Novel * Evelyn Waugh * British Satirical Nonsense * 1928
At first glance, the works of Evelyn Waugh (one of the best female authors of all time, so I’ve heard) don’t seem to be at home next to all these tales of disaster and dystopia. After all, the world of Decline and Fall is simply interwar Britain, and there isn’t a comet or tidal wave to be seen. Even the tone of the novel is light and silly. None of the characters should be taken seriously in the slightest. Nothing they do is of any particular consequence. Even the title seems to be misplaced, considering there doesn’t appear to be a decline or a fall to speak of over the course of the story. Taken at face value, the book is a slight comedic tale about the foibles of British society. Don’t worry, though, because I’m here to help you overthink it.
The novel’s narrative follows a college student named Paul Pennyfeather through a series of misadventures that are entirely out of his own control. It is all very British. The story begins as Paul is expelled from his college for “indecent behaviour,” and is sent to teach at a provincial schoolhouse in Wales. From there, things just kind of happen at him. Life at the school is quite absurd, but it offers a chance meeting with Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the mother of one of Paul’s students. Margot happens to be extremely rich and very eccentric and eventually takes an interest in Paul, who she hires to be her son’s private tutor. After a short time living at Margot’s temple of Modernity (more on that in a bit), Paul actually takes action and asks Margot to marry him. Of course, this was rather the design of Margot and her son, but it’s the closest Paul gets to making a decision, so let’s give this one to him. I’m not sure if it’s possible to “spoil” a story of this vintage, but in the interest of continuity I’ll not recount any more of the plot. Suffice to say, things continue being silly. Besides, the actual story isn’t what’s important here. The significance lies in the depiction of British society as a whole, and in order to really appreciate that, we need to have a brief Historical Moment.
Decline and Fall is absolutely a post-apocalyptic story, even if the apocalypse in question isn’t immediately evident. Like many other books written by notable authors in this time period, Decline and Fall is a reaction to World War I. It is impossible to overstate the importance of that conflict, and its effects were far-reaching and irrevocable. Obviously the war was a massive disaster on a human scale. I’m not going to get into statistics, but we’re talking about total warfare and the casualties were in the tens of millions. The sheer scale of destruction was absolutely unprecedented in human history. The effect of this trauma on society was profound. The Great War marked the end of the world order to that point, even as it birthed the modern world as we now understand it. And it was a painful birth. In 1928, it was evident that the apocalyptic event of the first war wasn’t the end. Of course we know that there another, larger conflict in the offing, but it’s important to understand that most people at the time felt like a continuation of World War I was inevitable. That’s hell of a shadow to live under, and it had a profound effect on the people of the involved nations.
Britain, which is the society we’re concerning ourselves with, is at this point coming to terms with its place in the world. Prior to the war, the United Kingdom was the unquestioned global superpower. However, the cost of the war was severe, and it significantly weakened the empire. During and after the war, many of the empire’s holdings were agitating for such pesky things as independence and the self-image of the British Empire was suddenly quite shaky. This instability abroad, in tandem with the trauma of the war, was cause for a sharp examination of the workings of society. That’s where culture steps in, and that’s why the Moderns are so important. They were there to document these events on a personal level, and they had the ability to gauge these deep and terrifying changes to how society worked. To be perfectly blunt, this was all some heavy shit and people like Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence (and so, so many others in every affected country) really dug in and wrote groundbreaking and profound literature about the subject. Waugh didn’t take it all that seriously, however, and that’s a big reason why I like him so much. Decline and Fall, like much of Waugh’s work, is breezy and funny and irreverent. Yet like the best comedy, it comes from a place of sharp observation and introspective analysis. It’s as angry and confused as anything else written in this place and time, yet still manages to feel like a relief if you’re used to the tortured ramblings of the rest of the Moderns.
