Home > 1930, British Literature, Made into a film, Novel, Waugh Evelyn > “We’re not living in the Victorian Age”

“We’re not living in the Victorian Age”

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’ (… 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 studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies…)

I started reading Vile Bodies just after the dreadful Scarlet Letter and I read most of it on a hot summer afternoon, lying in a hammock under the apple tree in the garden. No children playing around, no noise, a perfect peaceful moment. These happy circumstances might have influenced my appreciation of the book.

Vile Bodies opens with a nightmarish crossing of the Channel between Calais and Dover. All the characters that we will follow in the novel are here. The sea is rough; all passengers are struggling against seasickness. There’s Mrs Ape and her group of religious singers, reborn Christians and renamed after virtues. I laughed when she called the roll on the boat:

‘Faith.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Charity.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Fortitude.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Chastity… Where is Chastity?’ ‘Chastity didn’t feel well, Mrs Ape. She went below.’

While the American Christian choir sings holy songs ad nauseam to drive away queasiness, the men feel sick too but it would damage their virility to acknowledge it:

 ‘You know I’m funny. I never feel sea-sick, mind, but I often find going on boats doesn’t agree with me.’ ‘I’m like that, too.’ ‘Ventilation… a disgrace.’

Waugh_Vile_BodiesSo I sort of fell in love with Waugh’s style and wits immediately. The first chapter is funny, engaging and full of weird personalities. Adam is our main character. An aspiring writer, he’s coming back from France with his memoirs in his suitcase. A publisher is waiting for the book and he’s engaged to be married to Nina Blount. The future seems bright for him. Unfortunately, the Custom officers decide that his book isn’t suitable for reading and burn the manuscript. So Adam is back to London without money and without perspectives to earn some any time soon since he doesn’t have another copy of his manuscript. He phones Nina to let her know they wouldn’t be able to get married as scheduled. Adam settles at a pension, one of those places you encounter in books but have disappeared now. All along the book, Adam is running after money and his chances of marrying Nina vary according to the content of his wallet.

Waugh was a member of a group of Londoner socialites that the press named Bright Young People.  They organized wild parties, scandalized the old society. They were reckless and they shook up the old values. They didn’t want to live like their parents. Waugh put a bit of himself in Adam. Adam made me laugh but irritated me at times for his lack of good sense. His main goal is to marry Nina and money is an obstacle. He should be actively looking for a job but he idly hangs out with his friends instead. He lacks of focus for the only thing important to him. And when luck is on his side, he sabotages it out of stupidity or carelessness. For example, he gets 1000 £ by chance and instead of keeping them preciously, he gives them to a drunken major to bet on a dubious horse. And, how can you have only ONE copy of the manuscript you’ve spent hours working on?

The book broaches many subjects. It describes the thirst for happiness and fun after the war. However despite the lights and the apparent lightness, it’s bittersweet. These young people don’t know exactly what they want from life or what they want to do with their life. They reject the values and ways of living of their parents but still have to invent their own. For me, Vile Bodies is a testimony of the beginning of the 20thC, the one that, according to historians, actually started after WWI. The Bright Young People have occupations derived from industries that developed during the war. They party in a balloon, they participate to car races. Waugh is a keen observer of his society. Here are the domestics at an aristocrat’s house trying to define a status for Mrs Ape’s choir (the “angels”) who is to perform for the guests:

(There had been a grave debate in the servants’ hall about the exact status of angels. Even Mr Blenkinsop, the butler, had been uncertain. ‘Angels are certainly not guests,’ he had said, ‘and I don’t think they are deputations. Nor they ain’t governesses either, nor clergy not strictly speaking; they’re not entertainers, because entertainers dine nowadays, the more’s the pity.’ ‘I believe they’re decorators,’ said Mrs Blouse, ‘or else charitable workers.’ ‘Charitable workers are governesses, Mrs Blouse. There is nothing to be gained by multiplying social distinctions indefinitely. Decorators are either guests or workmen.’ After further discussion the conclusion was reached that angels were nurses, and that became the official ruling of the household. But the second footman was of the opinion that they were just ‘young persons’, pure and simple, ‘and very nice too’, for nurses cannot, except in very rare cases, be winked at, and clearly angels could.)

Waugh caught that the society was at a turning point. The war has shattered the old status quo. The pieces of the social puzzle have been moved and need to find a new place to create a brand new picture.

While writing Vile Bodies, Waugh’s wife left him. He said it impacted the tone of the book and I could feel it, even if I read about this afterwards. It becomes darker in the end and I have to say that the ending left me a bit confused. Anyway, Waugh has an incredible sense of humor and I’m sure I didn’t get everything a native English speaker could get out of the text. The names of characters are funny and the text is full of little remarks and cheeky comparisons on a humorous tone, like this one:

Adam gave her – the spaniel, not Mrs Florin – a gentle prod with his foot and a lump of sugar. She licked his shoe with evident cordiality. Adam was not above feeling flattered by friendliness in dogs.

Isn’t it excellent? And of course, there’s the amazing passage I published earlier.

