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Decline and Fall (1928)

de Evelyn Waugh

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Evelyn Waugh's "irresistible" first novel (New York Times) is a brilliant and hilarious satire of English school life in the 1920s. Sent down from Oxford after a wild, drunken party, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly surprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at a boys' private school in Wales. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, rascals and fools, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and Captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds in Evelyn Waugh's dazzling debut as a novelist, the young run riot and no one is safe, least of all Paul.… (més)
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review of
Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - January 7, 2018

Evelyn Waugh has probably been floating around on the fringes of my consciousness as someone witty to read for many a decade (sorry to leave you hanging Evelyn) but it took my buying 9 hardbacks of his work (from Copacetic, plug, plug) w/ the intent of having a Waugh spree to finally get me started. Even then, it's taken me 2 yrs.

Decline and Fall is his 2nd bk, a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti preceded it in 1928. It seems that he's most well-known for his satires & that the biographies & travel bks are a bit brushed under the toupée. Having now read a satire & been impressed by its style I'm curious to read a bio to learn how different or not it is stylistically.

As Waugh explains in a 1961 Preface: "This story was written thirty-three years ago. I offered it to the publishers who had commisioned my first book, but they rejected it on what seemed, and still seems to me, the odd grounds of its indelicacy." (p IX) Not surprisingly, IMO, this "indelicacy" is largely what makes this a significant novel.

When I 1st started reading it I wondered something along the lines of 'Oh, shit. Is this going to be another tale of depravity in a British school system I still don't completely understand?!' But, no, it didn't really turn out that way, it wasn't necessary for me to know whether public schools are private schools or not & the 'depravity' is probably part of the "indelicacy" & parodies something common to the rich everywhere: the rich commit the crimes - but somebody else gets punished for them.

"There is a tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past member. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles." - pp 3-4

Ok, I was just beginning the novel, it started on p 3, & this detail was more than a bit disturbing since I find fox hunts inexcusably cruel - so I wasn't sure whether this was intended as satire or not. It was. When I think of "Bollinger", I have a vague memory of hardback bks I used to see when I was in the bookstore business. They all had powder-blue covers & were reputed to be scholarly. I thought they were part of an acadmic series called "Bollinger Books". I found nothing about them online. Can anyo of you readers confirm that for me? If they exist, do they have anything to do with the "Bollinger Club" parodied above? Ok, never mind, a little more research fevealed the below:

"The Bullingdon Club is an exclusive all-male dining club for Oxford University undergraduates, though it is not officially recognised by that institution. It is noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising ("trashing") of restaurants and students' rooms. Many local outlets refuse to host these events."


"The Bullingdon is satirised as the Bollinger Club (Bollinger being a notable brand of champagne) in Evelyn Waugh's novel Decline and Fall (1928), where it has a pivotal role in the plot: the mild-mannered hero is blamed for the Bollinger Club's destructive rampage through his college and is sent down." -

"At the gates Paul tipped the porter.

""Well, goodbye, Blackall," he said. I don't suppose I shall see you for some time."

""No, sir, and very sorry I am to hear about it. I expect you'll be becoming a scoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentelmen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior." - pp 10-11

I reckon Paul is a character in the lineage of Voltaire's "Candide" (1759), the Marquis de Sade's "Justine" (1791), Nathanael West's "A Cool Million - The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin", & Terry Southern & Mason Hoffenberg's "Candy" insofar as the protagonist gets used by people considerably less ethical than himself. Interestingly, Paul doesn't really complain, he takes it as it comes & things more or less turn out fine for him. His misfortunes don't constitute the entirety of his life & Waugh isn't really pummeling the reader with a philosophy-of-cruelty like de Sade or a philosophy of pessimism like the other 3. This is 'victimization-lite' & I'm thankful for that. He gets kicked-out of school for something he wasn't responsible for, he doesn't even bother to defend himself, & then his guardian keeps Paul's inheritance using the ejection from school as an excuse:

"["]In the event of your education being finished before that time, he left me with complete discretion to withhold this allowance should I not consider your course of life satisfactory. I do not think that I should be fulfilling the trust which your poor father placed in me if, in the present circumstances, I continued any allowance.["]" - pp 15-16

I'm also reminded of Edward Gorey's morbid humor. Most of my artist friends in the 1970s & 1980s, esp women, loved his work. I always found it a bit annoying. Like, apparently, many other people, I also assumed he was British because his bks are in Victorian & Edwardian settings - but he was actually American. I wonder if Gorey, (February 22, 1925 – April 15, 2000), was at all influenced by Waugh.