Social standing in the United Kingdom has been rather a big deal for a very long time. One could argue that it has been paramount to British society since the Islands were an amalgam of various tribes and clans and half-breed Vikings, Romans, and French. There has been some refinement since that time, of course, but by the time we get to 1928 class-consciousness is still an important component of society (it kind of still is, from what I can tell). Here is where we take the author’s biography into consideration. I mean, the book takes a different tone depending on where he sits in the social spectrum, right? Well, Waugh came from a fairly distinguished family, was educated at Oxford, and was too young to actually fight in World War I (although he did volunteer for the second war). Knowing these few things lends a bit of authority to Waugh’s depiction of the upper classes as abjectly ridiculous. After all, he’s likely lived through such absurd events as “the sports” which are lovingly ridiculed in the novel. Further, he was privy to all kinds of dumb, illogical opinions (and, it seems, held some of his own), which he depicted in the novel. An example from the schoolmaster Paul works for:
“The Welsh are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing” he said with disgust, “sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver. They are deceitful because they cannot discern truth from falsehood, depraved because they cannot discern the consequences of their indulgence.”
That’s really racist! I don’t even know that much about Wales and still, holy shit. Now there’s a few ways to look at that kind of thing. You can take it at face value, set the book down, and shake your head like ‘dang, I ain’t tryin to read no racist-ass bullshit today.’ You can shrug it off as an artifact of the era. Or, like me, you can take it in context with the overall tone of the novel and assume Waugh is totally making fun of the Doctor’s terrible logic. Later on, when Margot Beste-Chetwyne arrives to the sports party with a *gasp* Negro, the joke becomes even more apparent. First of all, I don’t know why the black guy’s name is Chokey. That’s weird, and I’m not sure if it’s a reference I don’t understand, an obtuse joke I don’t get, or some of the aforementioned racist-ass bullshit (and it should be assumed that Waugh himself was probably racist. I don’t know for sure, but it’s 1928 and, well, that’s how it went sometimes). Regardless, the interaction between Chokey and the rest of the party is enlightening and entertaining, because nobody can even deal with him. It is clear that he’s with Margot because she, ahem, enjoys his services. Yet he’s also erudite and observant, quite the opposite of the racist caricatures the society people were familiar with. And it makes no difference to them. Their response to a black man speaking about Shakespeare and architecture is to shake their heads and speak unkindly about Margot’s poor taste.
I will hasten to add that Margot is a terrible person and is no way portrayed as anything but. After all, she’s the one who gets Paul arrested for running Margot’s prostitution ring despite knowing nothing about it. Then, once Paul is in jail, “he saw the impossibility of Margot in prison.” Even though it would be justice were she to be found guilty of her crimes. Ha ha, rich people don’t go jail, silly idiot. Anyway, Margot is absurd and awful, but she is Modern as all hell. I mean, look at her stupid house, King’s Thursday. She had assumed possession of the family manor, which was old-fashioned to the point of being impractical. Since the aesthetic of the day eschewed such antiquated notions of “historical importance,” she had it knocked down to be replaced with “something clean and square.” The architect she hired was a young man named Otto Friedrich Silenus, who is a joke on Modernist sensibilities. From Silenus:
“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 and 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. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best. All ill comes from man,” he said gloomily; “please tell your readers that. Man is never beautiful; he is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces.”
Oh, word? Again, I can’t even tell if this guy is a caricature or not. I want to say yes, but I’ve been to grad school, were I’ve heard all kinds of ridiculous shit spoken without a trace of irony. Regardless, Silenus is representative of a new class of artist (who, it should be noted, Waugh admired to some extent) who takes ideas of art to new extremes. That quote up there is a fair representation of some of the new ideas trying to make sense of the post-apocalyptic new world order. The sheer scale of technological progress has vastly reconfigured how everything works at this point, including art. In fact, Silenus is in line with dudes like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (who wrote the Futurist Manifesto, and don’t even get me started) who look at the new machine-driven society and embrace everything about it. Of course, where Marinetti takes a sublime joy from speed and death, Silenus is an unpleasant misanthrope who would be happier surrounded by robots. He embraces the technological aspect of rapid modernization, but has been left adrift by the human aspect of the change.
This, of course, is the chief characteristic of the age. It’s the alienation and confusion that comes when assumed normality is turned on its head. After the war – which acts as an apocalyptic culmination of the technological and nationalistic progress experienced in an incredibly compressed time period – Britain was a fundamentally different place than it was before. For many, this change took place in a single lifetime. Others, like Waugh, were born into the chaos and forced to grow up in an ever-changing social landscape. It is clear that one doesn’t have to experience an apocalyptic event to be affected by it. Decline and Fall is, at its heart, a depiction of an entire society in decline.