By Evelyn Waugh
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Reading Group Guide
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This was a totally unplanned novel. I had the facility at the age of twenty-five to sit down at my table, set a few characters on the move, write 3,000 words a day, and note with surprise what happened. The composition of Vile Bodies was interrupted by a sharp disturbance in my private life and was finished in a very different mood from that in which it was begun. The reader may, perhaps, notice the transition from gaiety to bitterness.
It was the first of my books to be a popular success. Decline and Fall had been well reviewed but its sales in its first year were small, fewer than 3,000 copies if I remember rightly. Vile Bodies caught the public fancy for extraneous reasons. "The Bright Young People" with whom it deals, and of whom I was a member rather on the fringe than in the center, were one of the newspaper topics of the time. They were totally unlike the various, publicized groups of modern youth, being mostly of good family and education and sharp intelligence, but they were equally anarchic and short-lived. The jargon most of us spoke came new to the novel reader and so captivated one prominent dramatic critic that for weeks he introduced into articles week after week: " 'Too sick-making,' as Mr Waugh would say." There was also a pretty accurate description of Mrs. Rosa Lewis and her Cavendish Hotel, just on the brink of their decline but still famous. I think I can claim that this was the first English novel in which dialogue on the telephone plays a large part. For reasons of novelty the many gross faults were overlooked. There were not many comic writers at that time and I filled a gap. I began under the brief influence of Ronald Firbank but struck out for myself. It is not a book I enjoy re-reading but there are one or two funny scenes which redeem it from banality. I like Colonel Blount, though he is a figure from conventional farce. He was brilliantly played by Athol Stewart in a very poor dramatic version. I may add that at the time I invented "Father Rothschild" I had never met a Jesuit.
Combe Florey 1964
It was clearly going to be a bad crossing.
With Asiatic resignation Father Rothschild S. J. put down his suitcase in the corner of the bar and went on deck. (It was a small suitcase of imitation crocodile hide. The initials stamped on it in Gothic characters were not Father Rothschild's, for he had borrowed it that morning from the valet-de-chambre of his hotel. It contained some rudimentary underclothes, six important new books in six languages, a false beard and a school atlas and gazetteer heavily annotated.) Standing on the deck Father Rothschild leaned his elbows on the rail, rested his chin in his hands and surveyed the procession of passengers coming up the gangway, each face eloquent of polite misgiving.
Very few of them were unknown to the Jesuit, for it was his happy knack to remember everything that could possibly be learned about everyone who could possibly be of any importance. His tongue protruded very slightly and, had they not all been so concerned with luggage and the weather, someone might have observed in him a peculiar resemblance to those plaster reproductions of the gargoyles of Notre Dame which may be seen in the shop windows of artists' colormen tinted the color of "Old Ivory," peering intently from among stencil outfits and plasticine and tubes of watercolor paint. High above his head swung Mrs. Melrose Ape's travel-worn Packard car, bearing the dust of three continents, against the darkening sky, and up the companion-way at the head of her angels strode Mrs. Melrose Ape, the woman evangelist.
"Here, Mrs. Ape."
"Here, Mrs. Ape."
"Here, Mrs. Ape."
"Chastity… Where is Chastity?"
"Chastity didn't feel well, Mrs. Ape. She went below."
"That girl's more trouble than she's worth. Whenever there's any packing to be done, Chastity doesn't feel well. Are all the rest here—Humility, Prudence, Divine Discontent, Mercy, Justice and Creative Endeavor?"
"Creative Endeavor lost her wings, Mrs. Ape. She got talking to a gentleman in the train… Oh, there she is."
"Got 'em?" asked Mrs. Ape.
Too breathless to speak, Creative Endeavor nodded. (Each of the angels carried her wings in a little black box like a violin case.)
"Right," said Mrs. Ape, "and just you hold on to 'em tight and not so much talking to gentlemen in trains. You're angels, not a panto, see?"
The angels crowded together disconsolately. It was awful when Mrs. Ape was like this. My, how they would pinch Chastity and Creative Endeavor when they got them alone in their nightshirts. It was bad enough their going to be so sick without that they had Mrs. Ape pitching into them too.
Seeing their discomfort, Mrs. Ape softened and smiled. She was nothing if not "magnetic."
"Well, girls," she said, "I must be getting along. They say it's going to be rough, but don't you believe it. If you have peace in your hearts your stomach will look after itself, and remember if you do feel queer—sing. There's nothing like it."
"Good-bye, Mrs. Ape, and thank you," said the angels; they bobbed prettily, turned about and trooped aft to the second-class part of the ship. Mrs. Ape watched them benignly, then, squaring her shoulders and looking (except that she had really no beard to speak of) every inch a sailor, strode resolutely forrard to the first-class bar.
