Decline and Fall

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I went through a phase of buying Evelyn Waugh’s novels and although I really enjoyed A Handful of Dust the last one I read, Scoop I absolutely hated and found myself slowly plodding through it, waiting for it to be over. I would say this had put me off, but I added Decline and Fall to my TBR pile and was determined to make my most recent Waugh experience a good one.

Decline and Fall starts with the protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, sitting in his room at the fictional Scone College, Oxford, where he is unsuspectedly targeted by the Bollinger Club and is soon running through the college grounds without his trousers on. This leads to him being sent down from Oxford and disowned by his guardian. To make ends meet Pennyfeather takes a job at a boys’ school in Wales. It is at this school that Pennyfeather meets the glamorous mother of a pupil and leaves to tutor her son and later become engaged to the wealthy woman. Unfortunately, on the morning of his wedding he is arrested for trafficking prostitiutes; a business he has nothing to do with, but is all his future wife’s. Of course he ends up in prison, but through various means the novel comes full circle and Paul Pennyfeather ends up studying back at Scone College.

I am very pleased to state that Decline and Fall reminded me why I enjoyed Waugh’s writing in the first place. The whole novel is a series of unfortunate mishaps, each one leading Pennyfeather to a slightly bigger fall than the one before. His writing is pure satire and throughout the novel he pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the British upper classes during the interwar period. I love how certain characters kept reappearing at different points of Pennyfeather’s life and that he wasn’t the only one suffering from a run of bad luck. I do think some of my favourite chapters focused on the school in Wales, mainly because of the stark contrast to modern schooling. It isn’t so much the use of the cane, but the idea that the teachers didn’t need any real qualifications and that they just turned up and taught whatever the hell they liked. Perhaps one of the biggest similarities to modern teaching is when Pennyfeather is told he needs to organise Sports Day the day before it is due to take place; I’m not saying I have to organise an entire day of sports at the drop of a hat, but I certainly know how it feels having something like that sprung on you.

Decline and Fall is not the best novel I have read all year, but I am glad that it has reminded me why I liked Waugh’s writing in the first place. I could even be tempted to pick up Madresfield a book about the house behind the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited.

Challenges

I had hoped this would count towards my Reading the Twentieth Century, but it was published in 1928 and I already have a book for that year.

Decline and Fall does count for my TBR Pile 2014, so now I only have one book to complete my 12 books for the year.

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Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

I have always enjoyed Waugh’s writing, and I am a HUGE fan of his contemporary Nancy Mitford Their depiction of the lives of the upper classes in the first half of the twentieth century is pure genius, and the witty language is guaranteed to put a smile on my face.

Scoop is a novel centred on the newspaper industry and the sheer confusion and hypocrisy of the whole business; something which appears to be incredibly relevant when looking at newspapers in the present day, The Leveson Inquiry springs to mind. There is a civil war brewing in Ishmalia and, due to a slight mix-up, the wrong Mr. Boot is on his way as ‘The Beasts’ foreign war correspondence. Boot doesn’t want to go and knows next to nothing about life as a journalist; his only experience in the matter lies in the nature column he writes for the newspaper. Before Boot knows it he is in a foreign country and expected to report on events there. And if nothing is happening, he has to stretch the truth ever so slightly.

Unfortunately for me Scoop did not live up to my expectations. I found it difficult to get in to, and I felt very little connection to the characters. The one character I warmed to, Mrs Stitch, who manages to get her car stuck in an underground toilet block, only really appears in the first few chapters, and then the action moves to foreign climes. As the narrative developed I found it harder to follow, primarily because I had very little interest in what was going on, and therefore could not concentrate on the story and lost that all important connection to what was happening. I was relieved when the novel came to an end.

For me Waugh is at his best when he is writing about life in Britain; his insights into the upper classes are hilarious, if a tad chilling in places. In hindsight I think it might be this movement away from British life that had such a negative impact on my enjoyment. It is not that I don’t like novels set outside of Britain, I just don’t feel that Waugh does it justice in this novel. Ironic really as one of my favourite Waugh storylines ends with an upper class man doomed to spend the rest of his days reading Dickens’ novels to a man in the colonies.