Evelyn Waugh’s sparkling college satire Decline and Fall has been made into a three-part BBC One series starring Jack Whitehall, David Suchet and Eva Longoria, adapted by James Wood. As Penguin Classics publishes a special tie-in edition, we’re delighted to present an extract from the beginning of the book to remind readers why it’s remained so popular down the decades and is judged one of the greatest comic novels of all time.
Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr Sniggs’s room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College. From the rooms of Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, two staircases away, came a confused roaring and breaking of glass. They alone of the senior members of Scone were at home that evening, for it was the night of the annual dinner of the Bollinger Club. The others were all scattered over Boar’s Hill and North Oxford at gay, contentious little parties, or at other senior common rooms, or at the meetings of learned societies, for the annual Bollinger dinner is a difficult time for those in authority.
It is not accurate to call this an annual event, because quite often the club is suspended for some years after each meeting. There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been! This was the first meeting since then, and from all over Europe old members had rallied for the occasion. For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes; all that was most sonorous of name and title was there for the beano.
‘The fines!’ said Mr Sniggs, gently rubbing his pipe along the side of his nose. ‘Oh, my! the fines there’ll be after this evening!’
There is some very particular port in the senior common room cellars that is only brought up when the College fines have reached £50.
‘We shall have a week of it at least,’ said Mr Postlethwaite, ‘a week of Founder’s port.’
A shriller note could now be heard rising from Sir Alastair’s rooms; any who have heard that sound will shrink at the recollection of it; it is the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass. Soon they would all be tumbling out into the quad, crimson and roaring in their bottle-green evening coats, for the real romp of the evening.
‘Don’t you think it might be wiser if we turned out the light?’ said Mr Sniggs.
In darkness the two dons crept to the window. The quad below was a kaleidoscope of dimly discernible faces.
‘There must be fifty of them at least,’ said Mr Postlethwaite.
‘If only they were all members of the College! Fifty of them at ten pounds each. Oh my!’
‘It’ll be more if they attack the Chapel,’ said Mr Sniggs.
‘Oh, please God, make them attack the Chapel.’
‘It reminds me of the communist rising in Budapest when I was on the debt commission.’
‘I know,’ said Mr Postlethwaite. Mr Sniggs’s Hungarian reminiscences were well known in Scone College.
‘I wonder who the unpopular undergraduates are this term. They always attack their rooms. I hope they have been wise enough to go out for the evening.’
‘I think Partridge will be one; he possesses a painting by Matisse or some such name.’
‘And I’m told he has black sheets in his bed.’
‘And Sanders went to dinner with Ramsay MacDonald once.’
‘And Rending can afford to hunt, but collects china instead.’
‘And smokes cigars in the garden after breakfast.’
‘Austen has a grand piano.’
‘They’ll enjoy smashing that.’
‘There’ll be a heavy bill for tonight; just you see! But I confess I should feel easier if the Dean or the Master were in. They can’t see us from here, can they?’
It was a lovely evening. They broke up Mr Austen’s grand piano, and stamped Lord Rending’s cigars into his carpet, and smashed his china, and tore up Mr Partridge’s sheets, and threw the Matisse into his lavatory; Mr Sanders had nothing to break except his windows, but they found the manuscript at which he had been working for the Newdigate Prize Poem, and had great fun with that. Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington felt quite ill with excitement, and was supported to bed by Lumsden of Strathdrummond. It was half-past eleven. Soon the evening would come to an end.
But there was still a treat to come.
Paul Pennyfeather was reading for the Church. It was his second year of uneventful residence at Scone. He had come there after a creditable career at a small public school of ecclesiastical temper on the South Downs where he had edited the magazine, been President of the Debating Society, and had, as his report said, ‘exercised a wholesome influence for good’ in the House of which he was head boy. At home he lived in Onslow Square with his guardian, a prosperous solicitor who was proud of his progress and abysmally bored by his company. Both his parents had died in India at the time when he won the essay prize at his preparatory school. For two years he had lived within his allowance, aided by two valuable scholarships. He smoked three ounces of tobacco a week – John Cotton, Medium – and drank a pint and a half of beer a day, the half at luncheon and the pint at dinner, a meal he invariably ate in Hall. He had four friends, three of whom had been at school with him. None of the Bollinger Club had ever heard of Paul Pennyfeather, and he, oddly enough, had not heard of them.