Vile Bodies is worth reading for its funny style, for the observation of the London life of the time and for the set of characters. It felt like the English equivalent of a novel written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I was asked if there is a French counterpart to this literature about the bubbly 1920s. I couldn’t find any. I searched through the novel published in the 1920s and 1930s and didn’t find any. I only thought about Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. There were wild parties in Paris at the time but the French authors weren’t writing about them. The 1920s are the years Gallimard published most of the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. If I stick to writers born around 1900 like Waugh and Fitzgerald, I didn’t find a famous book resembling Vile Bodies. At the time, Malraux published The Conquerors, Cocteau created Les Enfants terribles. Jean Giono wrote Harvest, Joseph Kessel, Belle de Jour. Let me know if you are aware of a French novel close to Vile Bodies.

  1. July 27, 2013 at 1:44 am

    I’m delighted that you enjoyed this, I hope you lead a Waugh revival because I fear that not too many people read him these days.


    • July 28, 2013 at 10:13 am

      I think that most of the potential readers of this entry have already read Waugh.
      He’s a writer I want to explore.


      • July 28, 2013 at 10:17 am

        Ah, but what about all the people who read your blog but are too shy or too busy to comment? You will have inspired many more than the few whose names we can see here, I am sure.


        • July 28, 2013 at 10:25 am

          That’s optimistic but I’d be delighted if someone decided to try him after reading my billet.


  2. July 27, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is among my favourite novels. I liked it so much that I never read another one by him and don’t dare re-reading it. I think it’s not as witty as this seems to be but it’s similar to The Great Gatsby in mood and tone, as far as I remember.
    You spent a lovely time reading this. I think you would have liked it anyway, even under less favourable conditions but it’s always nice when it comes together.
    I’ve got his Scoop here which shows how witty he can be, I think.
    Anyway this sounds excellent.


    • July 27, 2013 at 5:17 pm

      Caroline: There’s a 1987 version of Scoop that’s worth catching–although it doesn’t nail Waugh’s wit. Any fans of The Loved One out there?


    • July 28, 2013 at 10:15 am

      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll note it down.
      I would have liked it anyway but I’ll remember fondly of that afternoon. I don’t often have moments like this.


    • leroyhunter
      July 29, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      Caroline – PLEASE consider reading another one of his! You won’t be disappointed.


  3. July 27, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    I’m a Waugh fan, but then I think most people are if they try a book. That must have been quite a contrast to move from The Scarlet Letter to Vile Bodies. Did you plan that or did it just happen that way?


    • July 28, 2013 at 10:16 am

      It happened that way, I’m currently reading books set in London.


  4. Brian Joseph
    July 27, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    This does indeed sound like something written by Fitzgerald. In some ways I am thinking of “Tender is the Night” which involved some European characters and a European setting.

    This was such an intriguing time culturally and historically. It is surprising that you were unable to find no other European authors who wrote about this particular scene.


    • July 28, 2013 at 10:23 am

      I has the same texture as Fitzgerald. In Tales from the Jazz Age, the tone is full of humour, insight. Both writers don’t hide the sadness behind the glamour.

      Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum shows Berlin in the 1920s. The story is different but the novel also captures the atmosphere of these years.
      I couldn’t find a French novel. The books published in the 1920s and 1930s are quite serious. I don’t know if someone wrote about the 1920s after WWII. There are probably books but not as good or as famous as Tender is the Night or Vile Bodies.


  5. July 28, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Bright young things. One would never say bright young people. I’m not absolutely certain why, I think it’s something to do with the slang of the time.

    I’m not sure it would be that unusual then to have only one copy of a manuscript. Also, with the technology of the time I’m not sure how easy it would actually have been for him to make a second.

    I’ve read a fair bit of Waugh, and I do recall this as a good one though I don’t recall it well. Brideshead was probably my first, and it shouldn’t be your last Caroline – it’s not even that typical of him (save in the quality of the writing, but it’s wholly serious while much of his fiction is comic).

    Anyway, I’m glad you liked it and to be reminded of it. It beautifully captures that sense of the old values being meaningless after the Great War. It’s why on my kindle when I set up my categories I didn’t have 19th century fiction and 20th, I have pre-1918 and post-1918.

    Berlin Alexanderplatz is another one for Germany in the 1920s, but it’s a very different experience of course given their financial ruin. Britain suffered a loss of certainty, but economically it was doing well.

    Will you be reading any Patrick Hamilton as part of your London exploration Emma?


    • July 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      I thought “Bright Young People” was the “official” way to describe this group. Waugh uses it:

      “The Bright Young People came popping all together, out of someone’s electric brougham17 like a litter of pigs, and ran squealing up the steps.”

      Which Waugh did you prefer?

      I’ve looked at the article about the 1920s in France. There’s a lot about jazz, painting and partying in Paris but not much about literature. No “Lost Generation” literary phenomenon in France.

      I’m currently reading Brick Lane (interesting but a bit slow for me) and I have NW. I got a chick lit thing set in Notting Hill for my birthday so I feel I have to read it. So, no Patrick Hamilton on the list. Which one would you recommend?


