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Decline and Fall

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Expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly unsurprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds and the young run riot, no one is safe, least of all Paul. Taking its title from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Evelyn Waugh's first, funniest novel immediately caught the ear of the public with his account of an ingénu abroad in the decadent confusion of 1920s high society.

300 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1928

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About the author

Evelyn Waugh

206 books2,233 followers
Evelyn Waugh's father Arthur was a noted editor and publisher. His only sibling Alec also became a writer of note. In fact, his book “The Loom of Youth” (1917) a novel about his old boarding school Sherborne caused Evelyn to be expelled from there and placed at Lancing College. He said of his time there, “…the whole of English education when I was brought up was to produce prose writers; it was all we were taught, really.” He went on to Hertford College, Oxford, where he read History. When asked if he took up any sports there he quipped, “I drank for Hertford.”

In 1924 Waugh left Oxford without taking his degree. After inglorious stints as a school teacher (he was dismissed for trying to seduce a school matron and/or inebriation), an apprentice cabinet maker and journalist, he wrote and had published his first novel, “Decline and Fall” in 1928.

In 1928 he married Evelyn Gardiner. She proved unfaithful, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1930. Waugh would derive parts of “A Handful of Dust” from this unhappy time. His second marriage to Audrey Herbert lasted the rest of his life and begat seven children. It was during this time that he converted to Catholicism.

During the thirties Waugh produced one gem after another. From this decade come: “Vile Bodies” (1930), “Black Mischief” (1932), the incomparable “A Handful of Dust” (1934) and “Scoop” (1938). After the Second World War he published what is for many his masterpiece, “Brideshead Revisited,” in which his Catholicism took centre stage. “The Loved One” a scathing satire of the American death industry followed in 1947. After publishing his “Sword of Honour Trilogy” about his experiences in World War II - “Men at Arms” (1952), “Officers and Gentlemen” (1955), “Unconditional Surrender" (1961) - his career was seen to be on the wane. In fact, “Basil Seal Rides Again” (1963) - his last published novel - received little critical or commercial attention.

Evelyn Waugh, considered by many to be the greatest satirical novelist of his day, died on 10 April 1966 at the age of 62.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_W...

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 991 reviews
Profile Image for Fabian.
935 reviews1,529 followers
September 24, 2019
Oh, silly, silly Brits! So eager to defend "honour", "custom", "decency". As if these concepts actually even existed! They did not exist then, just as they sure as hell don't exist now. (Instead, we mingle with the complex & the pseudo-complex.)

Like Jude (of "The Obscure" fame), our main man struggles to live within a system (in the novel, prep schools and jails are synonymous) which rules his existence. But this awful society is prettied up so, and the irony (and comedy) derives from the fact that all characters are o-so ignorant. Of the roles they play, of their important or negligible lives, of the upstairs/downstairs never ending bullshit... The masterful touches of a true novelist like Waugh (one of the quintessential writers of British lit.) though, lie in the factual certainty that the real world of today and tomorrow is pretty much the same as 1920's-30's England, with all its citizens perpetually cast in chicken-minus-head roles roaming about on a fickle pyramid. But who wouldn't be stupid enough to fall for dreams of love, glory or riches?
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,162 reviews9,046 followers
November 20, 2014


Bowling along in this droll farce about the upper classes – if you imagine a line with PG Wodehouse (utter lollery) at one end and Edward St Aubyn (still funny, but black, bitter and bleak) at the other – then Decline and Fall is towards the Wooster end of the spectrum - and then on page 77, there’s a sports day organised at the minor public school where our wan young defenestrated undergrad Paul Pennyfeather is now teaching. Gliding soundlessly into the grounds of the school comes an enormous limousine of dove-grey and silver and debouching therefrom

like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysees came Mrs Beste-Chetwynde – two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat pinned with platinum and diamonds, and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz hotel from New York to Budapest.

She says to the host “I hope you don’t mind my bringing Chokey” and Dr Fagan

for the moment was at a loss for words of welcome, for “Chokey”, though graceful of bearing and irreproachably dressed, was a Negro.

There follows four or five pages of fun with “the Negro”, but the term used is the n word. Waugh’s intention is to pillory a few dreadful attitudes :

"I think it’s an insult bringing a n----- here”, said Mrs Clutterbuck. “It’s an insult to our own women.” “N------s are all right,” said Philbrick. “Where I draw the line is a Chink, nasty inhuman things.”

You can tell Waugh is having fun at the expense of the racists, but I fear this kind of fun is no longer to our taste, and occupies the same cultural position as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake. You don’t want to see it, and when it’s gone, you don’t want to remember it was there.


But our nearly one-hundred-years-later sensibilities also need questioning too. We don’t want to find ourselves in a contest to see who has the thinnest skin. It leads to the ridiculous idea of publishing a bowdlerised version of Huckleberry Finn.