Paul does get a job as a schoolmaster & does find himself amongst a motley crew of dubious characters. Upon arrival, he's told about one of the students: "["]Little Lord Tangent has come to us this term, the Earl of Circumference's son, you know. Such a nice little chap, erratic, of course, like all his family, but he has tone."" (p 20) A little geometrical humour, anyone?

""I suppose the first thing I should do is to get your names clear. What is your name?" he asked, turning to the first boy.

""Tangent, sir."

""And yours?"

""Tangent, sir," said the next boy. Paul's heart sank." - p 49

I had a friend named Nathan Long who who, during the late 1980s or early 1990s when the collective identity "Monty Cantsin" was widely in use, started teaching at a university in Pittsburgh by having someone other than him come in to the classroom & identify himself as "Nathan Long". 2nd class, a different person, also "Nathan Long". 3rd class, he was there as "Nathan Long", by then the students no longer believed. What if Paul went w/ the flow & called himself "Tangent" & proceeded w/ the class?

When I was in Australia in 2000, I discovered a beer called "Invalid Stout". It was cheap, it was delicious, it was local. It was sd to be good for invalids. I loved it at the same time I thought that the idea of any alcohol being good for invalids was a bit preposterous. I'd never heard of such a thing. &, now, in Decline and Fall, I find: "half a bottle of invalid port" (p 25) & I realize that there's a whole world of alcohol out there that claims to be good for invalids. There's even a discussion abotu this on Lonely Planet ( ) in wch some doubt is expressed. A poster named "889" quotes Eliot on the subject:

"T.S. Eliot: "And political religion is like invalid port: you calls it a medicine but it's soon just a 'abit."

"That is, it's for invalids."

"The London wine merchant Gilbey’s had developed a brand known as Gilbey’s Invalid Port, for which it claimed invigorating and tonic properties." -

But what about the Invalid Stout I enjoyed so much? "Abbotsford Invalid Stout is a beer produced in Australia by Carlton & United Breweries. An 'invalid stout' is a high-sugar, low-alcohol stout, originally marketed as an especially nutritious variant." ( )

One of Paul's fellow teachers is a bounder whose lows aren't specified but they seem to involve probable sexual activity of an illegal kind. Like the 'anti-heros' of "Justine" & "Candy" he seems to always bound back:

"Then I got into the soup again, pretty badly that time. Happened over in France. They said, 'Now, Grimes, you've got to behave like a gentleman. We don't want a court-martial in this regiment. We're going to leave you alone for a half an hour. There's your revolver. You know what to do. Goodbye, old man,' they said quite affectionately.

""Well, I sat there for some time looking at that revolver. I put it up to my head twice, but each time I borught it down again. 'Public school men don't end like this,' I said to myself. It was a long half-hour, but luckily they had lefgt a decanter of whiskey in there with me.["]" - p 36

Well, yeah, Grimes doesn't kill himself & he gets out of the bind & goes on to do more of the unspecified same.

""You can't keep me in," said Clutterbuck; "I'm going for a walk with Captain Grimes."

""Then I shall very nearly kill you with this stick. Meanwhile you will all write an essay on 'Self-indulgence.' There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of any possible merit."" - p 50

"["]Your colleague, Captain Grimes, has been convicted before me, on evidence that leaves no possibility of his innocence, of a crime—I might almost call it a course of action—which I can neither understand nor excuse. I dare say I need not particularize.["]" - pp 129-130

In general, there's a great deal of horribleness of characters - although this is fiction so the 'horribleness' is tempered by how over the top everyone is. The most beautiful woman is also the most accustomed to getting what she wants.. no matter what. Can't say that Paul wasn't warned.