Other prominent people were embarking, all very unhappy about the weather; to avert the terrors of seasickness they had indulged in every kind of civilized witchcraft, but they were lacking in faith.
Miss Runcible was there, and Miles Malpractice, and all the Younger Set. They had spent a jolly morning strapping each other's tummies with sticking plaster (how Miss Runcible had wriggled).
The Right Honorable Walter Outrage, M.P., last week's Prime Minister, was there. Before breakfast that morning (which had suffered in consequence) Mr. Outrage had taken twice the maximum dose of a patent preparation of chloral, and losing heart later had finished the bottle in the train. He moved in an uneasy trance, closely escorted by the most public-looking detective sergeants. These men had been with Mr. Outrage in Paris, and what they did not know about his goings on was not worth knowing, at least from a novelist's point of view. (When they spoke about him to each other they called him "the Right Honorable Rape," but that was more by way of being a pun about his name than a criticism of the conduct of his love affairs, in which, if the truth were known, he displayed a notable diffidence and the liability to panic.)
Lady Throbbing and Mrs. Blackwater, those twin sisters whose portrait by Millais auctioned recently at Christie's made a record in rock-bottom prices, were sitting on one of the teak benches eating apples and drinking what Lady Throbbing, with late Victorian chic, called "a bottle of pop," and Mrs. Blackwater, more exotically, called "champagne," pronouncing it as though it were French.
"Surely, Kitty, that is Mr. Outrage, last week's Prime Minister."
"Nonsense, Fanny, where?"
"Just in front of the two men with bowler hats, next to the clergyman."
"It is certainly like his photographs. How strange he looks."
"Just like poor Throbbing… all that last year."
"… And none of us even suspected… until they found the bottles under the board in his dressing room… and we all used to think it was drink…"
"I don't think one finds quite the same class as Prime Minister nowadays, do you think?"
"They say that only one person has any influence with Mr. Outrage…"
"At the Japanese Embassy…"
"Of course, dear, not so loud. But tell me, Fanny, seriously, do you think really and truly Mr. Outrage has IT?"
"He has a very nice figure for a man of his age."
"Yes, but his age, and the bull-like type is so often disappointing. Another glass? You will be grateful for it when the ship begins to move."
"I quite thought we were moving."
"How absurd you are, Fanny, and yet I can't help laughing."
So arm in arm and shaken by little giggles the two tipsy old ladies went down to their cabin.
Of the other passengers, some had filled their ears with cotton wool, others wore smoked glasses, while several ate dry captain's biscuits from paper bags, as Red Indians are said to eat snake's flesh to make them cunning. Mrs. Hoop repeated feverishly over and over again a formula she had learned from a yogi in New York City. A few "good sailors," whose luggage bore the labels of many voyages, strode aggressively about smoking small, foul pipes and trying to get up a four of bridge.
Two minutes before the advertised time of departure, while the first admonitory whistling and shouting was going on, a young man came on board carrying his bag. There was nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance. He looked exactly as young men like him do look; he was carrying his own bag, which was disagreeably heavy, because he had no money left in francs and very little left in anything else. He had been two months in Paris writing a book and was coming home because, in the course of his correspondence, he had got engaged to be married. His name was Adam Fenwick-Symes.
Father Rothschild smiled at him in a kindly manner.
"I doubt whether you remember me," he said. "We met at Oxford five years ago at luncheon with the Dean of Balliol.
I shall be interested to read your book when it appears—an autobiography, I understand. And may I be one of the first to congratulate you on your engagement? I am afraid you will find your father-in-law a little eccentric—and forgetful. He had a nasty attack of bronchitis this winter. It's a drafty house—far too big for these days. Well, I must go below now. It is going to be rough and I am a bad sailor. We meet at Lady Metroland's on the twelfth, if not, as I hope, before."
Before Adam had time to reply the Jesuit disappeared. Suddenly the head popped back.
"There is an extremely dangerous and disagreeable woman on board—a Mrs. Ape."
Then he was gone again, and almost at once the boat began to slip away from the quay towards the mouth of the harbor.
Sometimes the ship pitched and sometimes she rolled and sometimes she stood quite still and shivered all over, poised above an abyss of dark water; then she would go swooping down like a scenic railway train into a windless hollow and up again with a rush into the gale; sometimes she would burrow her path, with convulsive nosings and scramblings like a terrier in a rabbit hole; and sometimes she would drop dead like a lift. It was this last movement that caused the most havoc among the passengers.
"Oh," said the Bright Young People. "Oh, oh, oh."
"It's just exactly like being inside a cocktail shaker," said Miles Malpractice. "Darling, your face—eau de Nil."
"Too, too sick-making," said Miss Runcible, with one of her rare flashes of accuracy.
