for da Vinci's masterpiece, Paul's hyperbolic reveries about Grimes as undying sexuality become ludicrous when placed in the same framework. Furthermore, in the light of Paul's belief in the immortality of Grimes, whose fate is never determined, the chaplain's self-reproach for not having prevented Grimes's death adds another ironic twist to the episode entitled “The Passing of a Public-School Man.”

Paul's escape from prison is a carefully orchestrated charade of death, about which he knows nothing in advance. A number of inexplicable occurrences lead Paul, as well as the reader, to suspect that he may be headed for execution on the operating table. His scheduled appendectomy seems ridiculous since he no longer has an appendix; he is asked to sign a previously witnessed last will and testament leaving his worldly goods to Margot; the warder who escorts him to the nursing home makes ambiguous winks and sly innuendos about the possibility of death; and the drunken surgeon utters maudlin lamentations. Since Prendergast and Grimes have been finally disposed of in the two preceding episodes, the reader has even more reason to think that the hero will be finished off in the chapter entitled “The Passing of Paul Pennyfeather.” But all aspects of the “death,” arranged by Home Secretary Maltraves and Alastair Trumpington in the service of Margot, turn out to be fraudulent: the nursing home is run by Dr. Fagan (now M.D. rather than Ph.D.), no operation is performed, and the surgeon signs a fake death certificate. In this manner, some of the very people who contributed to Paul's downfall and imprisonment achieve his liberation; by staging his “death,” they give him a new existence.

Imbedded in the account of Paul's demise are numerous ironic comparisons, both parallel and inverse, with his aborted wedding. At the luncheon preceding the nuptial ceremony, he is “the centre of interest of the whole room” (209); but while Fagan, Alastair, and the surgeon deal with the legal documents, “no one [pays] much attention” to him (275). Each occasion results in a dramatic change in Paul's status, but while the first one, about which he has great expectations, plunges him from fame into disgrace, the second, about which he suffers considerable apprehension, turns his imprisonment into freedom. Fagan's toast to “Fortune, a much-maligned lady,” recalls Paul's previous tribute to that fickle goddess just before his arrest. This time Margot assumes the role of Fortune and, instead of bringing bad luck, aids Paul with all her resources, while Alastair, in managing details of the “death” and in accompanying Paul to Margot's waiting yacht, plays a role analogous to his earlier function as best man. In another ironic comparison, Paul's transition into apparent death is cleverly set up as a parallel to Tennyson's account of the passing of Arthur. The farewell on the seashore, in which Sir Alastair is recast as Sir Bedivere watching the dying King Arthur embark for Avalon, places Paul's unromantic escape from imprisonment in the context of hallowed legend. Just as Arthur is spirited away to an island paradise to be healed of his wound and possibly to return, so Paul is carried off to Corfu to be resurrected with a new identity. But the mock-heroic manner of his departure and the inappropriateness of the allusions serve to emphasize the unheroic nature of the old Paul Pennyfeather.

After Paul's legal extinction, it is incongruous that one of the most profound judgments on his past life should be uttered by the pompous fool Silenus. Despite having failed in all his undertakings (including a belated decision to marry Margot), this self-deceived, self-styled “professor” pontificates with characteristic lack of humility on how Paul went wrong. According to his mechanistic theory, life is like a giant carnival wheel surrounded by a seated audience, and humanity is divided into two species—the dynamic, who scramble onto the revolving wheel, and the static, who merely watch. The majority of those on the wheel are repeatedly thrown off by centrifugal force; the successfully hedonistic, like Margot, cling tenaciously to the rapidly moving outer rim for maximum thrills, while those whom Silenus enigmatically labels “the professional men” make their way with determination toward the hub, where it is easier to stay on. In Silenus's opinion, Paul's error was to have climbed onto the wheel at all; his place should logically have been among the spectators. The most obvious error, however, is Silenus's own assessment of himself. Unable to distinguish between the stability of the wheel's fixed center and the immobility of the stationary audience, he thinks he has arrived very near the center when he is most certainly on the sidelines.

However Paul's mistake may be interpreted, he does not repeat it. The subtle montage of the last section, whereby his altered responses are superimposed on recollections of his earlier Oxford existence, shows that Paul has profited from the intervening experiences without becoming radically different. Oxford itself is unchanged: the chaplain and Paul's scout continue to judge his “distant cousin,” the “degenerate” Pennyfeather, solely on erroneous hearsay. Paul, again the ordinand but this time heavily mustachioed, gravitates toward a friend who, like Potts, is also interested in the League of Nations Union, penal alleviation, and theology. Yet Paul's attitude toward all this has matured from what it was in his previous incarnation. Though he continues to be concerned with social and religious causes, he has become more cautiously conservative toward life and religion.

That Paul deliberately severs detrimental links to his past is clear. By placing Fagan's book Mother Wales beside Stanley's Eastern Church, an account of religious schism, he tacitly implies rejection of both. By not responding to the now opulent Philbrick's invitation and by falsely identifying him as Arnold Bennett (in an ironic allusion to another con artist who had parlayed questionable talents into wealth), Paul denigrates that connection as well. In dealing with Peter Pastmaster, now the embodiment of the Bollinger, he concedes his own folly in having become involved with Margot and her “dynamic” breed; but, with the observation that Peter has already drunk too much, he brushes aside the proposal of a toast to “Fortune, a much-maligned lady.” Having previously allowed himself to be buffeted by fortune, Paul is determined to wrest control of his own destiny whenever possible. Ironic detachment, even if it means withdrawal from the whirligig of life, can serve as a practical defense against the world's corruption. Experience has taught him something about where to engage and where, in the interest of survival, to disengage himself. True sophistication, he has discovered, depends on knowing which strategy to employ.


  1. Jerome Meckier considers the novel to be an attack on the Bildungsroman. See his “Cycle, Symbol, and Parody in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall,Contemporary Literature, 20 (1979): 51–75.

  2. Muecke identifies romantic irony primarily with the contradictions of art and relates it to general irony—awareness of the ineluctable contradictions of life. See Compass of Irony, 159–215. The breaking and remaking of artistic illusion is especially associated with the German writers Ludwig Tieck and Jean Paul Richter, as well as the English poets Coleridge and Byron.

  3. Philosophical discussion about reality versus illusion or appearance, stimulated by the writings of F. H. Bradley, continued to be in vogue at the time Decline and Fall was composed.

  4. Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928; reprint, Boston: Little, 1977), 164. Subsequent quotations from this edition of the novel are cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” lines 3–4.

  6. Waugh, Little Learning, 169, 171.

  7. Muecke, Compass of Irony, 102.

  8. Henri Bergson, Laughter, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: Macmillan, 1914), 29. Waugh's Letters (3) and Diaries (215, 218) establish his reading of Bergson, which he began at Lancing. Stannard (Evelyn Waugh: Early Years) and McCartney (Confused Roaring) have discussed Bergsonian philosophy in Waugh's writing but have not mentioned the essay Laughter.


Evelyn Waugh World Literature Analysis


Waugh, Evelyn (Arthur St. John)