Some books may well have had the strange experience of being Bowdlerised in the 19th century, un-Bowdlerised in the 20th, and re-Bowdlerised, for different reasons, in the 21st. This is nonsense.


In May this year a 68-year-old BBC DJ resigned after 32 years at the BBC because he’d played Ambrose and his Orchestra’s version of "The Sun has Got His Hat On", a song written and recorded four years after Decline and Fall. This jolly, innocuous song goes as follows

The sun has got his hat on, hip-hip-hip-hooray!
The sun has got his hat on and he's coming out today
Now we'll all be happy, hip-hip-hip-hooray
The sun has got his hat on and he's coming out today

He's been tanning n------s out in Timbuktu
Now he's coming back to do the same to you
So jump into your sunbath, hip-hip-hip-hooray
The sun has got his hat on and he's coming out today

The poor DJ was completely unaware of the n word in the song. But apparently, he had to go.

And six years after "The Sun Has Got his Hat On", Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was published, another charming satirical comedy. Miss Pettigrew on page 162 of that book offers some advice to Miss LaFosse, who is trying to choose between two suitors :

"Now the first one, he was kind too," said Miss Pettigrew earnestly, "but well, my dear. I wouldn't advise marrying him. I don't like to jump to conclusions but I think there was a little Jew in him. He wasn't quite English. And, well, I do think when it comes to marriage it's safer to stick with your own nationality."

"Certainly," said Miss LaFosse, demurely.

Oh yes, that came 12 pages after this – here's one of the suitors speaking :

"Now Delysia's a little devil and there's times I could flay her alive, and obviously she needs a little physical correction, but I'm the only right man to do it."

(Those interested may wish to compare these cases with that of "Smack My Bitch Up", a No 8 hit in Britain by The Prodigy in 1997, - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The BBC banned The Prodigy.)

Well, what are we going to do? Not read books older than 1990 for fear of outraging ourselves? Obviously not. But this is a wilderness, there are no rules except the ones you make up yourself. (We are never allowed to forget that Ezra Pound was himself a fascist, but books have been written about TS Eliot in which his profound anti-Semitism is nowhere to be found. I guess the greater you are the more leeway you get.)

The act of reading is a pasodoble between the author and the reader in which sometimes the author stumbles and sometimes the reader and sometimes they’re both flat on their backs.


Decline and Fall doesn’t break the 4th P Bryant Rule of Novels which says Authors Under Thirty Do Not Write Great Books (Waugh was 25 when he wrote this). It starts off great and then half-way through starts to get sillier and sillier. But – shows great promise! I sort of kind of quite liked it.
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
936 reviews17.6k followers
December 31, 2022
This wonderfully whimsical (unusual for waspish Waugh) coming of age lark cheered me immensely in Sophomore Year after my own Decline & Fall into disrespect.

The previous year, a free year for me to recuperate after extensive medical attention, I hit rock bottom.

I Declined & Fell through the cracks of polished respectability, a persona non grata. To my on-again-off-again girlfriend Maria, I was just a laughable sorta bum.

So I had to start life ALL OVER AGAIN on my quest to recover, like Rodney Dangerfield, a modicum of respect. Rodney, of course, earned his the hard way:

Through Self-Abasement.

And I was not yet ready for that - no, not by a long shot. With my fellow hippies, I laughed at the establishment.

Wrong play, Shakespeare!

So hard knocks followed mercilessly.

Was Waugh to blame?

Surely not. ALL coming of age stories are like his. But watch how you use that cookie cutter, Fergus...

So now I see my mistake.

Instead of following him directly back to Orthodoxy, I continued to drown in my own slough.

Sauve qui peut -

But (guess what?) call in the God of Rugged Orthodoxy, my friends -

And he’ll do it FOR YOU...

Guaranteed - and with no Strings attached!
Profile Image for Shovelmonkey1.
353 reviews864 followers
January 4, 2012
A skewed and satirical version of Lemony Snickets Series of Unfortunate Events for grown-ups including a similar line-up of comedy death scenes and improbably named characters.

Oh Mr Waugh, you're a cad, a bounder and pithier than a bushel of oranges. Why, I do believe that without you the 30s would have been quite insufferably dull. Lets face it, with one war over and another one gestating quietly in the wings, what better way to pass the time than by disemboweling the braying upper classes, armed only with a scalpel-sharp wit.

A cast of ridiculously named, vaguely vapid and generally insufferable middle and upper class buffoons rub shoulders between the pages and try gamely not to tip caviare and absinthe over each others haute couture, while generally taking advantage of those poor gullible middle class types who'll do anything for an extra shilling (including the facilitating of people trafficking and sex slavery apparently). Of course the ultimate irony in this "sending up" of the weak chinned, inbred upper classes is that Waugh himself was in the possession of a not undistinguished lineage, was Oxbridge educated and harboured secret longings to be fully accepted into the Upper Classes.

