Black Sheets as Metaphor

The Straits Times has a story by its correspondent Corrie Tan about the teachers who introduced her to literature. One of them is Mr H who came to Singapore from England and taught her in Junior College. She meets him at a class reunion and talks with him about her school days:

“I still remember you telling us about black bedsheets in Decline And Fall,” I said, recalling Evelyn Waugh’s darkly comic social satire about British society that Mr H had dissected with us in class. “I don’t even know why I remember that specific metaphor”…

Late in the evening, as several of us were preparing to head home, a classmate asked Mr H if he would read us a passage from Decline And Fall, brandishing her well-thumbed book.

“What?!” he exclaimed. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

But he was grinning from ear to ear.

The black sheets appear in the opening scene of Decline and Fall as two college under officers are discussing the possible targets for attack by the members of the Bollinger Club who are gathering in the college quad. They expect that one chosen for harassment will be Partridge who “possesses a painting by Matisse or some such name [and has] black sheets on his bed.” Sure enough, later on as they assess the damage, they find that the clubmen “tore up Mr Partridge’s sheets, and threw the Matisse into his water jug” (Everyman, 1993, 2012, pp. 4-5). I wonder what the metaphor was about?

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