English irony (the comedy of Swift and Fielding, Gibbon and Austen) is at its best deeply unsettling. One masterly proponent of it was Evelyn Waugh and in 1928 he wrote his first novel, a near perfect comic masterpiece, Decline and Fall.
The hero, Paul Pennyfeather, a modest, decent, stoical young man is, during the novel’s preface, sent down from his Oxford College (wrongly) for indecent behaviour. After being confronted by drunken members of the Bullingdon club on the rampage, he is de-bagged in the quad on his way home sober from a lecture. The college authorities, unwilling to discipline the club’s influential members, instead choose to make an example of the studious and relatively poor Pennyfeather (they have the means to pay the college fines whereas he does not).
Once banished he thereafter descends into the world as the naïve ingénue, in the eighteenth century picaresque tradition, cast amongst thieves and subject to the capriciousness of chaotic fortune. He is forced by poverty to take up the post of school master at a Welsh school, called Llanabba Castle, with its fake battlements and dishonourable inhabitants. He is obliged by the preposterous headmaster, Dr Fagan, to teach outside his area of competence, organise fatuous sports events and give organ lessons to pupils (an instrument he has never before played). Before the end of his first half term Paul encounters bigamy, pederasty, snobbery, religious hypocrisy, racism, drunkenness and liars; and that is just among the staff. Later in the novel, once he has left Llanabba, he is deceived into unwittingly helping his fiancé Margot, a white slave trader, with her string of South American brothels, and is sent to prison for seven years for a crime he has not committed and then sprung to be legally killed in a fake death ceremony organised by others without his consent. In a parody of the many characters with invented backgrounds he has met on his travels, he ends the novel with a false identity back at the same Oxford College from which he had been so unjustly and capriciously plucked.
The most sympathetic figure is not the rather dull cipher Paul, but Captain Grimes whom Paul meets first at Llanabba and then encounters later at Margot’s house and then in prison. Grimes is presented as a flawed but very likeable figure, who has been unbowed by personal misfortune (his service in France in the first war, sentenced to death by a courts martial, loss of his leg in a tram accident and the sack from various teaching posts). A dapper man of sunny disposition he is cheerful and brimming with self-confidence and energy. He speaks with humour and in a jocular idiom of the army, and provides Paul with much solace (and beer) and guidance in his school duties during his descent. He is a man’s man “‘Women’, said Grimes ‘are an enigma as for as Grimes is concerned.’” His philosophy of life, unencumbered by the virtues of self-denial and patience, as he explains to Paul just before school prayers one morning, is “when you’ve been in the soup as often as I have , it gives you the sort of feeling that everything’s for the best, really. You know, God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world. I can’t quite explain it, but I don’t believe one can ever be unhappy for long provided one does exactly as one wants to and when one wants to.” Grimes readily and cheerfully admits to his transgressions and plunges at life with vim and enthusiasm, his human faults are revealed, over copious pints shared with Paul in the evenings, with a shining candour; he is a man without deceit and exhibits an unclouded happiness. “I can stand most sorts of misfortune, old boy, but I can’t stand repression.” His only period of agony is when he is forced to declare his engagement to the Headmaster’s daughter “they should have told me about marriage…what is this impulse of two people to build their beastly home?…Why did I ever hope I could escape?” When Grimes goes missing, assumed dead, after riding off on a prison officer’s horse across the dangerous mire outside Egdon Heath Prison, Paul reflects that the irrepressible Grimes “was one of the immortals. He was a life force.” He expects Grimes to emerge serenely triumphant, again.
By contrast, the many religious figures are, whilst respected in their communities, full of doubts, often unlikeable and several patently immoral. Mr Prendergast, a former vicar and later a prison chaplain (who doesn’t believe in God) is a dour, meek, dull figure who cannot assert himself and shrinks from life and other people. A Welsh bandmaster refuses to play hymns in the presence of a smoking woman, on the grounds of her blasphemy, but is content to offer his sister for sale to others for sex. A prison inmate (who later saws off Mr Prendergast’s head) claims to be guided by divine power “I am the lion of the Lord’s elect”. A man in Somerset pretends to be the Bishop of Bath and Wells and baptises several infants. The parish vicar says during sports day about another “He seems deeply interested in Church matters. Are you quite sure he is right in the head? I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity.” A campaign of anonymous abuse is prosecuted by a person whom the police discover to be the curate’s wife. The only service in Church is a bigamous marriage. When Paul is being legally killed, a paralytic surgeon signing his death certificate for a fee, in a parody of the sacrament administered to the dying, sheds drunken tears onto a prone Paul and drunkenly sings “Oh, death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?” At the close of the novel when Paul is back (under an assumed name) at his old Oxford college and reading for the church, he attends a lecture and learns that there was a “bishop in Bithynia who had denied the Divinity of Christ, the immortality of the soul, the existence of good, the legality of marriage, and the validity of the sacrament of Extreme Unction.” The religious figures in this novel all embody these denials at one time or another.
