Places: Decline and Fall

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1928

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Twentieth century

Places DiscussedLlanabba Castle School

Llanabba Decline and Fall Castle School. Small privately owned school in North Wales attended by fifty or sixty boys, ages ten through eighteen. Despite Waugh’s protestations to the contrary, it is most likely a fictionalized version of the North Wales school where he taught after leaving Oxford University. The essence of the school is falseness: The building is a country house altered to resemble a medieval castle, while the school’s claims to high academic standards and upper-class pupils and staff are similarly false. Pennyfeather is not impressed by the school’s dinginess or the meanness of its meals.

In a scene involving Llanabba’s annual sports competition, most of Waugh’s targets for satire are attacked: the chaotic organization of the school; the way in which the school’s owner and headmaster, Dr. Augustus Fagan, fusses over the few titled parents; whether the nouveaux riches can ever be as good as the old-fashioned titled families; a general air of hypocrisy; and even the position of blacks in society. In sports, cheating by staff and pupils is rampant.

Waugh makes use of this section of the novel to satirize the Welsh people, showing them as mercenary subhumans. In particular he describes (in insulting terms) a local brass band hired to play during the sports competition. Several of the scenes set in Wales take place in a local village public house, which is patronized mostly by the working class.

Scone College

Scone College. Fictional Oxford University college that is based on Hertford College, which Waugh attended. Pennyfeather is a hard-working, middle-class student, who intends to become a clergyman. He is attacked by a drunken crowd of titled students, who remove his trousers. It is much easier for the college authorities to indict Pennyfeather, who is “of no importance,” than to punish the real culprits. After his disgrace, Pennyfeather returns to Scone College, claims to be a distant cousin of himself, and continues to pursue his education.

Blackstone Prison

Blackstone Prison. Penal institution in which Pennyfeather is sentenced to a term of seven years after he pleads guilty to white slaving to protect the real criminal, his fiancé Margot. The prison is an exaggerated example of the British penal system of the period. There, Pennyfeather is treated like a stupid and illiterate member of the working class and threatened with violence, just as he had threatened his pupils earlier. Yet, he is quite content with the solitary confinement, poor food, and harsh regime because, Waugh notes, “anyone who has been to English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.”

Pennyfeather is transferred to Egdon Heath Penal Settlement–whose name is an allusion to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Tales (1888) and presumably located in Dorset, England. Later, he is taken to a private nursing home, Cliff Place, for an appendix operation he does not need. This nursing home, run by Fagan, who has sold the school, is located near the real town of Worthing, on England’s south coast. There Pennyfeather feigns death in order to escape.

King’s Thursday

King’s Thursday. Hampshire country house owned by Margot Beste-Chetwynde. Pennyfeather meets Margot at Llanabba’s sports competition. She is a wealthy widow, whose son is one of Pennyfeather’s pupils, and soon becomes Pennyfeather’s fiancé. Margot’s traditional Tudor home, unmodernized for centuries, is being completely remodeled in concrete and aluminum by an avant-garde architect. Margot also owns a London house and a villa on the Greek island of Corfu, both of which are briefly inhabited by Pennyfeather.

BibliographyBeaty, Frederick L. The Ironic World of Evelyn Waugh: A Study of Eight Novels. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992. Argues that Waugh is more an ironist than a satirist and examines his various uses of irony. Chapter 2 is a study of Decline and Fall.Carens, James F. The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966. Published in the year of Waugh’s death, this study of all his major works concentrates on specific satiric effects and the way in which the author achieved them. Decline and Fall is discussed in chapters 1 through 7.Cowley, Malcolm. “Decline and Fall.” In Critical Essays on Evelyn Waugh, edited by James F. Carens. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. This essay, first published only three years after the appearance of Decline and Fall, compares that novel with Vile Bodies and concludes that the first is greatly superior. An interesting early evaluation of Waugh.Crabbe, Katharyn W. Evelyn Waugh. New York: Continuum, 1988. Following a brief biography in chapter 1, the author devotes the six remaining chapters to the novels; Decline and Fall is analyzed in chapter 2.Stopp, Frederick J. Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958. A standard work, which suffers only from having been published before Waugh completed his World War II trilogy. All the other novels, including Decline and Fall, are discussed in detail.
Categories: Places