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Decline and Fall was Evelyn Waughs first published novel. First published in 1928, its humour and satire seem a little dated now though such arguments can be levelled at almost any book published that long ago.
The hero of the tale is Paul Pennyfeather, an undergraduate studying theology at Oxford. Unfortunately he is set on by members of the Bollinger Club, a bunch of hooray Henrys who set on him, remove his clothes and force him to run naked around the university campus. Expelled for indecent behaviour, he decides the only possible job open to him is that of a schoolmaster.
He is offered a post at Llanabba Castle School, Wales, a prep school, where he finds himself one of a bunch of misfits who probably drifted into teaching by accident just as he did. The students are irritating half-wits, and the staff arent much better. The worst (or best?) of the lot are Captain Grimes, who has a wooden leg and is always in the soup (or drunk), and the likeable yet ever-dithering Prendergast, who made the grave mistake of removing his wig in full view of the boys on his first day at the place, and not surprisingly has never lived it down.
He soon learns how to deal with the little terrors. At his first class he tells them to write an essay on the subject of Self-Indulgence, and in order to keep them quiet, offers a prize of half a crown (thats twelve and a half pence in post-1971 currency, not 750 dooyoo miles) for the longest, irrespective of merit. It works one of them manages to produce sixteen pages.
He hasnt been there long when Sports Day arrives, and with it Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the mother of one of his pupils. Prendergast accidentally shoots one budding young athlete, Lord Tangent, in the leg with a starting pistol. His mother, Lady Circumference (yes, these names are rather improbable, arent they), only seems mildly annoyed. Later Captain Grimes mysteriously disappears, and Paul becomes engaged to Mrs B-C. On the morning of the wedding he is arrested on a charge of trafficking in the white slave trade and sent to prison. While behind bars his fiancée comes to visit him, and tells him she is getting married to someone else.
Thankfully theres a saner life beyond.
If youre looking for comparisons with other authors, theres an element of P.G. Wodehouse, although this book is amusing rather than wholesomely hilarious. (In my view, Wodehouse is in a class on its own when it comes to comic novels). Id say you would be able to read it on the bus or the train without causing yourself grave embarrassment. Tom Sharpe comes to mind as well, in that the story has a strong touch of satire in this case, against class and prep schools and also black comedy, although Sharpes is much more savage. Sometimes it seems a little far-fetched, and further to my comments above about it seeming dated, to anyone without even a passing knowledge of boarding schools or 1920s society, it might appear as though the action takes place almost on another planet.
Theres something rather one-dimensional about the characters. Nobody seems to mind much what happens to them, whether its their little lad getting shot on Sports Day, whether they themselves get put into clink (being in clink gives one a curiously agreeable sense of irresponsibility), or whether their affianced announces an imminent walk up the aisle with someone else. Maybe its part of the satire on high society and the upper classes, or maybe theyre all Bertie Woosters in disguise. (Rum things happen to one, but its all part of lifes great design, what?)
One small warning about lack of political correctness. A coloured character is referred to variously as a nigger and a coon, which were generally acceptable terms in 1928 but certainly not now. One female character, referring to him, says she thinks its an insult bringing a nigger here, until her colleague tells her that the Chinese are far worse because one of his friends had a pal bumped off by a Chink once by having his throat cut from ear to ear. Not in the Boxer Rising, but one Saturday night in the Edgware Road might have happened to any of us he admits nonchalantly. The copy I read was a 1986 reprint, so recent impressions may have been altered.
Snobbish? Racist? Well, maybe or is Waugh just making fun of such attitudes? (Compare one episode of Fawlty Towers in which John Cleeses script was criticised for Major Gowens comments about ethnic minorities those who accused him of racism totally missed the point).
Just a pinch over 200 pages long and quite a light read, its amusing in its own way, but not indispensable. A classic of 20th century literature? I suppose that label gets attached to any work of fiction over seventy years old which has rarely gone out of print, and its a good enough example of its genre, but I wouldnt quite go along with its champions who regard it as a comic masterpiece.
£6.99 in high street bookshops, £3.99 from Amazon, or try the library.
Paul Pennyfeather is railroaded by ill fortune into teaching. He was sent down from his university for being a troublemaker, which basically involved him being beaten up for wearing what a few fellow students mistook for the wrong tie. Not upper class, Paul's only option seemed to be teaching. The school he goes to is stocked full of the oddest faculty and the strangest children. Parents bully, headmasters order, children manipulate, and the immortal teacher Grimes is always 'in the soup'. Waugh's wit is at its finest here. The ludicrous situations he creates beg for cutting dialogue, and he delivers this with aplomb. I don't want to ruin the sports day for you, but I do ned to mention this is one of the funniest underplayed situations I've ever read.
If Waugh had died after completing Decline and Fall, just as if Swinburne had died after completing Atalanta in Calydon or Poems & Ballads (First Series), his reputation in English literature would still be secure, I think. Swinburne's reputation in fact would be higher and though Waugh's wouldn't - he never reduced the impact of his early genius with much hack-work in old age - Decline & Fall remains an astonishing achievement not just as a first novel but as a novel full stop. Though to be strictly accurate it wasn't a first novel: that honor had gone to The Temple at Thatch, “about madness and magic”, which Waugh burnt in manuscript after negative remarks about it by his friend Harold Acton. The “magic” in question was black magic, so perhaps there is something Paginini-esque about Decline & Fall and Waugh had sold his soul to the Devil in return for the supreme skill as a novelist that he would go on to confirm with books like Black Mischief and Scoop. It's certainly plausible: Decline & Fall is not only extremely well-written in a deceptively simple style *à la* Hemmingway but also extremely witty in a way Hemmingway never was. It tells the tale of Paul Pennyfeather - blown hither and thither by the winds of vicissitude but ultimately weighty enough to settle into a sheltered niche - who is set upon by upper-class hooligans whilst studying theology at Oxford, debagged, sent down with gross injustice for indecent behavior, and forced to take up school-mastering to earn a living. His first and as it happens only employer, Dr Fagan of Llanabba Castle School, Wales, is not shocked to learn the true reason for Paul's expulsion from Oxford, which, “true to his training”, he confesses: “I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.” “Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that nobody en
ters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. ...” But Dr Fagan is not sufficiently blasé to forget to force a reduction in salary out of Paul for the confession - a compounding of the original unjustice that will happen again and again as the novel proceeds. At Llanabba Paul meets Captain Grimes, whose single appearance in this book was sufficient to secure him a permanent place in the demonology of English comic writing, and begins teaching the son of the woman he will eventually marry. More quotation and details of plot would lessen the impact of what happens to him as he teaches, resigns to marry, and suffers more grotesque injustice: suffice it to say that Decline & Fall should - nay, must - be read by anyone who loves prose and wit for their own sake. Wodehousian farce *à la* a cynical and sophisticated Wodehouse, Decline & Fall is probably the best first - or first-published - novel ever written in the English language. High praise? Read it and see if I’m not right.