As part of a genuine lineage of literary masters, born from an age of class brilliance, public schools, officers in world wars, country houses etc, Evelyn Waugh was one of those Englishman that Americans and Australians are convinced we’re all still like.
Regretfully, we’re not. We are, of course, class mixed, socially removed from one-another, blended into an amalgam of so-called Big Britain. Balls.
What we actually are is exactly the same as always, we’re just fooled by our magazines and television nonsense to believe we’re a lot better off, and more rewarded for our nominal achievements in fashion and culture than we actually are.
Decline & Fall was Waugh’s analysis of this social climbing, and falling, and was an alarming premonition, in many ways clarifying a) what was happening at that time in the 1920s but also b) identifying what has continued to happen to this very day. But actually it’s just very funny. Following the highs and lows of Paul Pennyfeather in his attempts to better himself through teaching positions in increasingly dilapidated schools, with ever more desperate social climbers and moneyed brainless class ignorers. Ignorers, because they’re so high up that they don’t really know that they’re upper class, and they don’t recognise that other people really exist, or are actually people in fact.
Joining Pennyfeather on this journey is one of the better fictional characters to have ever emerged from comedic literature.
Grimes is a painfully funny contemporary of Pennyfeather’s, who meets him at the first school, run by the inimitable Dr. Fagan. After Grimes is sacked, horrifically wounded, arrested and up in front of a judge with a death sentence over him, he gets away with it, as he does with everything because he’s “a public school man”. It doesn’t matter that he’s a deserter pederast thief, because his class sets him free every time. He’s also optimistic, carrying on with the blissful gay abandon that his origination gives him. Like his contemporaries Waugh knew that he had a station above others, and that it was ludicrous, but that it really happened.
An honourable mention should also go to Prendegrast, the ex-CofE vicar who left the ministry because he stopped believing in God. His bishop however, not feeling this should particularly get in the way of his day to day duties, feels that he should carry on as normal.
Beyond this character of Grimes is the almost fantasy character of the Honourable Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde. Mother of Pennyfeather’s pupil, whom he goes on to tutor, then becoming involved with the enormously wealthy widow, only to discover her money comes from brothels in South America. Doing the decent thing Pennyfeather takes the rap as a sex-trafficking toerag and, again, falls from an apparently safe position, this time into prison.
Ultimately this is Waugh’s brilliance. He’s given us a character that should do better in life but, because he’s decent, he fails (falls). All around him are ne’er-do-wells that should, by rights, get their just desserts and be cast aside from their comfortable positions. They don’t, of course, and Waugh knew this from first hand experience, which caused something of a stink when this, his FIRST NOVEL! was published.
Characters show up again in different guises in his later books but, like Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, I don’t think pure comedic characterization has been replicated or bettered. Except maybe in the Sword Trilogy, but that’s for a another self-important and badly thought-out blog.