Not only is Paul unjustly treated by the world and nearly everyone he encounters but, unsettlingly, the good end badly (Tangent, Prendegast are slain) and the bad escape punishment (Margot, the Oxford authorities). The theorists trying to improve the world (Potts, Silenus and Lucas-Dochery) are at best foolish meddlers and at worst dangerous fanatics. In the world of this novel there is no justice, merely contingency and moral chaos. The figures who purport to follow God do not display any sign of being made in His image, and there is no evidence of God’s moral presence at all.
Another unsettling feature is that all this debauchery, immorality and injustice is described in the sonorous rhetoric of very proper Augustan prose. “Six days later the school was given a half-holiday, and soon after luncheon the bigamous union of Captain Edgar Grimes and Miss Florence Selina Fagan was celebrated at the Llanabba Parish Church. A slight injury to his hand prevented Paul from playing the organ.” Hidden behind the facade of this cheerful paragraph is a pit of unhappiness, deception, desperation, cowardice and misery.
Although Grimes is a most likeable and sympathetic figure, it is clear that he is also a paedophile. His cherished occasions of being “in the soup” (during his own schooldays, in the army and as a school master) are not expressly defined in the text, but ample evidence is given of his proclivities. One of his adolescent pupils, Clutterbuck, is covertly smuggled cigars and pineapple chunks at school by Grimes, they arrange assignations together; Clutterbuck is dismayed at Grimes’ apparent death by drowning and tells a school mate that Grimes was “very sensitive about his leg.” The reason for Grimes announcing his bigamous marriage is to deflect blame and prevent exposure following the headmaster convicting him “on evidence that leaves no possibility of his innocence, of a crime – I might call it a course of action – which I can neither understand nor excuse. I dare say I need not particularize…. I have frequently met with similar cases during a long experience in our profession.” It is doubly unsettling, then, that when Grimes finally goes missing after his escape from prison, the novel anticipates “that he would rise again somewhere at some time, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb”, with its echo of the Turin shroud.
With priests and followers of God derided and paedophiles and brothel-owning human traffickers exalted, the moral uncertainties are present not only for Paul, but also for us as readers. Not long after the publication of this novel, Waugh converted to Catholicism, in 1930, and sought refuge from the world counting on the promise of deliverance from it to a place where justice would be finally available.
In July 1990, on failing to gain a place at law school and having just graduated with a degree in philosophy, I walked down Jermyn Street and into the office of scholastic agents Gabbitas and Thring. They placed me (after a brief interview) to teach in a small co-educational private boarding school on the cliffs of North Yorkshire, overlooking the sea. I had no experience of teaching, had received no training and had no specific knowledge of a specialist subject to impart. The only advice the Headmaster gave me, when I started in September, was “Don’t smile until Christmas.” I taught English, history, geography and science (“Metaphysics, physics it’s all much the same”). I was required to flatten the cricket square and mark with white lines the rugby pitch and in the summer the athletics track. My afternoon timetable was sparse so that I could cover for the alcoholic headmaster if he was indisposed, post lunch. I contracted malaria and collapsed whilst refereeing a rugby match. The owner of the school, who lived in the main Georgian building, suffered from regular malaria bouts also, having contracted it whilst a prisoner of the Japanese in Burma. Children were required to beat on the school’s grouse moor above the campus. On Sundays I escorted single-handedly about fifty children to the village church and back again, keeping drunkenness to an absolute minimum. The Latin teacher doubled as a farmer and secured her coat in winter with bale twine.
Shortly before the end of the school year my appointed successor wrote me a letter. He was American and was intending, he wrote, to read for a PhD called “The idea of England in Larkin, Auden and T.S.Eliot.” He sought my advice about the school, I wrote back warning him of the pitfalls and strongly advised him to read in preparation Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I don’t know whether he took my advice for I never met him. I later learnt that he had arrived at the start of the following term, was shown to his study and found next morning to have fled never to return. It was a lost opportunity for him as his PhD was at risk of preposterousness had he failed to understand English irony and the joys of macabre absurdity.