Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, Review: Shockingly clever satire

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s first and many say funniest novel immediately caught the ear of the public with his account of an ingénu abroad in the decadent confusion of 1920s high society.

Decline and Fall Evelyn Waugh - Audiobook

Decline and Fall Synopsis

Subtitled “A Novel of Many Manners, ” Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall lays waste the “heathen idol” of British sportsmanship, the cultured perfection of Oxford, and the inviolable honor codes of the English gentleman. Within the book’s unparalleled, rampant satire roam at will such characters as the Hon. Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde, Viscount Tangent, the utterly helpless hero, Paul Pennyfeather, stalked by various representatives of “the English country families baying for broken glass, ” that refreshing bounder who misbehaves without compunction, Captain Grimes, and the equally salubrious butler, Philbrick, a graduate of the underworld who likes to tell about revolting crimes. 

Genre: Literature, Humour, Mystery, Drama, Historical, Audio

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Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s first novel has only increased in potency since it was published in 1928. The shock factor of this deliciously dark satire roasting the British societal norms of the 1920s is heightened when read amidst the at times stifling political correctness of society today.

Audiobook narrator Michael Maloney’s measured and well-timed delivery of Waugh’s deadpan satire and black humour kept me on the edge of my seat. Maloney’s performance of the many and varied British accents (in particular the Welsh) had me in stitches as I drove along listening in my car.

Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is much more than a comedy of manners, it is an exceedingly clever but hostile mockery of that which was deemed important by 1920s British society.

There are countless passages one wants to quote from classic satire such as this, but hapless protagonist Paul Pennyfeather’s chats with fellow schoolmasters at public school Llanabba were among the highlights for me.

“Funny thing,” said Grimes, “but I have never been worried in that way. I don’t pretend to be a particularly pious sort of chap but I’ve never had any doubts. When you’ve been in the soup as often as I have it gives you a sort of feeling that everything is for the best really. You know, God is 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 what one wants and when one wants to. The last chap who put me on my feet said I was singularly in harmony with the primitive promptings of humanity. I remembered that phrase because somehow it seemed to suit me.”

Philosophical jaunts abound and I found myself thinking “Did they really just say that?”.

“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 unless they’d been told that it existed. Don’t you agree?”

“I don’t think you can be quite right,” said Paul. “You see, animals fall in love quite a lot, don’t they.”

“Do they?” said Mr Prendergast. “I didn’t know that. What an extraordinary thing. But then I had an aunt whose cat used to put its paw up to its mouth when it yawned. It’s wonderful what animals can be taught.”

Although I enjoyed Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall immensely, I must note that it may not be for everyone. It may upset some people’s sensibilities and you do need to listen (and I expect read) carefully to harvest all the value hidden in this novel by the complex mind of Evelyn Waugh. I found it a delightfully shocking and cathartic read in this era of political correctness – highly recommended.

UPDATE: We have since also enjoyed this author’s second novel Vile Bodies.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 /5 ; The Writing 5 / 5  —  Overall 4.75

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About the Author, Evelyn Waugh

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (28 October 1903 – 10 April 1966), known as Evelyn Waugh, was an English writer of novels, travel books and biographies. He was also a prolific journalist and reviewer.  His most famous works include the early satires Decline and Fall(1928) and A Handful of Dust (1934), and the novel Brideshead Revisited (1945).