Paul had no particular objection to drunkenness – he had read rather a daring paper to the Thomas More Society on the subject – but he was consumedly shy of drunkards.”
Little suspecting the incalculable consequences that the evening was to have for him, he bicycled happily back from a meeting of the League of Nations Union. There had been a most interesting paper about plebiscites in Poland. He thought of smoking a pipe and reading another chapter of The Forsyte Saga before going to bed. He knocked at the gate, was admitted, put away his bicycle, and diffidently, as always, made his way across the quad towards his rooms. What a lot of people there seemed to be about! Paul had no particular objection to drunkenness – he had read rather a daring paper to the Thomas More Society on the subject – but he was consumedly shy of drunkards.
Out of the night Lumsden of Strathdrummond swayed across his path like a druidical rocking-stone. Paul tried to pass.
Now it so happened that the tie of Paul’s old school bore a marked resemblance to the pale blue and white of the Bollinger Club. The difference of a quarter of an inch in the width of the stripes was not one that Lumsden of Strathdrummond was likely to appreciate.
‘Here’s an awful man wearing the Boller tie,’ said the Laird. It is not for nothing that since pre-Christian times his family has exercised chieftainship over unchartered miles of barren moorland.
Mr Sniggs was looking rather apprehensively at Mr Postlethwaite.
‘They appear to have caught somebody,’ he said. ‘I hope they don’t do him any serious harm.’
‘They appear to be tearing off his clothes.’
‘Dear me, can it be Lord Rending? I think I ought to intervene.’
‘No, Sniggs,’ said Mr Postlethwaite, laying a hand on his impetuous colleague’s arm. ‘No, no, no. It would be unwise. We have the prestige of the senior common room to consider. In their present state they might not prove amenable to discipline. We must at all costs avoid an outrage.’
The crowd parted, and Mr Sniggs gave a sigh of relief.
‘But it’s quite all right. It isn’t Rending. It’s Pennyfeather – someone of no importance.’
‘Well, that saves a great deal of trouble. I am glad, Sniggs; I am, really. What a lot of clothes the young man appears to have lost!’
Next morning there was a lovely College meeting. ‘Two hundred and thirty pounds,’ murmured the Domestic Bursar ecstatically, ‘not counting the damage! That means five evenings, with what we have already collected. Five evenings of Founder’s port!’
‘The case of Pennyfeather,’ the Master was saying, ‘seems to be quite a different matter altogether. He ran the whole length of the quadrangle, you say, without his trousers. That is indecency. It is not the conduct we expect of a scholar.’
‘Perhaps if we fined him really heavily?’ suggested the Junior Dean.
‘I very much doubt whether he could pay. I understand he is not well off. Without trousers, indeed! And at that time of night! I think we should do far better to get rid of him altogether. That sort of young man does the College no good.’
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.”
Two hours later, while Paul was packing his three suits in his little leather trunk, the Domestic Bursar sent a message that he wished to see him.
‘Ah, Mr Pennyfeather,’ he said, ‘I have examined your rooms and notice two slight burns, one on the window-sill and the other on the chimney-piece, no doubt from cigarette ends. I am charging you five and sixpence for each of them on your battels. That is all, thank you.’
As he crossed the quad Paul met Mr Sniggs.
‘Just off?’ said the Junior Dean brightly.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Paul.
And a little further on he met the Chaplain.
‘Oh, Pennyfeather, before you go, surely you have my copy of Dean Stanley’s Eastern Church?’
‘Yes. I left it on your table.’
‘Thank you. Well, goodbye, my dear boy. I suppose that after that reprehensible affair last night you will have to think of some other profession. Well, you may congratulate yourself that you discovered your unfitness for the priesthood before it was too late. If a parson does a thing of that sort, you know, all the world knows. And so many do, alas! What do you propose doing?’
‘I don’t really know yet.’
