It is now 85 years since the publication of Vile Bodies, the second novel by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh is today best known for Brideshead Revisited (1945), his account of upper-middle and upper-class life between the wars – a book whose continued renown rests largely, whether fairly or not, upon the masterful adaptation by Granada Television.
Vile Bodies, which was written in the middle of that period and deals with much the same segments of society, is a very different book indeed. For one thing, it is not coloured by the religious themes which define the later work. (Waugh underwent a bitter marriage break-up shortly before the 1930 publication of Vile Bodies, and converted to Catholicism later that year.) More obviously, where Brideshead’s portrayal of its doomed, golden children is suffused with an elegiac melancholy, Vile Bodies, written in the moment it depicted, is waspish, hilarious and savagely satirical.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel’s vignettes of its Bright Young Things (the term was coined to describe the socialites of the 1920s, has seldom fallen out of currency since, and became the title of a recent film that drew on Vile Bodies) is how easily they translate to the present day. One prominent online summary of the book avers that, “[Waugh’s] tribute to London’s smart set… introduces us to society as it used to be but that now is gone forever, and probably for good.” I could hardly disagree more. Far from being a tribute, Vile Bodies is more by way of a burlesque. And the world it describes will be familiar to anyone who follows or even occasionally glimpses the society pages.
The high society of Vile Bodies is one where aristocrats and chancers, the nouveau riche and the high-born, the predator and the prey, meet, mingle, pursue liaisons, throw off sparks and generally behave like overgrown toddlers in a gilded nursery. Ostensibly it is a romantic comedy. It follows the fortunes of Adam Fenwick-Symes, a young writer (not entirely unlike Waugh at that moment) adrift in the turbulent world of le tout London, as he attempts to secure the means to marry his genteel fiancée, Nina Blount. But Adam is not, as one might expect, the ethical centre of an otherwise amoral social whirl. Rather, he is carried along in its currents, weak, indecisive, seemingly altogether without the will or scruples to withstand its forces.
Much of the pleasure in Vile Bodies lies in its secondary characters – types, to be sure, but painted in exquisite miniature by Waugh’s sure hand. Agatha Runcible, wild child, party girl, might then inhabit a flapper dress or today a clinging sheath and heels, but she is unmistakable in her hedonistic energy, unquestioning entitlement and heroic cluelessness. One of the funniest set-pieces of the novel involves her barging into breakfast at Number 10 Downing Street in the costume of a “Hottentot”. (And if such distasteful fancy dress seems a relic of another age, remember it’s only 10 years since Prince Harry went to a party in Nazi uniform.) Miles Malpractice is an extravagant queen, quite possibly related to the real one, guided only by his appetites, including that for mischief, who is eventually forced to flee the country for reasons undisclosed, yet unlikely to be anything but awful.
In many ways, Vile Bodies is a novel of its time: although satirical, it is also riddled with snobberies and prejudices of its own that fall uncomfortably on the modern ear. But it is unnerving just how much it is a novel of this time, too; how its giddy decadence and pretty, vacant cast of characters may be found duplicated on any given night in moneyed London. And it is more disquieting still to wonder if, without giving too much away, the eventual fate of those characters, and of their society, might yet be duplicated by our own.
David Bennun revisits Evelyn Waugh’s satire of the well-born and the nouveau riche, and finds it as relevant today as it was when it was written