Decline and Fall

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Decline and Fall
First edition cover
AuthorEvelyn Waugh
IllustratorEvelyn Waugh
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherChapman and Hall
Publication date
Followed byVile Bodies 

Decline and Fall is a novel by the English author Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1928. It was Waugh's first published novel; an earlier attempt, titled The Temple at Thatch, was destroyed by Waugh while still in manuscript form. Decline and Fall is based, in part, on Waugh's schooldays at Lancing College, undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher at Arnold House in north Wales.[1] It is a social satire that employs the author's characteristic black humour in lampooning various features of British society in the 1920s.

The novel's title is a contraction of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The title alludes also to the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922), which first appeared in an English translation in 1926 and which argued, among other things, that the rise of nations and cultures is inevitably followed by their eclipse.

Waugh read both Gibbon and Spengler while writing his first novel.[2] Waugh's satire is unambiguously hostile to much that was in vogue in the late 1920s, and "themes of cultural confusion, moral disorientation and social bedlam...both drive the novel forward and fuel its humour."[3] This "undertow of moral seriousness provides a crucial tension within [Waugh's novels], but it does not dominate them."[4] Waugh himself stated in his 'Author's Note' to the first edition: 'Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.'

In the text of the 1962 Uniform Edition of the novel Waugh restored a number of words and phrases which he had been asked to suppress for the first edition.[5]

The novel was dedicated to Harold Acton, "in homage and affection".[6]

Plot summary[edit]

Modest and unassuming theology student Paul Pennyfeather falls victim to the drunken antics of the Bollinger Club and is subsequently expelled from Oxford for running through the grounds of Scone College without his trousers. Having thereby defaulted on the conditions of his inheritance, he is forced to take a job teaching at an obscure public school in Wales called Llanabba, run by Dr Fagan. Attracted to the wealthy mother of one of his pupils, Pennyfeather becomes private tutor to her boy, Peter, and then engaged to be married to her—the Honourable Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde (who later becomes "Lady Metroland", and appears in Waugh's other novels).[7] Pennyfeather, however, is unaware that the source of her income is a number of high-class brothels in South America. One of the farcical elements of the plot is Pennyfeather's coincidental meetings with his college friend Potts who works for the League of Nations investigating human trafficking.

Arrested on the morning of the wedding, after running an errand for Margot related to her business, Pennyfeather takes the fall to protect his fiancée's honour and is sentenced to seven years in prison for traffic in prostitution. Margot marries another man with government ties and he arranges for Paul to fake his own death and escape. In the end he returns to where he started at Scone. He studies under his own name, having convinced the college that he is the distant cousin of the Paul Pennyfeather who was sent down previously. The novel ends as it started, with Paul sitting in his room listening to the distant shouts of the Bollinger Club.[8]

Critical reception[edit]

The Guardian, in 1928, praised the book as "a great lark; its author has an agreeable sense of comedy and characterisation, and the gift of writing smart and telling conversation, while his drawings are quite in tune with the spirit of the tale". The newspaper also compared the superficial presentation in the novel to that employed by P. G. Wodehouse.[9] Arnold Bennett hailed it as "an uncompromising and brilliantly malicious satire"[10] and the writer John Mortimer called it Waugh's "most perfect novel ... a ruthlessly comic plot."

In his biography of Waugh, journalist Christopher Sykes recalled, "I was in a nursing home when Decline and Fall came out, and Tom Driberg visited me and brought a copy. He began to read out some favourite passages and was literally unable to read them to the end because he and I were so overcome by laughter."[11]

In a 2009 episode of Desert Island Discs, the British actor and comedian David Mitchell named Decline and Fall as the book he would take to a desert island, calling it "one of the funniest books I've ever read" and "exactly the sort of novel I would like to have written".[12]

In other media[edit]

The novel was dramatised as the 1969 film, Decline and Fall... of a Birdwatcher starring Robin Phillips and also by Jeremy Front in a 2008 BBC Radio 4 production starring Alistair McGowan as Pennyfeather, Jim Broadbent as Grimes, Andrew Sachs as Prendergast, Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Fagan, Jonathan Kidd as Philbrick, Joanna David as Margot Beste-Chetwynde, Emma Fielding as Flossie, and Richard Pearce as Peter.

In 2017 the BBC produced a three-part TV dramatisation[13] starring Jack Whitehall as Paul Pennyfeather, David Suchet as Dr Fagan, Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde, Douglas Hodge as Captain Grimes, and Vincent Franklin as Mr Prendergast.[14] The production was the book's first television adaptation,[15] and received largely positive reviews. Alastair Mckay with the Evening Standard called it "delicately constructed and pitch-perfect."[16] Ellen E. Jones remarked on the show's "many enjoyable performances," especially that of Hodge as the "drink-soaked deviant" Captain Grimes, adding, "Give him a spin-off series immediately."[17] In one glowing review, Harry Mount praised the production as having a "razor-sharp wit, a wickedly entertaining plot—and a stellar cast."[18]

On 31 March 2017, the Daily Mail named the programme as its "Pick of the Day".[15] Constance Watson, the great-granddaughter of Evelyn Waugh, found Whitehall's performance "funny", but said that his character occasionally came "across as smug, and his acting seems somewhat self-conscious", blaming his deficiencies on a crush on Longoria.[19]


  1. ^ Kermode, Frank (1993). Decline and Fall (Introduction). London: Everyman's Library. p. x. ISBN 1857151569.
  2. ^ David Bradshaw, Introduction p. xviii Penguin 2001, Decline and Fall ISBN 978-0-14-118090-8
  3. ^ David Bradshaw xxv/xxvi introduction 2001 Penguin edition
  4. ^ Ian Littlewood, The Writings of Evelyn Waugh Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1983
  5. ^ "Penguin UK Issue TV Tie-in Edition of Decline and Fall | The Evelyn Waugh Society". Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  6. ^ Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete, p. 203
  7. ^ Vile Bodies: A Revolution In Film Art[permanent dead link], Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, Winter 1974
  8. ^ Heffer, Simon (29 July 2016). "Decline and Fall: Evelyn Waugh's orgy of bad taste". The Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  9. ^ Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (classics) The Guardian. 12 October 1928
  10. ^ Quoted in Martin Stannard(editor), Evelyn Waugh, the Critical Heritage, RKP 1984
  11. ^ Sykes, Christopher. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. p. 85. ISBN 0-316-82600-6
  12. ^
  13. ^ "BBC One - Decline and Fall". BBC. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  14. ^ "Meet the cast of Decline and Fall". RadioTimes. Retrieved 1 April 2017.
  15. ^ a b "PICK OF THE DAY". Daily Mail: 38. 31 March 2017.
  16. ^ McKay, Alastair (7 April 2017). "Catch up TV...". Evening Standard: 41.
  17. ^ Jones, Ellen E (31 March 2017). "Twenties school daze for Whitehall". Evening Standard: 57.
  18. ^ Mount, Harry (26 March 2017). "Oh, what a lovely WAUGH!". Mail on Sunday: 18.
  19. ^ SHAKESPEARE, Sebastian (5 April 2017). "DID comedian Jack Whitehall's". Daily Mail: 34.

External links[edit]