    • July 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm

      Something else. I noticed Waugh sometimes used French words. I’m used to it but I was surprised to read the word “tapette” (“fag”) Is it used in English or is it just Waugh?
      There weren’t any footnotes in my Penguin edition of Vile Bodies, as usual. I know that Waugh expected his readers to know French but shouldn’t Penguin help their readers?


  6. July 29, 2013 at 2:05 am

    I hadn’t remembered that he’d used it. Weird. One always says bright young things now. Still, clearly I was wrong about that.

    Not sure which i preferred now, it’s been so long since I read them. Perhaps this, perhaps Brideshead. I got interrupted with the Sword of Honour trilogy or I suspect it would have been that. Not Scoop, it felt obvious. I’m in a very definite minority on that though so should reread it one day in case I was just in a lousy mood when I read it or something.

    Patrick Hamilton. Hangover Square is an obvious one, or there’s one reviewed at my blog which is excellent and well worth reading (I’m tired and the title suddenly escapes me, for all I enjoyed it hugely). Quintessential London novelist.

    I grew up in Notting Hill. There’s a review of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners at mine. That’s a brilliant Notting Hill novel, and very well written. I’d avoid the regrettably deeply sexist immediate sequel.

    Tapette is not current slang. Penguin should have helped the reader there. Readers of Waugh’s class and period would know French, but it can’t be assumed of a contemporary reader. Still, he’s nothing on Huxley for that. Some of his books are strewn with phrases in French and Italian and the odds on most readers understanding more than a handful of them is actually pretty low. It’s a failing of his to my mind, since they add bugger all to the text (unlike Eliot where there’s a point to it).


    • leroyhunter
      July 29, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      Slaves of Solitude I think is the one you mean Max?
      Second the recommendation.


    • July 29, 2013 at 10:58 pm

      Out of curiosity, why is “things” better than “people” in that case? It puzzles me that it’s better to refer to persons as things rather than as people.

      There were typists at the time, so it was possible to have copies.

      I checked out Patrick Hamilton. Both books are tempting. Now I don’t know which one I should pick.
      There’s no kindle version of Selvon’s book, unfortunately. Does he use a lot of slang? (Just to assess how difficult a paper version would be)


  7. leroyhunter
    July 29, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    For me, Waugh is canonical. He’s so assured and his viewpoint blends insider knowledge with jaundice – nothing escapes the spectrum of his satire.

    It could be 20 years or so since I read this – but I’m still reading him. Just 2 weeks ago I read Put Out More Flags. Brilliant, as you’d expect. You’ve a lot of enjoyment in store Emma.

    PS – I think that was my question about French Jazz Age writers – thanks for the research and thoughts. Odd that so much of the Jazz Age “happened” in Paris, yet the indigenous writers weren’t part of the scene. It was an ex-pat thing, it seems.


    • July 29, 2013 at 11:10 pm

      It’s always nice to discover a new writer you know you’ll like. I have him stored with Maugham in the safe-bet basket.

      It was your question, I wasn’t sure you’d like being mentioned. It intrigued me and I felt like digging a bit. It still puzzles me. Paris was The Place to be and still, no major French writer wrote about it. Giono is sort of bucolic, the others are more into politics or deep questioning. To be honest, I don’t like Giono very much, I’ve read Malraux and I never understood why Gary felt inferior to him and book titles referring to religion tend to put me off. (Sous le soleil de Satan, Journal d’un curé de campagne) Céline is exceptional but not exactly picturing “the unbearable lightness of being” if I may say, that Waugh portrays in Vile Bodies.


      • leroyhunter
        July 30, 2013 at 4:53 pm

        One of the others you mentioned was Radiguet, which got me thinking. So I looked him up, and found this:

        Which contains this: “(I wonder whether Evelyn Waugh noted the detail about a woman’s child having the same name as her lover, and filed it away for future use in A Handful of Dust)”


        • July 30, 2013 at 10:47 pm

          Thanks for the article. I thought about Radiguet because I knew he was friend with Cocteau and was part of the crowd who met at the Boeuf sur me toit (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Bœuf_sur_le_toit)

          It seems the journalist made the connection between Radiguet and Waugh too.

          The article makes me want to reread Le diable au corps. The journalist is right, it sounds better in French than The Devil in the flesh. I don’t know how to say it in English though. Devil inside?

          This quote by Radiguet mentioned in the article “it was only now when I was certain that I no longer loved her that I began to love her” sounds more like Proust than like Waugh. It could be the Narrator with Gilberte. (Or with Albertine, although La Prisonnière was published after Le diable au Corps) Proust was much admired by intellectuals, according to Sachs.


  8. July 29, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma. Glad to know that you liked Waugh’s book. I also liked very much reading the conversation in the comments section. I have read just one Waugh book till now – ‘Decline and Fall’ – and haven’t got around to reading a second one. I want to read ‘Bridehead Revisited’ sometime. By a strange coincidence, I got ‘Vile Bodies’ recently 🙂 Now, after reading your review, I want to read it soon. It is interesting that there is no French novel depicting the 1920s. Very odd and very interesting. Thanks for this wonderful review.


    • July 29, 2013 at 11:11 pm

      Thanks Vishy.
      I hope you read it soon, I’m interested in reading your review.


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