Vile Bodies is a romp, just like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the champagne is laced with bitters. Waugh’s sardonic eye on his generation and how they knocked the sentiment out of any their beholders carries on from Decline & Fall but is more loosely structured – careening from one party to another, with inappropriate flings, deaths, car crashes, squandered fortunes, and hideous meals scattered around.
I preferred Decline & Fall, for all the dizzying skill on display this was more a book I admired than romped along with. Lots of typical Waughisms (loved the debaunch of the Angels) and the opening sea crossing was a hoot.
Evelyn Waugh’s second novel, published in 1930, is a wickedly funny satire of England’s “bright young things”, the offspring of the rich and the titled who seemingly can’t be bothered to care about anything at all. In Waugh’s masterful hands these idle, endlessly stupid creatures are rendered hilarious as he subjects them to a host of punishments and catastrophes, all the while displaying the impenetrability of their privileged worldview.
Vile Bodies is slightly formless, but a plurality of the action concerns itself with a young writer named Adam Fenwick-Symes who half-heartedly tries to acquire enough money to marry his aloof girlfriend Nina Blount. Adam’s troubles are legion, though the most vexing are of his own creation. His complete disinterest in hard work and practicality makes saving money or establishing a career impossible.
Waugh also introduces a bevy of memorable supporting characters, while also reviving some characters previously mentioned in Decline and Fall. These entertaining young twits are always looking for the next party, the next drink, the next chance to cause a scene and maybe get mentioned in the gossip columns.
The genius in Vile Bodies lies in Waugh’s offhand narration, a style that smartly emphasizes the indifference of the generation that Waugh is lampooning. The style also helps sell the novel’s darkly comic conclusion, in which the casual attitudes of the “bright young things” is put to the ultimate test and for the most part remains standing.
In a 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh notes, “It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house.” Given the current craze for the Royals, Merchant/Ivory productions, and shows commodifying nobility (like Downton Abbey or its less popular, rebooted cousin, Upstairs Downstairs), Waugh’s comment seems eerily prescient–like nothing has changed. Continue reading
Evelyn Waugh’s debut novel is a remarkably assured, deftly plotted, incredibly funny look at the inanity of the ingrained class system in Britain. It is compulsively readable and charged with frenetic energy thanks to the manic absurdity of the plot.
Waugh’s protagonist, the mild-mannered, unassuming Paul Pennyfeather, is a scholarship student kicked out of Oxford and disinherited under false pretenses. Over the course of the novel he bounces around Great Britain and Wales, falling into one predicament after another as he just tries to mind his own business without success.
Waugh delights in tweaking the unearned pretentiousness of the upper-crust and their unshakable, unproven convictions. The Lords and Ladies of the novel are certain their wealth and privilege are the right and proper nature of things, and no amount of evidence to the contrary can penetrate their thick skulls.
The humor is especially wicked while Paul is employed as a schoolmaster at a private boys’ school in Wales. The school and its founder aspire to the highest ideals, but in reality serves as a shelter for the lazy, incurious sons of nobility. Waugh’s boldness is especially evident in his use of a a boy’s unfortunate accident and subsequent declining health as a recurring joke. Waugh is lampooning the unshakable reserve of the elites, and though the joke is rather shocking, it is also shockingly funny.
Waugh is perhaps best known for his serious, Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited, but he was equally proficient at satire, as this fine novel amply proves.