‘There is always commerce, of course. Perhaps you may be able to bring to the great world of business some of the ideals you have learned at Scone. But it won’t be easy, you know. It is a thing to be lived down with courage. What did Dr Johnson say about fortitude? . . . Dear, dear! no trousers!’
At the gates Paul tipped the porter.
‘Well, goodbye, Blackall,’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose I shall see you again for some time.’
‘No, sir, and very sorry I am to hear about it. 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.’
‘God damn and blast them all to hell,’ said Paul meekly to himself as he drove to the station, and then he felt rather ashamed, because he rarely swore.
Part One, Chapter One
‘Sent down for indecent behaviour, eh?’ said Paul Pennyfeather’s guardian. ‘Well, thank God your poor father has been spared this disgrace. That’s all I can say.’
There was a hush in Onslow Square, unbroken except by Paul’s guardian’s daughter’s gramophone playing Gilbert and Sullivan in her little pink boudoir at the top of the stairs.
‘My daughter must know nothing of this,’ continued Paul’s guardian.
There was another pause.
‘Well,’ he resumed, ‘you know the terms of your father’s will. He left the sum of five thousand pounds, the interest of which was to be devoted to your education and the sum to be absolutely yours on your twenty-first birthday. That, if I am right, falls in eleven months’ time. In the event of your education being finished before that time, he left me with complete discretion to withhold this allowance should I not consider your course of life satisfactory. I do not think that I should be fulfilling the trust which your poor father placed in me if, in the present circumstances, I continued any allowance. Moreover, you will be the first to realize how impossible it would be for me to ask you to share the same home with my daughter.’
‘But what is to happen to me?’ said Paul.
‘I think you ought to find some work,’ said his guardian thoughtfully. ‘Nothing like it for taking the mind off nasty subjects.’
‘But what kind of work?’
‘Just work, good healthy toil. You have led too sheltered a life, Paul. Perhaps I am to blame. It will do you the world of good to face facts for a bit – look at life in the raw, you know. See things steadily and see them whole, eh?’ And Paul’s guardian lit another cigar.
‘Have I no legal right to any money at all?’ asked Paul.
‘None whatever, my dear boy,’ said his guardian quite cheerfully…
That spring Paul’s guardian’s daughter had two new evening frocks and, thus glorified, became engaged to a well-conducted young man in the Office of Works.
‘Sent down for indecent behaviour, eh?’ said Mr Levy, of Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents. ‘Well, I don’t think we’ll say anything about that. In fact, officially, mind, you haven’t told me. We call that sort of thing ‘‘Education discontinued for personal reasons’’, you understand.’ He picked up the telephone. ‘Mr Samson, have we any ‘‘education discontinued’’ posts, male, on hand?… Right!… Bring it up, will you? I think,’ he added, turning again to Paul, ‘we have just the thing for you.’
A young man brought in a slip of paper.
‘What about that?’
Paul read it:
Private and Confidential Notice of Vacancy.
Augustus Fagan, Esquire, Ph.D., Llanabba Castle, N. Wales, requires immediately junior
assistant master to teach Classics and English to University Standard with subsidiary
Mathematics, German and French. Experience essential; first-class games essential.
STATUS OF SCHOOL: School.
SALARY OFFERED: £120 resident post.
Reply promptly but carefully to Dr Fagan (‘Esq., Ph.D.’ on envelope), enclosing copies of
testimonials and photograph, if considered advisable, mentioning that you have heard
of the vacancy through us.
‘Might have been made for you,’ said Mr Levy.
‘But I don’t know a word of German, I’ve had no experience, I’ve got no testimonials, and I can’t play cricket.’
‘It doesn’t do to be too modest,’ said Mr Levy. ‘It’s wonderful what vocation one can teach when one tries. Why, only last term we sent a man who had never been in a laboratory in his life as senior Science Master to one of our leading public schools. He came wanting to do private coaching in music. He’s doing very well, I believe. Besides, Dr Fagan can’t expect all that for the salary he’s offering. Between ourselves, Llanabba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,’ said Mr Levy, ‘School is pretty bad. I think you’ll find it a very suitable post. So far as I know, there are only two other candidates, and one of them is totally deaf, poor fellow.’