Still wryly amusing now, but I have trouble imagining how this book was received when it was first published as the buying of books was beyond the means of many working and middle class households at the time and I doubt the upper classes, perched in their wing-back chairs in the library would be slapping their leg, wiping a tear from their eye and ringing for butler to bring them another sherry while they mused on the satirical dissections of their class put forward by young Mr Waugh.

As an aside, it occurred to me while reading this that David Mitchell (he of the Cloud Atlas) probably bloody loved this book, simply for the way all the characters are interwoven and keep cropping up again in different roles and different locations. Wowed by Waugh were we, Mr Mitchell?
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,525 reviews1,771 followers
March 7, 2019
This was Waugh's first novel and was received with great acclaim, even by my old favourite Arnold Bennett. However I find it like eating whipped cream. It goes down easy, but doesn't fill me up.

Clearly I lack the required level of sensibility to appreciate Waugh. Which is to say an addiction to the riotous upper classes. If you think there is nothing better than a snazzily dissolute aristocrat then this is the comedy for you.

It romps from Bullingdon Club style antics at Oxford via cut price private schools, to white slavery, to prison and back again. The hero learns nothing, but is simply spun round full circle on Fortune's wheel.

What is earnest is for Waugh laughable and comes in for punishment or abuse whether that be the League of Nations or Prison reformers. But the rakish, so long as they are blue-blooded, will survive and thrive.

Being of a tragically earnest disposition myself Waugh sharpens my appreciation for Madame Guillotine as an agent for social improvement. But it would be a sad world if we all thought alike.

I think you can see why he ended up a Catholic in this novel, nothing else could give him a fixed and reliable set of values, certainly he found nothing to value in a secular and Parliamentary world.
Profile Image for Jean-Luke.
Author 1 book366 followers
January 31, 2023
‘I don’t believe,’ said Mr Prendergast, ‘that people would ever fall in love or want to be married if they hadn’t been told about it. It’s like abroad: no one would want to go there if they hadn’t been told it existed. Don’t you agree?’

Vicious—death has never been more efficient or undemanding—and hilarious and absurd, but not without one or two objectionable scenes concerning race. Uncomfortable to read? Yes. But representative of the time period in which it was written? Certainly, even if we like to pretend that it isn’t so. Isn’t it nice to be able to recognize how far society—most of society—has come? That aside, I still cannot help but feel that the book fizzled out towards the end. Parts One, Two, and Three, are so divergent, even if the characters remain largely the same, and the book progresses at such breakneck speed, that you reach the end feeling as if you’ve just binge watched seasons one, two and three of it on Netflix. I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy it, but I still feel as if I’ve inadvertently overindulged.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,652 reviews1,484 followers
October 22, 2017
This is my first Evelyn Waugh and I will be reading more, although I suspect the author finds salvation through religion more than I.

This was the author's first published novel. It was published in 1928 and is a satire of British society of the 1920s. The humor is accusatory, as most satirical humor is. Social norms, cultural differences, education, religion, bureaucracy, prisons, marriage, sex, love, honor - all of these themes are mercilessly poked at, to such an extent that the book could be classified as a farce. This book is meant to make us laugh. I did laugh, but that the humor is stretched to the level of a farce is why I cannot rate it higher.

We are meant to consider where the central character starts and where he is at the end. What does this say about human nature? Keep in mind that what we first see may be deceptive. Look at the title. I do appreciate novels given titles relevant to the book's message.

The book draws on the author's own school years, undergraduate studies and years as a teacher at Arnold House in northern Wales.

Do not listen to the audiobook narrated by Michael Maloney, as I did! This is the most important element of my whole review. I absolutely hated the narration, and tell me, is it easy to laugh when the narrator's intonations infuriate you? I do not think it is fair to lower a book's rating because the audiobook narration is poor. However, it was a pure struggle to concentrate only upon the author's written words and ignore the lousy narration. Maloney's reading has an uneven tempo. One minute he is screaming and the next he is whispering. Names are snot spoken clearly. Women sound like men and men as women. He over-dramatizes. There is a frantic neuroticism in the tone and tempo. I have listened to this narrator read other books. None were done as poorly as this.
Profile Image for Edward.
414 reviews389 followers
April 3, 2018
Decline and Fall is an amusing story, told with great wit, and filled with astute social commentary. Unfortunately the commentary is quite particular to its place and time period. I could not really sustain my interest and enjoyment beyond about a third of the way through. It all got a bit too much.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,279 reviews21.3k followers
December 29, 2007
I've just finished this book and look, read it. It is a delight from start to finish. In an odd way it reminds me of O Lucky Man - the Lindsay Anderson film. It also reminded me of Monty Python at their best, no, at their very best. Ok, so perhaps some of the social stereotypes don't really exist anymore, but that would be like not reading Wodehouse because no one has a man servant anymore. The architect is comic genius in its purest form - I may have even laughed out loud (though never lol) when he decided that he would have to put a staircase into the building but complains something along the lines of, what is the matter with people that they have to move around so much? Why can't they just sit still and work? And his saying that we should divide people into dynamic and static rather than male and female is just inspired.

