A very British social satire: Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh
by Marc Bordier /
Evelyn’s Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, became an instant success when it was published in 1928. The book immediately appealed to a large number of readers, and was praised for its humorous social satire of British society in the early twentieth century. Having read it, I must admit that I did not particularly enjoy it.
The novel tells the picaresque misadventures of Paul Pennyfeather, a young man who is expelled from Oxford University for indecent behavior after a prank from his fellow students of Scone college. Losing financial support from his guardian, he is forced to take a job as a teacher at Lllanaba Castle, in Northern Wales. There, he meets his new colleagues, and soon becomes acquaninted with the honorable Mrs Margot Best-Chetwynde, an upper class lady secretly runs a prostitution business in Latin America. Paul becomes infatuated with her, and they soon start making wedding plans. On the eve of their highly anticipated wedding, Paul is arrested and thrown into prison because of the role which he played on a mission for Margot’s illegal business. Ultimately, Margot makes arrangements to get him out of jail, but the fickle high society lady marries someone else. In the end, Paul goes back to Scone college at Oxford and starts a new life in disguise.
The novel touches upon some very British themes, including social class, education, racism, justice, marriage. It is a brutally ironic description of a class system where the Oxbridge-educated ‘Old Boys’ protect their own at the expense of social justice. This is probably the aspect of the book which I enjoyed the most, and I think it is best summed up in the delightful section in which Paul is sentenced to prison: ‘Margot Best-Chetwynde’s name was not mentioned, though the juge in passing sentence remarked that ‘non one could be ignorant of the callous insolence with which, on the very eve of the arrest or the most infamous of crimes, the accused had been prepared to join his name with one honoured in his country’s history, and to drag down to his own pitiable depths of depraity a lady of beauty, rank and stainless reputation. The just censure of sociey’, remarked the judge, ‘is accorded to those so inconstant and intemperate that they must take their pleasure in the unholy market of humanity that still sullies the fame of our civilization; but for the traders themselves, these human vampires who prey upon the degradation of their species, society had reserved the right of ruthless suppression.’ So Paul was sent off to prison, and the papers headed the column they reserve for home events of minor importanece with PRISON FOR EX SOCIETY BRIDEGROOM. JUDGE ON HUMAN VAMPIRES, and there, as far as the public was concerned, the matter ended.’
Outside of these flashes of brilliant irony, I must admit that I found it hard to sustain my interest in the misfortunes of Paul Pennyfeather, whose story I found confusing and sometimes grotesque. Anyway, it is still a book worth reading for anyone interested in British society.