Thursday, 5 January 2017

Battered Penguins - Decline and Fall

I think I must have at last grown up as I have reached a stage where I really cannot get enough of Evelyn Waugh's faintly surreal and very comical world, with its cast of grotesque yet troublingly familiar characters.

Decline and Fall is my latest venture into that world. It is the story of Peter Pennyfeather, who falls prey to a thinly disguised Bullingdon Club and is unfairly sent down from Oxford as a result. I should point out that, as Waugh is at pains to explain, we are not meant to care too much about Pennyfeather as "the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."

Mind you, there is no one else much to care about in the novel. But there are lots of people to laugh at.

There is Grimes who is always getting "in the soup", (except in Ireland, as, at least in his experience, "You can't get into the soup in Ireland, do what you like") and who finds schoolmastering a challenge because, as he explains, it is "very hard for a man with a wig to keep order."

There is Mr Prendergast who thinks far too much and totally unproductively - "It has been the tragedy of my life that whenever I start thinking about any quite simple subject, I invariably feel myself confronted by some flat contradiction" - who claims to have an aunt "whose cat used to put its paw up to its mouth when it yawned" and who was a vicar until, "for no reason at all, my Doubts began ...not ... the ordinary sort of Doubt ... I couldn't understand why God had made the world at all."

There is Lord Circumference from who I suspect the writers of the Vicar of Dibley stole the verger's mother's conversational gambit. Whereas the Dibley character says, "Did you? Did you? You did, did you?", or 'Was it? Was it? It was, was it?", Lord Circumference says, "Do you think that? Do you think that? Do you?"

There is Pennyfeather's friend Potts, who reveals himself in letters to Pennyfeather as totally lacking in commonsense and a dreadful, earnest theoriser about and interferer in things of which he knows nothing:

"There is a most interesting article in the Educational Review", he writes while Pennyfeather is teaching, "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?"

Sadly, he is exactly the kind of person who ends up running the world and leads to revolts against elites at times such as now.

There is the usual amoral, fun woman one always finds in a Waugh novel. This time she is called Margot Beste-Chetwynde:

"Mrs Beste-Chetwynde - two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Budapest."

I always have the impression that Waugh understands that such people are worthless and probably will hurt him but that that does not even slightly diminish their attraction for him.

Perhaps the nicest character in the novel is Mrs Beste-Chetwynde's son, a small boy whom Pennyfeather is supposed to teach to play the organ, despite the fact that Pennyfeather does not play the organ himself. When told of a forthcoming marriage, the young Beste-Chetwynde remarks: "I don't suppose that their children will be terribly attractive." Sadly, by the end of the novel, he appears to be heading for a life of dissolution. Could he be Waugh's imagining of the child that Sebastian Flyte once was?

Thanks to young Beste-Chetwynde, Pennyfeather is taken up by Mrs Beste-Chetwynde and has quite a jolly time of it, before ending up in prison, partly thanks to her, partly thanks to the busybodying of Potts and his ilk. Luckily, Pennyfeather finds prison "exhilirating ... 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". As Waugh points out this is unsurprising as "anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison." In addition, while Pennyfeather is inside, Waugh is able to have some fun satirising the prison governor and his idiotic theories for reform, (Waugh clearly had very little time for theories.)

When Pennyfeather does eventually come out, he meets up with the most enigmatic figure in the book, Professor Silenus, who has "eyes like slim fish in an aquarium." We have already encountered him in his role as Margo Beste-Chetwynde's architect. She, having inherited an ancient house that people loved to visit because it was totally unmodernised and thus allowed them to experience the life of three hundred years earlier and then go home for a hot bath, knocks the whole thing down and replaces it with something featureless and horribly modern, designed by Silenus, who believes "the perfect building must be a factory", (he first attracts Margot Beste Chetwynde's attention thanks to "the rejected design for a chewing-gum factory which had been reproduced in a progressive Hungarian quarterly").

Despite his many, many faults, Silenus ends up appearing to be the wisest figure in the book. In the closing pages he explains to Pennyfeather that life is like a funfair ride but not everyone needs to actually get on the ride at all. "It doesn't suit everyone", he explains, because there are in fact two classes of people, those who are "static", and those who are "dynamic". The former should stay out of the hurly-burly and rest content with watching from the stalls. As if to underline this argument, the book itself then spins round full circle, closing with Pennyfeather thrown from the whirligig and set back on the quiet path he was pursuing before the book began. I don't envy him his wild journey but, thanks to Waugh's dry wit and brilliant comic sense, I very much enjoyed the story it made.


  1. Several of the characters show up again in Put Out More Flags: Peter Beste-Chetwynde as Peter Pastmaster has a fair-sized role, as does Sir Alistair Digby-Vane-Trumpington. Mrs. Best-Chetwynde, as Lady Metroland, makes a small, and much less dramatic appearance. In Put Out More Flags, Peter Pastmaster is not a heroic figure, but he is an officer of the Household Cavalry, and usefully employed at least while his war shall last.

    Yes, the English public school gets rather harsh references from Grimes and Pennyfeather, doesn't it?

  2. And I think Vile Bodies comes before that one???

    1. I find that Vile Bodies was written in 1929, published in 1930. Put Out More Flags is set between August 1939 and July 1940, written in the late summer of 1941.

    2. I can't decide whether to rush on through the rest on a kind of Waugh-jag or whether to ration myself