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Posts Tagged ‘Captain Grimes’

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

If Waugh had died after completing Decline and Fall, just as if Swinburne had died after completing Atalanta in Calydon (1865) or Poems & Ballads (1866), his reputation in English literature would still be secure, I think. Swinburne’s reputation in fact would be higher and though Waugh’s wouldn’t – he never lessened the impact of his early genius with much hack-work in old age – Decline and Fall remains an astonishing achievement not just as a first novel but as a novel full stop.

Though to be strictly accurate it wasn’t a first novel: that honour had gone to The Temple at Thatch, “about madness and magic”, which Waugh burnt in manuscript after his friend Harold Acton was unenthusiastic about it. The “magic” in question was black magic, so perhaps there is something Pagini-esque about Decline and Fall. Did Waugh sell his soul to the Devil in return for the supreme skill as a novelist that he would go on to confirm with books like Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1938)?

It’s certainly plausible: Decline and Fall is not only extremely well-written in a deceptively simple style à la Hemmingway, but also extremely witty in a way Hemmingway never was. It tells the tale of Paul Pennyfeather, who is blown hither and thither by the winds of vicissitude but is ultimately weighty enough to settle into a sheltered niche. At the beginning of the novel, he is set upon and debagged by upper-class hooligans while studying theology at Oxford. With gross injustice, the college authorities promptly send him down for indecent behaviour, so he’s forced to take up school-mastering to earn a living. His first and, as it happens, only employer, Dr Fagan of Llanabba Castle School in Wales, is not shocked to learn the true reason for Paul’s expulsion from Oxford. “[T]rue to his training”, Paul confesses all:

“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.”

“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. …”

But Dr Fagan is not sufficiently blasé to forget to force a reduction in salary out of Paul because of his misbehaviour. It’s a compounding of the original injustice that will happen again and again as the novel proceeds. At Llanabba Paul meets Captain Grimes, whose single appearance in this book was sufficient to secure him a permanent place in English comic writing, and begins teaching the son of the woman he will eventually marry.

But I won’t quote more and give more details of the plot, because that would spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that Paul sees the idiocies of education from the inside, then resigns to marry and suffer more grotesque injustice. Decline and Fall should be read by anyone who loves prose and wit for their own sake. Imagine a Wodehousian farce written by a more cynical and sophisticated Wodehouse who was an even greater master of prose. Decline and Fall is perhaps the best first – or first-published – novel ever written in the English language. Or any language. High praise? Read it and see if I’m not right.

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Front cover of Dear Popsy by E. Bishop Potter
Dear Popsy: Collected Postcards of a Private Schoolboy to His Father, E. Bishop-Potter, illustrated by Paul Cox (Penguin, 1985)

This book is a little like a cross between the Captain Grimes chapters of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928) and a manual of sexual pathology, with Saki’s Clovis Sangrail as fairy godmother. It might even have been suggested by a passage in Decline and Fall in which a boy in his early teens sits up well past his mother’s lover’s bedtime:

Downstairs Peter Beste-Chetwynde mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to Wind in the Willows, was his favourite book. (pt 2, ch. III, “Pervigilium Veneris”)

Waugh is not reporting that maternal neglect with approval, but Basil, the protagonist of Dear Popsy, might well have thrived on it, mutatis mutandis. He’d simply prefer chartreuse to B&S and Firbank to Havelock Ellis, being catamitic rather than heterosexual. Not that he would ever confess so crudely to his status: his postcards flirt and tease, hinting at what’s going on rather than ripping the lid orf. Firbank is definitely another influence: one can recognize his technique in the way the postcards build up a series of private jokes. They make glancing reference to some naughtiness, glide away, glide back:

P.S. Yesterday Bletchworth killed a stray cat with his bullwhip! That boy!


Bletchworth will be in Harley Street on Thursday to see a specialist. Can you put him up for the night? I have told him that you will. Be sure to keep the cats away from him.


This evening the Brides collected Mrs Durham from the nursing home, then went to the Last Faerie for a coming out party. Bletchworth was there in his leather and looked quite crocodilean. How he creaked! Mrs D gave a little whimper when she saw him.

In a novel it would sometimes be difficult to know what was going on, but here every message could literally fit on the back of a postcard: the plot has to be conveyed in parts, so each part has to be easy to understand. Some postcards need smaller writing than others, that’s all: Basil is charming and affectionate, but also selfish, self-centred, and dedicated to his own pleasure, and he doesn’t want to waste time writing full letters to his father. He doesn’t want to write anything at all to his mother, but she has an important role in the highly improbable plot, losing a leg to gangrene after a failed operation for varicose veins. She is given an artificial leg by a “Dr Oosterthing” and adds another entry to Dear Popsy’s burgeoning catalogue of paraphilias. She has come to “loathe” Basil’s father, blaming him for her son’s effeminacy, but when Popsy has his ear bitten off in prison, her cooled affections are fanned back to life by his artificial ear:

Popsy, Mother’s affection is not for you, it is for your ear. HER PASSION IS SURGICAL PARTS! It’s all too scary. When I was having lunch with her on Saturday, a man with one arm sat down at the table next to us. Mother stopped eating, looked at him for at least 10 seconds, then turned to me and said, “What I couldn’t do with that fellow!” Macabre wasn’t the word!

But macabre is the word for Basil’s later encounters with tripe-fetishists and hanging-fetishists, and also for the sex-slaying by the crocodilean Bletchworth:

Courtney Durham’s mother has been found dead in a ditch two miles from the school. Police say she was murdered! Isn’t it ghastly? The head has told that detectives will be here tomorrow to speak to us… P.S. Courtney Durham had to identify the body and took his crochet along! He said it was in shreds — the body that is.

Vice escalates, you see, and Bletchworth, soon condemned as criminally insane, isn’t the only example. In real life, Basil might have ended up in a lunatic asylum too. In print, he and his best friend Gemini Tarqqogan (“yes, two q’s, though he spells it with three!”) can work in a child brothel and then disappear overseas with rich paederasts as the scandal they’ve caused threatens to bring the government down. The book climbs skilfully to that crescendo, first striking delicate notes on traditional decadent themes:

Just back from Mass; too yawnsome for words. (Why is the Elevation of the Host always such a let-down?)


Gemini lost an eyelash in a bowl of lobster soup and was in a ghastly mood all day.


Last night Gemini slept with two orchids in his armpits!

Then the naughtiness begins to escalate, as Basil and Gemini get ever more inventive in their pursuit of pleasure and amusement. Paul Cox’s line-drawings capture the book’s inventions well, from the artificial leg adapted as a hanging basket for “dreamy blue lobelia” to Basil scribbling a postcard in the bath he takes after an itchy fortnight preparing for a “customer” with a “passion for urchins”. I just wish the full text had been printed in the cursive font used on the back cover of my Penguin edition. It would capture Basil’s light, gliding, frivolous spirit better than ordinary type. And the spirit of Gemini too, who believes that “there is only one lesson to learn in one’s youth and that is never to yawn in profile.”

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