"["]She is the Honorable Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde, you know—sister-in-law of Lord Pastmaster—a very wealthy woman, South American. They always say that she poisoned her husband, but of course little Beste-Chetwynde doesn't know that. It never came into court, but there was a great deal of talk about it at the time. Perhaps you remember the case?"

""No," said Paul.

""Powdered glass," said Flossie shrilly, "in his coffee."

""Turkish coffee," said Dingy." - p 67

"The Hotel Metropole, Cwmpryddyg, is by far the grandest hotel in the north of Wales." - p 132

"Here Cwmpryddyg is an invented Welsh town, an allusion to the difficult Welsh language." - "Stylistics of the English Language" -

According to the Google Welsh-to-English translator that I used online, "Cwmpryddyg" actually means "comprehensive". So there.

Given that the Welsh have been heavily suppressed by the English, I have to wonder whether a Welsh reader wd find Waugh's depiction of the Welsh people funny:

"["]The ignorant speak of them as Celts, which is of course wholly erroneous. They are of pure Iberian stock—the aboriginal inhabitants of Europe who survive only in Portugal and the Basque district. Cekts readily intermarry with their neighbors and absorb them. From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people. It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity. Their sons and daughters mate freely with the sheep but not with human kind except their onw blood relations.["]" - p 87

Is this the kind of thing English imperialists actually say to justify the oppression?

""I had such a curious conversation just now," Lord Circumference was saying to Paul, "with your" [Welsh] "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?"" - p 104

More "indelicacy". Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde has a black lover who she brings to a school event, wch scnadalizes the other attendees but she's so beautiful & rich she's untouchable. This was published in 1928. I wonder how Waugh wd approach a scene of bigotry in 2018, 90 yrs later?

"Eminently aloof from all these stood Chokey and Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde. Clearly the social balance was delicately poised, and the issue depended on them. With or without her nigger, Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde was a woman of vital importance." - p 102

""I think it's an insult bringing a nigger here," said Mrs. Clutterbuck. "It's an insult to our own women."

""Niggers are all right," said Philbrick. "Where I draw a line is a Chink, nasty inhuman things. I had a pal bumped off by a Chink once. Throat cut horrible, it was, from ear to ear."" - p 103

""You folks all think the colored man hasn't got a soul. Anything's good enough for the poor colored man. Beat him; put him in chains; load him with burden . . ." Here Paul observed a responsive glitter in Lady Circumference's eye." - p 107

""The mistake was ever giving them their freedom," said the Vicar. "They were all happier and better looked after before."" - p 108

Yes, Waugh delights in poking fun at ignorance.

"Mr. Prendergast ate a grapefruit with some difficulty. "What a big orange!" he said when he'd finished it. "They do things on a large scale here."" - p 134

One of the things I like the most about the humor in this bk is the showing of how lying is used to get around difficulties: "Six days later the school was given a half-holiday, and soon after luncheon the bigamous union of Captain Edgar Grimes and Miss Florence Selina Fagan was celebrated at the Llanabba Parish Church. A slight injury to his hand prevented Paul from playing the organ." (p 141) In other words, Paul doesn't play the organ - even tho he's been hired to teach it.