By reading this book you will learn, among much else, that a course of action is worse than criminal behaviour (I think this may be becoming my favourite quote of all time), why people from public schools have an easier time in prison than those from slums, why it is best not to announce too loudly that you no longer have your appendix and how doubting Ministers of religion should not loose their heads over prison reform.

All delivered in straight-faced English deadpan. It doesn't get any better than this.

A romp, a riot - read it.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,647 reviews437 followers
August 7, 2019
"Decline and Fall" is an entertaining satire of British society in the 1920s. A quiet Oxford Divinity student, Paul Pennyfeather, is set upon by some alcohol-fueled members of the Bollinger Club and loses his trousers. Pennyfeather is expelled for indecent conduct. As he is leaving the university the porter says to him, "I expect you'll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour."

Evelyn Waugh satirizes the public schools and the good old boy network of helping each other out of "the soup". Humorous situations poke fun at the lifestyles of the rich and titled, inept government officials, modern architecture, and more. I enjoyed Waugh's deadpan black humor as we see Pennyfeather involved in a year of improbable situations to come full circle in his life.
Profile Image for Brian.
673 reviews315 followers
January 23, 2016
"Decline and Fall" has served as my introduction to Evelyn Waugh, and I am satisfied. This biting satire has deadpan dark humor, a protagonist whose detached observations serve the plot well, and an ending that is depressingly stark in its view of our human nature.
This novel reminds me greatly of Voltaire's "Candide" in its themes, plotting, and characterization. The novel zips along and sweeps the reader into a plethora of events, each more outrageous than the last, until it dumps you at the end with a sad realization about this "ship of fools" we call life on earth. Don't get me wrong, the novel won't depress you, but it will leave you with a lot to mull over once you close it. However, Waugh makes the journey bearable through some of the most outrageously funny lines I have encountered in literature. I laughed out loud often while reading this text.
This is a book that can easily be misread. One could read it on the surface level and get a funny story with a dope of a lead character. You would enjoy it, put it down, and move on. And that is fine. However, this novel is such a text and much more. Waugh has an innate ability to combine biting and relevant observations about society into the most ridiculous conversations between his characters. Read this text for the humor, but stay alert to the nuggets just beneath the surface and you will get a fuller experience.
Some readers may have trouble with the British colloquialisms that Waugh uses, but most can be figured out from context.
I will be exploring more of this writer. I can pay him no higher compliment that that.
Profile Image for Brian.
301 reviews44 followers
May 19, 2021
Decline and Fall is an amusing satire that skewers many aspects of British society in the 1920s. Waugh takes special aim at the foibles and pretensions of the upper classes and their institutions. Neither Oxford nor public school education escapes his pen. Nor does the “enlightened” penal system. And Waugh makes sure that the Welsh come in for their fair share of caricature.

The book is home to a collection of characters memorable for their silliness, with Philbrick, Captain Grimes, and Lady Margot Beste-Chetwynde being among my favorites. The book is fun to read, although some of the satire has lost its edge over time. I’m sure I would have loved it had I been an Englishman reading it in 1928.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,096 reviews3,843 followers
February 18, 2021
An improbable, but comic, tale of Paul Pennyfeather, wrongly sent down from Oxford, and his subsequent adventures as a teacher in a very dubious private school, love with an older heiress, prison and Reggie-Perrin style "death".

This was Waugh's first novel, but in places it's like a caricature of his (not yet written) Brideshead Revisited, which I reviewed more thoroughly than this, HERE.
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
531 reviews7,104 followers
November 9, 2014
Ugh how great is this? Waugh's biting satire of his time and class is just *heart eyes emoji*. This is a lot funnier than I expected it so be, although it is very much British humour (which I love) so it may be lost on a lot of people. It's sort of like a comical Clockwork Orange mixed with Anderson's If.... Basically it's a Malcolm McDowell film (but nothing like Caligula). It's really very good. It's my first Waugh and I need more! He may be a new favourite.
Profile Image for Lorenzo Berardi.
Author 3 books227 followers
May 18, 2013
'Decline and Fall' is the sort of merciless social satire about Oxford and its elitist characters I expected to find when I bought 'Zuleika Dobson' by Max Beerbohm.

Whereas the latter left me utterly disappointed - to the point I left that book half-read - this novel turned out to be far more brilliant than I thought.

It's funny to notice how Mr. Beerbohm was chiefly a caricaturist who toyed with literature while young Evelyn Waugh was exactly the opposite.
And I believe both men made the right choice in sticking to what they did best later in their life.

'Decline and Fall' was published in 1928 as an 'illustrated novelette', but Waugh's sparse cartoons are amateurish and clumsy when compared to his brilliant flourished words.
In fact, among the novelists I have been reading, only the Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt had a worse inclination to figurative art than Waugh did.

