Book name: Vile Bodies
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Publisher: Chapman and Hall
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Publication Date: 1930
Star Rating: 5/5
Evelyn Waugh's book was originally published by Chapman and Hall in 1930, so Vile Bodies retains the feel of the Roaring Twenties in which it was written.
Yet by the end of the novel, we are once again at war. Vile Bodies makes a giant leap in assuming that there would be renewed conflict.
Evelyn Waugh was right, and Vile Bodies thereby avoids being merely a portrait of the aristocracy living it up after World War One.
Adam is a budding novelist whose life is going perfectly: he returns from Paris with his novel completed well before his publisher’s deadline, and he’s got engaged to the beautiful Nina Blount. However, at customs, his manuscript is confiscated for being filth and is destroyed.
His publisher uses his dilemma to sign him up to a terrible contract in place of the lucrative one he had before, and he has no realistic possibility of being able to marry without the income his book would have provided.
Adam’s friend Agatha, also part of the young aristocratic set rushing around London from one risqué party to another, is strip-searched at customs.
However, she bounces back more resiliently than Adam, using the story to garner those coveted column inches in the tabloids and finding herself invited to Downing Street after hours.
The Bright Young Things as they were known, and the film adaptation of this novel was renamed precisely that, are stuck with a quandary that Evelyn Waugh explores extensively (and at times explicitly) in Vile Bodies.
Prewar generations, as one of the spiritual figures in the novel says, were taught that if something was worth doing, then it was worth doing well. However, World War One crashed in upon their lives and invited them to conclude that if something isn’t worth doing well then it isn’t worth doing at all.
They are almost overcome by the futility of their situation because so few things seem worth doing well, and after the horrors that generation went through, I don’t wonder. More than anything, I feel complete sympathy and understanding for these individuals every time I read Vile Bodies.
As the Jesuit priest Father Rothschild says, ‘they’ve lost the ability to muddle through’. The inference is that no one thinks that ‘muddling through’ was worth spilling so much blood for.
The tone of Vile Bodies is initially entirely frivolous. However, as the action develops and the main characters find happiness together elusive (the outcome of many of Evelyn Waugh’s novels) the tone becomes more sombre.
Courtesy of its publication date, there is no lengthy and accurate portrayal of precisely how we would be at war again, only a gut-wrenching assumption that we would. In the light of that development, the frivolous side of the Bright Young Things cannot survive. Adam must prepare, along with other young men of his acquaintance, for the call up.
Many of the nobility did not see that their lives would change forever and that there would be no returning to the old certainties in the pre-war order. Evelyn Waugh, who was very middle class, realized this even by the end of the twenties.
He is elegiac in his tribute to the traditional role of the aristocracy in good works and stewardship of the countryside, but his acceptance that the old-world order was dying is unmistakable.
For all its chaos and its frantic amusement, Vile Bodies is an intensely sad story. Adam loves Nina, yet cannot get enough of a grasp on his life to provide the income to marry her. Other suitors with healthier bank balances begin to circle.
Yet the novel ends on an ambiguous note that does admit of a happier ending, and the film adaptation decoded this specifically. Adam’s trusting nature enabled him to win a thousand pounds in a simple betting contest one evening.
He then naively hands it to a stranger to put a bet on a horse for him. The horse wins, and the stranger reappears with various implausible promises to pay. Yet, at the end, the stranger (elevated by the war and managing quite well in France) is reunited with Adam.
Once again, the intangible proceeds of the bet are promised. Yet even that would be bitter sweet: we are told the inflation has made Adam’s fortune worthless, even if the General does have it.
I love this novel. It is hard to imagine what that generation felt about life. Under their energetic celebrations in the decade after World War One there must have been a sense of futility that their frenetic activity must have been designed to obscure.
It’s incredibly sad, but Evelyn Waugh does a wonderful job in exploring it.
I hope you enjoyed my review of Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh.
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