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Evelyn Waugh: Vile Bodies

Some people seem to think that this is a great book, one of the great satires. While it certainly is funny, it is essentially a trivial book, telling the story of the Bright Young Things of London in the period leading up to World War I. We are not concerned with the poor and starving but with the well-to-do party-goers, drinkers and lovers and their little adventures, failed engagements and, at times, almost comical deaths. Yes, we might think it is people who are having fun while they still can, before the war starts, but the impression you get that this is how they would behave whatever the external circumstances. Of course, they have their problems – a suicide, a car crash and – Shock! Horror! – a failed engagement.

The main characters – Adam Fenwick-Symes – is very much like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall – naïve, lacking common sense and generally in the wrong place at the wrong time. Passport officials destroy the manuscript of his autobiography, his putative father-in-law gives him a dud cheque and, of course, he doesn’t get the girl (what a bore). Waugh paints a picture of a society falling headlong into a crash, symbolised by Agatha Runcible and her dream of the eternal motor race, where all the participants eventually crash. But the abiding image is of parties and drinkers and Silly Young Things.

Publishing history

First published 1930 by Chapman & Hall