So much for Evelyn Waugh's early aborted career as an awful cartoonist.
Shall we focus on his writing? Oh yes, indeed!

Mind you, this novel is the very first published by Waugh and it is better than a household name of British humour like P.G. Wodehouse in my humble opinion.

Am I partial to Mr. Waugh?
Well, to be honest, I don't think I am. And let me tell you why.

This guy was a conservative at heart, a converted Roman Catholic and an incurable reactionary.
Had he lived in these years, Evelyn Waugh would have probably had his weekly column in The Times or The Telegraph attacking the UE and flirting with the UKIP.
I hardly doubt his harangues would have spared harsh words on Eastern and Southern European immigrants alike invading the UK.
Had we met in person, Mr. Waugh would have probably been condescending in talking to me, found my English pronunciation disgraceful and my social manners uncouth.

But still, I'm not bitter about him. Not a bit.
No hard feelings, Evelyn.

True, Mr. Waugh changed and developed his writing style quite a lot, but the joyous, sadistic pleasure that you can find in this early novel of his is unsurpassed in his later - and more accomplished - works.
After all, this is the same author who delivered novels such as 'A Handful of Dust', 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'Scoop' which are staple food for many an English literature fan. And yet, all those books were just too perfect to blow me away completely.

'Decline and Fall' might be a juvenile work, but it does have power, anarchy, courage.
What I'm trying to say is that this novel is spontaneous and authentic to the point that you can easily imagine its author giggling at his own jokes and making fun of its own characters.

The downside of this novel is that there is plenty of racism in it. Which is hardly surprising thinking that Waugh is the same guy who entitled one of his novels 'Black Mischief'.

Actually, if you are a black person, an Italian, a Frenchman, a Welshman or have Jewish heritage chances are you will be either deeply offended or bitterly amused by this book.
And if you're a woman things won't improve that much. Female characters here are pompous matrons, coquettish posh bitches and prostitutes (Waugh plays the prudish by calling them 'entertainers').

But then again Waugh here is pitiless in his scorn for everyone and every social class, from aristocracy to the bourgeoisie passing through Bauhaus-inspired architects, butlers, schoolmasters and pub-owners.
If there is one thing Mr Waugh is excellent at it's in despising people and the way he does that is terribly funny.

'Decline and Fall' is a 'Candide Revisited' without the wit of Voltaire, but with much more enjoyable cruelty. Waugh didn't need to stage the Lisbon earthquake to raze to the ground the times he lived in.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,671 followers
May 25, 2010
Decline and Fall was Evelyn Waugh's first novel, and the first novel of his (that's right, Kelly, Evelyn's a man) that I read. It wasn't at all what I expected.

I expected a weighty, gloomy, hopeless, depressing love letter to the British upper crust. I expected the kind of book Merchant-Ivory would be happy to film amidst overcast skies and lush lawns. I expected Masterpiece Theatre during a PBS funding push.

I didn't expect scathing satire, a sort of P.G. Wodehouse with fangs, nor did I expect to laugh as much as I did. I was genuinely surprised by what I found, and while I did enjoy the surprise, I didn't enjoy it as much as I should have. My enjoyment of Decline and Fall suffered from my preconceptions, which were actually misconceptions.

What I wanted to read, what I was hoping to read, was something a bit more like Brideshead Revisited. The whole experience was like eating a hamburger when craving roast beef. I still enjoyed the hamburger, but I longed for the beef, and my disappointment was unavoidable.

Peter Pennyfeather's journey from school to teaching to prison and back again is funny without sacrificing Waugh's acidic burn. And the funny rarely descends into the silly like Jeeves and Wooster are wont to do (not that there's anything wrong with silly). Decline and Fall maintains its focus, delivers its critique, and does so with purpose. It really is an excellent little novel. Too bad I can't like it more.

If I'd known what I was getting into when I cracked the book, I would have liked it immensely, but unfulfilled expectations -- like mine with Decline and Fall -- can be the death of any piece of entertainment. This time they were more like a grand mal seizure, but that was enough to diminish the experience for me.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
April 14, 2017

Description: Expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly unsurprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds and the young run riot, no one is safe, least of all Paul. Taking its title from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Evelyn Waugh's first, funniest novel immediately caught the ear of the public with his account of an ingénu abroad in the decadent confusion of 1920s high society.

31.03.2017: this BBC production is fabulous fun!

Bettie's Books
Profile Image for Jacquelin.
Author 2 books25 followers
July 9, 2013
Poor Paul Pennyfeather. He gets kicked out of Oxford for indecent exposure, although it isn't entirely his fault. Leaving Oxford causes him to default on his sizable inheritance, which leads him to a teaching position in Wales, Not to worry that he has no teaching experience, he is hired anyway. He falls for the mother of one of his students and takes the enviable position of being the boy's private tutor. Unbeknownst to Paul, his new paramour's wealth comes from an investment in many high class brothels in South America. Just before their wedding, he is arrested for his involvement in the prostitution ring that he knows nothing about. Will Paul spend the rest of his life in jail? I won't give away rest of the story, but I rooted for Paul until the very end.