Next day Paul went to Church and Gargoyle to interview Dr Fagan. He had not long to wait. Dr Fagan was already there interviewing the other candidates. After a few minutes Mr Levy led Paul into the room, introduced him, and left them together.
I understand you have had no previous experience? Well, of course, that is in many ways an advantage. One too easily acquires the professional tone and loses vision.”
‘A most exhausting interview,’ said Dr Fagan. ‘I am sure he was a very nice young man, but I could not make him understand a word I said. Can you hear me quite clearly?’
‘Perfectly, thank you.’
‘Good; then let us get to business.’
Paul eyed him shyly across the table. He was very tall and very old and very well dressed; he had sunken eyes and rather long white hair over jet black eyebrows. His head was very long, and swayed lightly as he spoke; his voice had a thousand modulations, as though at some remote time he had taken lessons in elocution; the backs of his hands were hairy, and his fingers were crooked like claws.
‘I understand you have had no previous experience?’
‘No, sir, I am afraid not.’
‘Well, of course, that is in many ways an advantage. One too easily acquires the professional tone and loses vision. But of course we must be practical. I am offering a salary of one hundred and twenty pounds, but only to a man with experience. I have a letter here from a young man who holds a diploma in forestry. He wants an extra ten pounds a year on the strength of it, but it is vision I need, Mr Pennyfeather, not diplomas. I understand, too, that you left your University rather suddenly. Now – why was that?’
‘I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.’
‘Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to con- ceal. But, again to be practical, Mr Pennyfeather, I can hardly pay one hundred and twenty pounds to anyone who has been sent down for indecent behaviour. Suppose that we fix your salary at ninety pounds a year to begin with? I have to return to Llanabba tonight. There are six more weeks of term, you see, and I have lost a master rather suddenly. I shall expect you tomorrow evening. There is an excellent train from Euston that leaves at about ten. I think you will like your work,’ he continued dreamily; ‘you will find that my school is built upon an ideal – an ideal of service and fellowship. Many of the boys come from the very best families. Little Lord Tangent has come to us this term, the Earl of Circumference’s son, you know. Such a nice little chap, erratic, of course, like all his family, but he has tone.’ Dr Fagan gave a long sigh. ‘I wish I could say the same for my staff. Between ourselves, Pennyfeather, I think I shall have to get rid of Grimes fairly soon. He is not out of the top drawer, and boys notice these things. Now, your predecessor was a thoroughly agreeable young man. I was sorry to lose him. But he used to wake up my daughters coming back on his motor bicycle at all hours of the night. He used to borrow money from the boys, too, quite large sums, and the parents objected. I had to get rid of him… Still, I was very sorry. He had tone.’
Dr Fagan rose, put on his hat at a jaunty angle, and drew on a glove.
‘Goodbye, my dear Pennyfeather. I think, in fact I know, that we are going to work well together. I can always tell these things.’
‘Goodbye, sir,’ said Paul…
‘Five per cent of ninety pounds is four pounds ten shillings,’ said Mr Levy cheerfully. ‘You can pay now or on receipt of your first term’s salary. If you pay now there is a reduction of fifteen per cent. That would be three pounds sixteen shillings and sixpence.’
‘I’ll pay when I get my wages,’ said Paul.
‘Just as you please,’ said Mr Levy. ‘Only too glad to have been of use to you.’
Reproduced by kind permission of Penguin Classics
Decline And Fall premieres on BBC One on Friday 31 March at 9pm, continuing over the next two Fridays, and will subsequently be available on BBC iPlayer.
The tie-in edition is published in paperback by Penguin Classics, priced £8.99. Order now.
Evelyn Waugh was born in Hampstead in 1903 and educated at Hertford College, Oxford. Decline and Fall, his first novel, was first published in 1928, followed by Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934) and Scoop (1938). During these years he travelled extensively and converted to Catholicism. In 1939 he was commissioned in the Royal Marines and later transferred to the Royal Horse Guards, experiences which informed his Sword of Honour trilogy (1952–61). His most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945), was written while on leave from the army. He died in 1966.