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Evelyn Waugh: Decline and Fall

Waugh’s first novel gives him an excuse to satirise everything in English society he can think of – Oxford University, public (i.e. private) schools, Labour Party politicians, the aristocracy, the military, homosexuals, racists, the church. As a satire it is rather enjoyable though very dated. It also has a plot which can be summed up as that old standby – the innocent abroad. Of course, the innocent abroad has been a staple of fiction for many years, going back to Fielding and Smollett and then taken over by Americans such as Twain and James.

The hero is Paul Pennyfeather, studying for the priesthood, who is debagged in the quad of his Oxford college and then sent down from university. He loses the financial support of his benefactor and has to go and teach at a low rent public school in Wales (giving Waugh the opportunity to add the Welsh to his list of victims). There he meets the mother of one of his students, accompanied by her black friend. Despite the fact that she may have killed her husband and is running a white slave trade ring, Pennyfeather falls for her and marries her and is, of course, implicated in and blamed for the slave trade ring. He goes to prison but, of course, he is saved and redeemed at the end.

It’s all good fun and we can all have a great laugh at the expense of the English institutions, all of which, of course, deserve to be laughed at. Indeed, Waugh is certainly the right person to savagely mock these institutions. But the trouble with Waugh is that he rarely rose above this mockery (with one or two exceptions) and while he may remain one of England’s great satirists, he did not become one of England’s great writers.

Publishing history

First published 1928 by Chapman & Hall