Published in 1928 to an enthusiastic audience, the genre of this novel could be considered a "comedy of manners" or a satire or a picaresque. This has elements of all three. The story is absurd and the characters are deeply flawed. They seem oblivious to their plight. They have a desire to get on the straight and narrow, but have no idea how to go about it. Author Evelyn Waugh has a great sense of comedic timing. He continually tosses obstacles into his characters' paths and lets them stumble around, getting deeper and deeper into trouble, all for our amusement. And amusing it is. I laughed out loud and won't soon forget Paul Pennyfeather's exploits.

If you enjoy the "comedy of manners" stylings of P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward, you'll enjoy Decline and Fall.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book446 followers
July 15, 2019
Evelyn Waugh’s social satire that makes buffoons of the English upper-class system, particularly hard on the education sector. I wish we could say none of this rings true, but alas beneath the farcical facade is an element of truth--as indeed there must be if satire is to work at all.

About midway of this novel, there is a scene set at a boy’s school sports day. I could picture this event perfectly...the children of the wealthy and prestigious, not an athlete among them, taking all the honors and awards in races that make no sense whatsoever.

This is Waugh’s first novel and it achieves what he set out to do, I’m sure. Being a huge fan of his Brideshead Revisited, a more straightforward look at the English privileged, I found this not able to compete. On the other hand, this is where the groundwork was laid for the great writing to come, and as satire goes, this one works.
Profile Image for Tamara Agha-Jaffar.
Author 6 books239 followers
March 10, 2021
Published in 1928, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall skewers British societal norms of the 1920s. It is satire at its most delicious and hilarious.

We follow the trials and travails of an unlikely hero, Paul Pennyfeather. While studying at Oxford, he has the misfortune to be the victim of a prank by alcohol-infused members of the Bollinger Club who strip him of his trousers, forcing him to run the whole length of the quadrangle in a highly unseemly manner. Summarily dismissed from Oxford for indecent behavior, he joins the ranks of a boarding school in Wales where he falls in love with the wealthy and beautiful mother of one of his students. One thing leads to another, and before too long, Paul finds himself embroiled in nefarious activities that land him in jail. With the help of friends in high places, Paul regains his freedom thanks to a forged death certificate. He assumes a new identity and returns to Oxford to complete his studies.

Paul suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with total equanimity. He takes his misfortunes with stride. He is joined by a colorful cast of characters. Among them is the bigamist Grimes with the wooden leg who fakes his own death on more than one occasion; the wig-wearing Prendergast who wants to be a church minister but is plagued with doubts; the revolver-toting Philbrick, the butler who keeps resurfacing with a new identity; Dr. Fagan, the headmaster who displays a complete lack of interest in the quality of education at the school; and the beautiful and somewhat less than Honorable Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde who runs a prostitution ring.

No one and nothing is spared Waugh’s satirical pen. British institutions come under attack, including upper classes with their notions of superiority; public schools with their staff and students; prisons with their ludicrous theories of prison reform; government with its corrupt politicians. Waugh lambasts all with a deadpan humor that elicits laughter at every corner. Hypocrisy, corruption, the class system, the old-boy network, and racism are on full display. The dialogue is particularly irresistible as it ripples with irony, humor, and sarcasm. The plot is fast-paced; the energy riveting; the characters eccentric but believable; the conversation hilarious; the satire penetrating.

Waugh clothes his critique of British societal norms in a hilarious comedy of manners that is both entertaining and incisive.

Highly recommended.

My book reviews are also available at www.tamaraaghajaffar.com
Profile Image for Anthony Lipmann.
Author 2 books4 followers
May 15, 2010
I have been re-visiting books which I read in my youth. This is an interesting activity. I began reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles in this vein, only to find that I had never read it in the first place. More about that later. Reading 'Decline and Fall' which I probably read while I was at Oxford, and generally a fan of Waugh's use of language I was preparing myself for a treat. I was ready to luxuriate back into a bubble-bath of wit. I recalled the opening scenes of the Bollinger Club (so opportunely recalled in that our new Prime Minister was a member of the Bullingdon Club whose practices are most likely those satirised here). The Dons crouch at the window rubbing their hands in glee at the fines to be collected from the youthful vandalism and Waugh emits the immortal descrpition ..'it is the sound of English county families baying for broken glass'. However, what must have appeared rippingly humorous in 1928 - when Mrs Beste-Chetwynde, the guest of honour, turns up with her black boyfriend called 'Chokey' - is written in a form of cold racism mesmerisingly unfunny to today's perceptions. Try reading this without your stomach turning:

'I think it's an insult bringing a nigger here,' said Mrs Clutterbuck. 'It's an insult to our own women.'
'Niggers are all right,' said Philbrick. 'Where I draw the line is a Chink, nasty inhuman things. I had a pal bumped off by a Chink once. Throat cut horrible, it was, from ear to ear'.