""The problem of architecture as I see it," he told a journalist who had come to report on the progress of his surprising creation of ferro-concrete & aluminum, "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."" - p 163

My solution is to build all buildings w/o means of ingress or egress: ie: no doors or windows, etc. It's a disappointment that the above-quoted architect character was too short-sighted to see the obviousness of this solution. AReinforced concrete was fairly fresh in 1884, aluminum was fairly fresh as of 1889. It's obvious that this architect was a fuddy-duddy. Making buildings out of elephant sperm seeking eggs at the highest point of the building was all the rage in 1928. That didn't last long. I took this bit of Waugh's to be a parody of Bauhouse. Apparently, I was at least partially right:

""I saw some of Otto Silenus's work at Munich," said Potts. "I think that he's a man worth watching. He was in Moscow at one time and in the Bauhaus at Dessau.["]" - p 168

If he'd been a woman architect wd that've made him a "Bauhausfrau"? The young Peter Beste-Chetwynde "mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to The Wind in the Willows, was his favorite book." (p 196) W/ a Hohausfrau like his mom, is it any wonder? Little Peter was a fortunate young man to spend part of his childhood in a house designed by the great Silenus:

"He admired the luminous ceiling in Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde's study and the indiarubber fungi in the recessed conservatory and the little drawing-room, of which the floor was a large kaleidoscope, set in motion by an electric button." - p 196

Is that where they play Pin the crime on the donkey? Waugh has a wonderful way of making scenes that cd be truly tragic into something that's just a spot of bother:

""There's a young man just like your friend Potts on the other side of the street," said Margot at the window. "And, my dear, he's picked up the last of those poor girls, the one who wanted to take her children and her brother with her."

""Then it can't be Potts," said Paul lazily: "I say, Margot, there was one thing I couldn't understand. Why was it that the less experience those chorus-girls had, the more you seemed to want them? You offered much higher wages to the ones who said they'd never had a job before."

""Did I, darling? I expect it was because I feel so absurdly happy."

"At the time this seemed quite a reasonable explanation, but, thinking the matter over, Paul had to admit to himself that there had been nothing noticeably light-hearted in Margot's conduct of her business." - p 203

&, alas, Paul suffers the consequences of the sins of the motherfucker & goes to jail.. but he handles it w/ aplomb "for anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying." (pp 261-262) But, ok, so Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde killed her husband.. that doesn't stop her from making Paul's conditions in prison cushy: "He showed him rather coyly the pile of gaily-bound volumes he carried under his arm. "I thought you'd like the new Virginia Woolf. It's only been out two days."

""Thank you, sir," said Paul politely. Clearly the library of his new prison was run on a much more enterprising and extravagant plan than at Blackstone." - p 264

& don't forget to support your local anarchist run bks-to-prisoners program.

& that's all I'm going to tell you about this one.

&.. ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
Witty as always - yet some of it did not age well. Considered giving it 2.5 stars because of that, but satire is of a time and can be uncomfortable once that time has passed. ( )
  curious_squid | Apr 5, 2021 |
'Decline and Fall' was Evelyn Waugh's first novel, and yet it is astonishingly complete for a debut. Everything fits together - a rarity among comic novels, which experience tells me often begin well but tend to drift towards the middle and then sag at the end. Not so here, as the whole plot seems orchestrated to produce the most cynical laughs possible. An absolute blast. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Mar 29, 2021 |
The misadventures of Paul Pennyfeather.

It did have some genuine LOL moments but I didn't take to this. I think the time has come to admit I don't actually like Waugh very much despite the lush romanticism of the TV adaptation of "Brideshead Revisted". ( )
1 vota Robertgreaves | Mar 31, 2019 |
After walking into to a prank by some good ol' boys, Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Scone College for 'indecent behavior', a blow that he takes without too much fuss. His guardian denies him his allowance and he is sent off to teach at a public school far enough down the ladder to not inquire too closely into his background.

'Decline and Fall' is Paul's coast through the tribulations of public school, high society, bribery, prison, and faith. Very little appears to touch him. He likes his friends and some of the students, but there is little genuine enthusiasm from him except for the occasional trip out to the tavern.

The joy in the novel comes from the grubby self-interest of the upper classes and the blatant disregard they have for the conventional rules of decency and fair play. They're absolutely terrible and modern popular culture is about little else but terrible people. Waugh doesn't try to sell them as anything else. I liked it as much as 'Brideshead Revisited', but its a very different kind of book. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
Es mostren 1-5 de 56 (següent | mostra-les totes)
No novel is a statement, and we should try to fight against making inferences about the author's state of mind. Nevertheless I will succumb to temptation by suggesting that the twenty-five-year-old Waugh, rather than go mad or commit suicide, was in real need of something that offered an explanation of or an excuse for the horrors of existence. We all know what Evelyn Waugh found —to his artistic detriment: what had been an enlivening bitterness sank to defiance and jeering, a struggle against the unalterable and inevitable on the secular and social plane...

