Here’s hoping the TV adaptation – written by James Wood (Rev) – brings more readers to Waugh’s first novel, published in 1928 and written at the astonishing age of 24. Astonishing because, at that early age, all the miraculous Waugh elements are already there, fully formed: the perfectly pitched prose, the irony, the cynicism and the cruel, surprising, funny humour. Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s most famous novel, written in 1945, is a melancholy book about religion and the disappointments of middle age. Decline And Fall is about the misery of youth and the essentially wicked nature of mankind. Pennyfeather is the device Waugh uses to show how horrible the world is: an innocent young man constantly taken advantage of by nastier, richer, grander people. The middle-class Waugh delighted in moving in the upper-class circles he floated in at Oxford in the Twenties, but he could also see quite how decadent and spoilt that upper class was.
Mount continues with a discussion of the early Oxford scenes, confessing that he himself was a member of the Bullingdon Club (depicted in the novel and TV film as the Bollinger) in his undergraduate days (see earlier post) but notes that:
25 years ago, our antics were pretty tame – little more than drinking a lot in silly clothes in picturesque corners of Oxfordshire. But, almost 90 years after Decline And Fall, the club’s image is still defined by Waugh’s much more dramatic description in the opening pages of the book…And so Pennyfeather begins his decline. Like Waugh – also chucked out of Oxford, for messing up his exams – he is forced to teach at a low-grade Welsh prep school.
The article concludes with Mount’s summary of the main characters (revealing that Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s surname is pronounced “Beest-Cheating”) and a brief synopsis of the rest of the story, but he clearly found the Oxford bits the most interesting.
It may be something of an overstatement to say that Waugh, like Pennyfeather, was “chucked out” of Oxford. Waugh was forced to leave after he received a poor Third Class grade on his final degree exams. This cost him his scholarship, and his father refused to pay his fees so he was forced to leave without fulfilling the residency requirement needed to receive his degree. But he was not sent down or expelled by the college authorities, as was the case of Pennyfeather. Under today’s practice, the requirement for the final term’s residency could be waived, and the degree, lowly it may have been, could have been awarded.
This week’s episode of BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review also takes up the TV adaptation of Decline and Fall as well as other subjects. D&F is the final segment of the 42 minute program, beginning at about 35:00 minutes with the dialogue between Col Grimes and Pennyfeather when they first meet. The moderator is Tom Sutcliffe and his guests are Catherine Hughes (historian), Prof Christopher Frayling (writer and critic) and Alice Jones (writer). Frayling feared that the script was sailing too close to Hogwarts at the beginning but in the end got things just about right. Hughes was pleased that the story involves not so much the posh people Waugh wrote about later but middle class people desperately clinging to their status. She also joined with Jones and Sutcliffe to note that the story had been cleverly updated in several respects. Sutcliffe singles out in this regard the character of Otto Silenus who is given some very funny lines not in the book: for example, he tells Margot that he loves her almost as much as he does concrete.