Clearly Waugh ascribes the words to the character, who in the latter sentence is a duplicitous confidence trickster posing as a butler, but the Chokey theme carried on long enough to cure me completely of any nostalgia I might have had for this book.

Experiment over.

Profile Image for Judy.
427 reviews99 followers
May 4, 2015
My feelings about this book changed all the way through. In some ways it is reminiscent of Dickens, as Waugh introduces a cast of brilliantly-drawn comic characters with favourite phrases which sum them up - like Captain Grimes, a disreputable ex-soldier who is always "in the soup", and Philbrick, a butler with a highly-coloured past. I enjoyed the opening section, where the hapless hero, Paul Pennyfeather, is sent down from Oxford, but I felt the novel gets a bit bogged down after he starts to teach at a boarding school in Wales. A low point for me was the sports day, which contains some offensive stereotyping.

However, after that the book picks up again and brings in some hilarious satirical portrayal of both high and low life, with the comedy getting ever blacker. Overall, I wasn't sure whether to go for three or four stars - but really enjoyed the ending, so I went for the higher figure, not that it really matters. I'd probably give two stars for some of the middle of the book, and five for the last chapters!
Profile Image for Anna.
1,635 reviews601 followers
June 13, 2021
I was already aware from prior Evelyn Waugh reading, particularly The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, that his writing can be hilariously bitchy. 'Decline and Fall' represents the apex of this, I suspect. I found it incredibly funny and laughed out loud many times. A mere sample of moments that amused me:

"I shall say, 'Are you ready? One, two, three!' and then fire," said Mr Prendergast. "Are you ready? One" - there was a terrific report. "Oh dear! I'm sorry" - but the race had begun. Clearly Tangent was not going to win; he was sitting on the grass crying because he had been wounded in the foot by Mr Prendergast's bullet. Philbrick carried him, wailing dismally into the refreshment tent, where Dingy helped him off with his shoe. His heel was slightly grazed. Dingy gave him a large slice of cake, and he hobbled out surrounded by a sympathetic crowd.
"That won't hurt him," said Lady Circumference, "but I think someone ought to remove the pistol from that old man before he does something serious."
"I knew it was going to happen," said Lord Circumference.
"A most unfortunate beginning," said the Doctor.
"Am I going to die?" said Tangent, his mouth full of cake.


Mr Prendergast ate a grapefruit with some difficulty. "What a big orange!" he said when he had finished it. "They do things on a large scale here."


"Public or secondary education?"
"Public," said Paul. His school had been rather sensitive on the subject.
"What was your standard when you left school?"
"Well, I don't quite know. I don't think we had standards."
The Schoolmaster marked him down as 'Memory Defective' on a form, and went out.


Sir Wilfred, however, had his own ideas. "You must understand," he said to Paul, "that it is my aim to establish personal contact with each of the men under my care. I want you to take pride in your prison and in your work here. So far as possible, I like the prisoners to carry on with their avocations in civilised life. What was this man's profession, officer?"
"White Slave traffic, sir."
"Ah, yes. Well, I'm afraid you won't have much opportunity for that here. What else have you done?"

A few snippets cannot capture how consistently absurd and farcical the whole book is. It follows a mild and passive young man called Paul Pennyfeather through an extremely chaotic period of his life, during which he encounters all manner of amoral miscreants, fools, and criminals. Waugh skewers public schools, universities, prisons, the clergy, politicians, the upper class, the middle class, architecture, romance, and just about everything else. The introduction to the 2001 edition that I read deals well with the few parts that are hard to read nowadays. There is a scene of intense racism, combined with some intense mockery of racism. The anti-semitism is much more subtle, however, and isn't mocked. Women are allowed to be just as mendacious as men, although the male characters are the focus. Perhaps more unsettling is the continued relevance of Waugh's portrait of public school boys grown into Bullingdon Club louts, who can only ever fail upwards. Just take a look at the UK government's cabinet, particularly our appalling clown of a Prime Minister, and tell me this isn't apt:

"Is it quite easy to get another job after - after you've been in the soup?" asked Paul.
"Not at first, it isn't, but there are ways. Besides, you see, I'm a public school man. That means everything. There's a blessed equity in the English social system," said Grimes, "that ensures the public school man against starvation. One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.
"Not that I stood four or five years of it, mind; I left soon after my sixteen birthday. But my housemaster was a public school man. He knew the system. 'Grimes,' he said, 'I can't keep you in the House after what happened. I have the other boys to consider. But I don't want to be too hard on you. I want you to start again.' So he wrote me a letter of recommendation to any future employer, a corking good letter, too. I've got it still. It's been very useful at one time or another. That's the public school system all over. They may kick you out, but they never let you down." [...] "'God bless my soul,' he said, 'if it isn't Grimes of Podger's! What's all this nonsense about a court martial?' So I told him. 'H'm,' he said, 'pretty bad. Still it's out of the question to shoot an old Harrovian. I'll see what I can do about it.' And the next day I was sent to Ireland on a pretty cushy job connected with the postal service. That saw me out as far as the war was concerned. You can't get into the soup in Ireland, do what you like. I don't know if all this bores you?"
"Not at all," said Paul. "I think it's most encouraging."

