Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body…
‘Too, too sick-making,’ said Miss Runcible…
Vile Bodies, Chapter One
Vile Bodies is, on the surface, a social comedy satirising the social mores of the upper-middle and upper classes of the 1930s England, more particularly that satirises his own generation, who reached maturity, or some facsimile of it, between the wars. I say, ‘on the surface’ – actually, Vile Bodies, along with Waugh’s other early short novels, is almost all surface – the characters are caricatures, none of whom we are solicited to feel even an ounce of sympathy for (even when they die!, the plots are madcap and unpredictable, and the dialogue snappy and slangy. Unlike other satirists, he seems not to have a whit of feeling for his characters, nor sympathy for their way of life, their opinions and their fast changing fashions, though he knows them like the back of his hand. The original title of the book was going to be ‘Bright Young Things’, but Waugh discarded this as too clichéd (though this didn’t worry Stephen Fry, who took it for the film adaptation); it also doesn’t fit because of its positive connotations – it would imply that we’re supposed to like these characters.
But though the plots are fizzy, and the dialogue effervescent, the satire is savage, with some extremely dark undertones. The writer, after all, really didn’t like modern life. Evelyn Waugh (that’s ‘Eevlin Wor’, by the way) was a medievalist who felt that modern society was a degeneration of an earlier phase of a hierarchical European civilisation, based on age old traditions and deference to social superiors tempered by Christianity – Catholicism, as Waugh preferred. He wasn’t a conservative resisting change to the established status quo: he rather thought that things had started to go wrong around the time of the Reformation. He doesn’t, of course, say this in Vile Bodies – that wouldn’t be very funny; but the world he depicts is, for all the laughs, an entirely fallen one. The ‘vileness’ of the bodies is that of moral corruption and sin.
Some critics have pointed out that for a writer defending Christian Civilisation, Waugh was notably deficient in charity, a charge to which he would have had to plead guilty, and there’s no doubt that he was a terrific snob. He had all the prejudices of the age he lived in, and several of ages that long preceded it. He was almost absurdly reactionary, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic and offensively derisive towards his social inferiors. You probably wouldn’t like him if you met him, and, he probably wouldn’t like you.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy his books! His satire bites – and at least as hard against his own class as against others. He’s terribly witty, and – this being the clinching factor – a great prose stylist, claiming that prose and dialogue was more important to him than plot and character. We shall take him at his word and try to learn from him the art of a good sentence, looking at the three sentences of the opening paragraph of Chapter 3.
In this Chapter, the hapless and hopelessly skint protagonist, Adam Fenwick-Symes, turns up at the home of an eccentric society hostess…
Lottie Crump, proprietress of Shepheard’s Hotel, Dover Street, attended invariably by two Cairn terriers, is a happy reminder to us that the splendours of the Edwardian era were not entirely confined to Lady Anchorage or Mrs Blackwater [A pair of prattling valetudinarians introduced in an earlier chapter]. She is a fine figure of a woman, singularly unscathed by any sort of misfortune and superbly oblivious of those changes in the social order which agitate the more observant grandes dames of the period. When the war broke out she took down the signed photograph of the Kaiser and, with some solemnity, hung it in the men-servant’s lavatory; it was her one combative action; since then she has had her worries – income-tax forms and drink restrictions and young men whose fathers she used to know, who give her bad cheques, but these have been soon forgotten; one can go to Shepheard’s parched with modernity any day, if Lottie likes one’s face, and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.
Nancy Mitford, a good friend of Waugh’s, explained that the key thing about his work was that everything was a joke. So, disregarding the old rule of comedy – ‘if you have to explain it, it ain’t funny’ – can you explain what is so funny about the passage above?