Sunday, November 21, 2010

Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies (1930) is Evelyn Waugh’s second published novel. This dark comedy satirizes the “Bright Young Things,” or the young upper class partying set of the nineteen twenties. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the theme of Vile Bodies is the spiritual bankruptcy and emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle of party going and materialism. The title is based upon a verse from Saint Paul’s epistle to the Phillipians which is a part of the burial service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.***

The plot of Vile Bodies involves the struggle of Adam Fenwick Symes, who like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, is a hapless victim of circumstances. Adam is engaged to marry Nina Blount. Although Nina is deeply in love with Adam, she refuses to marry him unless he is wealthy enough to maintain a certain standard of living. Adam spends the length of the book trying to make enough money to be able to marry Nina.

First, Adam, who is an aspiring writer, has the manuscript of his book confiscated by British customs as pornography when he returns to England from the continent. Since Adam had already been paid an advance by a publisher for the book, he is now deeply in debt. Then Adam manages to win a thousand pounds from gambling, but gives the money to a drunk retired army Major to bet on a horse. Nina then sends Adam to ask her father, Colonel Blount, to give him enough money to let them be married.

Evelyn Waugh

The character of Colonel Blount foreshadows Waugh’s later creation of Charles Ryder’s eccentric father in Brideshead Revisited. Nina’s father is an eccentric who sponges off of the local Anglican priest and pays a film company to make a movie about the life of John Wesley on his estate. The name of the Blount estate, Doubting Hall, is symbolic of the lack of faith in the post- World War I world. Colonel Blount pretends at first that he thinks that Adam is a vacuum cleaner salesman. Adam is ecstatic when Colonel Blount gives him a check for a thousand pounds. Adam’s euphoria is short lived when he discovers that Colonel Blount has signed the check “Charlie Chaplin.”

In order to make money, Adam takes a job as a gossip columnist, “Mr. Chatterbox,” after the suicide of the former writer. (Which, I must add, has to be one of the funniest suicides in the history of English literature). In order to fill his column, Adam begins making up things about imaginary people and inventing fashion fads. When Adam says that the latest thing is black suede shoes worn with a tuxedo, fashionable men among “the Bright Young Things” all run out and get black suede shoes. Adam is finally fired from his job when he tries to start a fad of bottle green bowler hats.

At the same time as she is breaking her engagement with him, Nina begins sleeping with Adam. Eventually, Nina becomes engaged to Ginger Littlejohn, a wealthy childhood friend. Nina is not in love with Ginger but is marrying him solely for his money, so she continues to sleep with Adam. After being confronted by Ginger, Adam sells Nina to Ginger for the price of his hotel bill which he cannot pay.

In this novel, Waugh predicts the coming of the Second World War. When political tensions in Europe increase, Ginger is called up to his regiment and Nina takes Adam home for Christmas and introduces him as her rich husband, Captain Littlejohn. So pretending to be Ginger, Adam spends the holidays taking Ginger’s place in Nina’s bed. Although the servants and the Rector are suspicious, the Colonel apparently doesn’t know the difference. The novel ends with Adam lost on “the world’s biggest battlefield,” where he finally finds the drunk Major, who is now a General. The Major writes Adam a check for thirty four thousand pounds, which, after inflation, will now buy him “a couple of drinks and a newspaper.” Nina writes Adam that although she is pregnant with Adam’s baby, she is happily married to Ginger who is convinced that the baby is his.

All through the novel, Adam attends one fashionable party after another:

“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and houses and shops and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths . . . all that succession and repetition of mass humanity - Those vile bodies.”

According to Humphrey Carpenter’s book The Brideshead Generation, Waugh was writing Vile Bodies as his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (“she Evelyn”) was breaking up. According to Carpenter, sexual dysfunction contributed to the break up. After Adam and Nina’s first night together, Nina remarks, “All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.”

Vile Bodies is filled with eccentric characters. There is Mr. Outrage, the Prime Minister, who is baffled about the conversations at cabinet meetings which he doesn’t understand. The government of his predecessor is brought down when the Prime Minister’s daughter, one of the “Bright Young Things,” brings a group of her friends home and the press reports that wild parties have been going on at Number Ten Downing Street.

There is Mrs. Melrose Ape, the American evangelist ( a thinly veiled Amy Semple McPherson), who has a choir of young women dressed as angels and named after the virtues. Unfortunately, Chastity is the most promiscuous of the bunch and eventually winds up becoming a prostitute. (At the end of the novel, the drunk Major, who is now a General, is making love to Chastity in the back of his staff car in the middle of a battle).

There is the homosexual Miles Malpractice and the lesbian Lady Agatha Runcible who dies in a mental hospital after taking over for a disabled race car driver and wrecking the car (aptly numbered car number 13).

Adam’s hotel is full of eccentric characters including a European king who lost his throne after the World War, an American Federal Court Judge who has a drunk prostitute die in his room when she falls from swinging on the chandelier, and the Major who takes Adam’s money. The hotel owner, Lottie Crump, is based upon Rosa Lewis who owned the Cavendish hotel in London and had, during the Edwardian era, provided discreet accommodations for the male aristocracy and their extra-marital female and homosexual companions.

The character of the Jesuit Priest, Father Rothschild, who opines that the young people are desperately in search of permanent values, exists in the novel as a kind of Greek chorus. (Shortly after the publication of this novel, Waugh converted to Catholicism). Vile Bodies contains one joke and outrageous situation after another. Although the particular scenes and situations are contrived, over blown, and ridiculous, the over arching theme of the spiritual bankruptcy of hedonism and materialism presents serious food for thought for our own age.

The youthful Evelyn Waugh

***“Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”


  1. One of my favourite Waugh novels. His biography of Saint Helena is a beautiful book.

    I never met Waugh, but his old friend, Father Philip Caraman, when very old, came on relief to our parish in Wiltshire, England. He was convinced, at our first and only meeting, that he had known me for years. A little like a minor Waugh character, sad but funny.

    God rest their souls.

  2. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it.

  3. With Waugh, his life imitated his art. Eric Newby's first published book "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" was launched with a puff piece at the front by Waugh, who contributed it mistaking Newby for an older academic with the same surname. Newby eventually thanked him by sending him a case of the wine drunk by Charles Ryder & Rex Mottram in Paris in "Bridehead Revisited", unfortunately the wine merchant refused to change the name of the wine to "Clos de Bère", the misprint that seems to appear in all editions of the book.