Waugh was a shocking snob, but he really understood the English class system! It's striking how much has not changed in nearly a hundred years. The exchange above takes place at the beginning of the book, before Grimes escalates to All the characters are singularly terrible people, and yet very convincingly so. Their farcical escapades and sparklingly self-involved dialogue are extremely entertaining. Waugh exaggerates just enough (barely at all?) for his parody to work perfectly. He is also careful never to bore the reader, as the novel is tightly written and very neatly structured. Given that it was his first to be published, I'm very impressed.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,059 reviews52 followers
August 27, 2021
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Few authors can approach the level of writing of Waugh, but alas satire isn't my cup of tea.

I probably enjoyed this novel more than a Wodehouse story which is the genre that first came to my mind upon reading Decline and Fall. The main character, Paul, is interesting, relatively harmless and of course terribly unlucky. I liked the twist at the end of the story - and the gaol scenes were memorable.

I will point out that there is a troubling and deeply racist chapter called Sports where we are introduced to an African student named Chokey. It is true that Waugh is poking fun at his white contemporaries, but developing a caricature of someone purely based on their skin color and dialect could not have been cool even a century ago. There isn't even an attempt to humanize Chokey which is why satire can be - at times - so awfully bad and cringeworthy.

3 stars. It was hard to get past the age of this novel, it feels quite dated. The man can turn a phrase with the best of them though.
Profile Image for Claire Fuller.
Author 12 books1,933 followers
June 7, 2018
Not for me. I didn't realise this was going to be quite so farcial when I started it. The writing was good, but nothing seemed to hit the right note, nothing was funny (although I'm not very good with funny books anyway). Actually, even though Waugh was clearly trying to poke fun at the attitudes of the English aristocracy in the 1920s, I found the racism offensive.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,005 reviews660 followers
June 25, 2017
A delightfully savage satire on the English public school system. When a young man is de-pantsed as part of an upperclass prank, he is "sent down" and finds a job at a Welsh public school. He winds up being a Candide-type of character as he winds up in prison and finally breaks out into the clear.
Profile Image for Hannah.
137 reviews24 followers
August 10, 2015
Plot: I was so pleasantly surprised at my enjoyment of this book. I had not expected to find it as good or as easy to read as it ended up being. The plot follows the story of Paul Pennyweather who within the first 2 pages is forced to leave oxford university through no fault of his own. This leads him to starting a career in a boys school and ends up meeting a very important lady through this job. The plot was funny to say the lease. I love a school novel and this was an interesting one. It also gave a really clear idea on the life style of the 1920’s. There was a very similar tone to the great Gatsby but with less of a party lifestyle. The ending was brilliant I was so motivated to read those last few pages!

Characters: Paul was a misfortunate character, things just kept happening to him. Like most of the characters in the book they had misfortune and the cards did not play out to them. Which felt lie to me a comment on the society at the time. Paul always had a really good humour to him and I enjoyed reading about him and his lack of complaining made me really idolize him.

Favourite aspects: I liked the 3rd section mostly, it was a brilliant section to read. The writing of it was really descriptive and kept and easy tone to it. Making the whole novel a lot easier to read then I had anticipated.

Themes: The main theme is the idea of society in the 1920’s, I love this era. So to read about it and to see how it effects different classes and views was really interesting.

Structure: The 3 part structure was really nice, it showed clearly the significance of the 3 events in his life. The section where also more fun to read as you could see the shifts in class and how each time the event ended it was a significant point.
Profile Image for Scott.
207 reviews50 followers
September 29, 2016
An elegant retelling of Voltaire's Candide, Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall (1928) recounts the misfortunes that plague Paul Pennyfeather, from his dismissal from Oxford for "indecent behavior," to a miserable term as master at a public school, to his disastrous betrothal to a wealthy socialite, and finally to his incarceration, death, and resurrection. The road to his ruin is populated with satiric send ups of typical literary characters, many of whom are as indestructible as Paul himself. Waugh introduces themes that he will continue to develop in his subsequent fiction: wealth, the appetites of the flesh, and faith. Indeed, the last few chapters of this book read almost like the first chapters of his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited. Decline and Fall is a quick read, and mostly entertaining, though the humor at times is too dated to elicit much laughter, and some of the attitudes so blackly satirized by Waugh have mercifully fallen to the side.
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