Waugh's one great book is the outcome not, as Edmund Wilson put it, of regarding cruel things as funny because he didn't understand them. One way or the other, what Decline and Fall is the outcome of is trying to make cruel things as funny as possible, because that is one of the very few ways of making them a little less intolerable.
afegit per SnootyBaronet | editaNew Statesman, Kingsley Amis (Sep 22, 1978)
In Decline and Fall Mr. Waugh did what hardly any modern author has done in his first book; he reated a character that simply and naturally takes its place among the great characters of fiction that are larger than life-size, and more significant than a single child of man can be. Grimes is one of the world's great rogues, one of those whose serenity and bloomy sense of inner rightness almost persuade honest men that there is a strong moral case for roguery; and he has a subtle value, too, as a vehicle for criticism of our English life. For in him the generation that has spent its youth overshadowed by Dr. Arnold and Rudyard Kipling joyously recognized an embodiment of all the exceedingly queer forms that nature, driven out with a fork from the public school, assumes in order that it may effect a reëntrance.
afegit per SnootyBaronet | editaThe Bookman, Rebecca West
The great thing about Decline and Fall, written when the author was twenty-five, was its breath-taking spontaneity. The latter part of the book leans a little too heavily on Voltaire’s Candide, but the early part, that hair-raising harlequinade in a brazenly bad boys’ school, has an audacity that is altogether Waugh’s and that was to prove the great principle of his art. This audacity is personified here by an hilarious character, called Grimes. Though a schoolmaster and a ‘ public-school man,” Grimes is frankly and even exultantly everything that is most contrary to the British code of good behavior: he is a bounder, a rotter, a scoundrel, but he never has a moment of compunction.
afegit per SnootyBaronet | editaThe New Yorker, Edmund Wilson
Decline And Fall stands alone in the canon. The constant flow of comic invention, and the absurdist logic ordering the characters' actions, makes it memorable. The book's logic is that of Lewis Carroll, its spirit allied to the genial anarchy of early Marx Brothers films. When Grimes escapes from prison, as earlier he has escaped from marriage to Dr Fagan's awful daughter, he is thought to have perished in the quicksand of Egdon Mire a joke related to the Great Grimpen Mire in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Like Paul, however, we know that Grimes is not dead but a life force, immortal. That's the right word also for Evelyn Waugh's comic creation.
afegit per SnootyBaronet | editaLondon Times, Julian Symons

» Afegeix-hi altres autors (36 possibles)

Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Evelyn Waughautor primaritotes les edicionscalculat
Bentley/Farrell/Burn…Dissenyador de la cobertaautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Bradshaw, DavidIntroduccióautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Evans, HenriTraductionautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Harris, DerrickAutor de la cobertaautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Maloney, MichaelNarradorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Ott, AndreaTraductorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
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To Harold Acton
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Mr. Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr. Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr. Sniggs's room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College.
Chapter One:
"Sent down for indecent behaviour, eh?" said Paul Pennyfeather's guardian.
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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.
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Wikipedia en anglès (1)

Evelyn Waugh's "irresistible" first novel (New York Times) is a brilliant and hilarious satire of English school life in the 1920s. Sent down from Oxford after a wild, drunken party, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly surprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at a boys' private school in Wales. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, rascals and fools, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and Captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds in Evelyn Waugh's dazzling debut as a novelist, the young run riot and no one is safe, least of all Paul.

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Classificació Decimal de Dewey (DDC)

813 — Literature English (North America) American fiction

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Mitjana: (3.86)
0.5 1
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1.5 1
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2.5 7
3 142
3.5 49
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