Kitty Blackwater and Fanny Throbbing lay one above the other in their bunks rigid from wig to toe.
"I wonder, do you think the champagne…?"
"Yes, Fanny, dear."
"Kitty, I think, in fact, I am sure I have some sal volatile… Kitty, I thought that perhaps as you are nearer… it would really hardly be safe for me to try and descend… I might break a leg."
"Not after champagne, Fanny, do you think?"
"But I need it. Of course, dear, if it's too much trouble?"
"Nothing is too much trouble, darling, you know that. But now I come to think of it, I remember, quite clearly, for a fact, that you did not pack the sal volatile."
"Oh, Kitty, oh, Kitty, please… you would be sorry for this if I died… oh."
"But I saw the sal volatile on your dressing table after your luggage had gone down, dear. I remember thinking, I must take that down to Fanny, and then, dear, I got confused over the tips, so you see…"
"I… put… it… in… myself… Next to my brushes… you… beast."
"Oh… Oh… Oh."
To Father Rothschild no passage was worse than any other. He thought of the sufferings of the saints, the mutability of human nature, the Four Last Things, and between whiles repeated snatches of the penitential psalms.
The Leader of his Majesty's Opposition lay sunk in a rather glorious coma, made splendid by dreams of Oriental imagery—of painted paper houses; of golden dragons and gardens of almond blossom; of golden limbs and almond eyes, humble and caressing; of very small golden feet among almond blossoms; of little painted cups full of golden tea; of a golden voice singing behind a painted paper screen; of humble, caressing little golden hands and eyes shaped like almonds and the color of night.
Outside his door two very limp detective sergeants had deserted their posts.
"The bloke as could make trouble on a ship like this 'ere deserves to get away with it," they said.
The ship creaked in every plate, doors slammed, trunks fell about, the wind howled; the screw, now out of the water, now in, raced and churned, shaking down hatboxes like ripe apples; but above all the roar and clatter there rose from the second-class ladies' saloon the despairing voices of Mrs. Ape's angels, in frequently broken unison, singing, singing, wildly, desperately, as though their hearts would break in the effort and their minds lose their reason, Mrs. Ape's famous hymn, There ain't no flies on the Lamb of God.
The Captain and the Chief Officer sat on the bridge engrossed in a crossword puzzle.
"Looks like we may get some heavy weather if the wind gets up," he said. "Shouldn't wonder if there wasn't a bit of a sea running tonight."
"Well, we can't always have it quiet like this," said the Chief Officer. "Word of eighteen letters meaning carnivorous mammal. Search me if I know how they do think of these things."
Adam Fenwick-Symes sat among the good sailors in the smoking-room drinking his third Irish whiskey and wondering how soon he would feel definitely ill. Already there was a vague depression gathering at the top of his head. There were thirty-five minutes more, probably longer with the head wind keeping them back.
Opposite him sat a much-traveled and chatty journalist telling him smutty stories. From time to time Adam interposed some more or less appropriate comment, "No, I say that's a good one," or, "I must remember that," or just "Ha, Ha, Ha," but his mind was not really in a receptive condition.
Up went the ship, up, up, up, paused and then plunged down with a sidelong slither. Adam caught at his glass and saved it. Then shut his eyes.
"Now I'll tell you a drawing room one," said the journalist.
Behind them a game of cards was in progress among the commercial gents. At first they had rather a jolly time about it, saying, "What ho, she bumps," or "Steady, the Buffs," when the cards and glasses and ashtray were thrown on to the floor, but in the last ten minutes they were growing notably quieter. It was rather a nasty kind of hush.
"… And forty aces and two-fifty for the rubber. Shall we cut again or stay as we are?"
"How about knocking off for a bit? Makes me tired—table moving about all the time."
"Why, Arthur, you ain't feeling ill, surely?"
" 'Course I ain't feeling ill, only tired."
"Well, of course, if Arthur's feeling ill…"
"Who'd have thought of old Arthur feeling ill?"
"I ain't feeling ill, I tell you. Just tired. But if you boys want to go on I'm not the one to spoil a game."
"Good old Arthur. 'Course he ain't feeling ill. Look out for the cards, Bill, up she goes again."
"What about one all round? Same again?"
"Good luck, Arthur." "Good luck." "Here's fun." "Down she goes."
"Whose deal? You dealt last, didn't you, Mr. Henderson?"
"Yes, Arthur's deal."
"Your deal, Arthur. Cheer up, old scout."
"Don't you go doing that. It isn't right to hit a chap on the back like that."
"Look out with the cards, Arthur."
"Well, what d'you expect, being hit on the back like that. Makes me tired."
"Here, I got fifteen cards."
"I wonder if you've heard this one," said the journalist. "There was a man lived at Aberdeen, and he was terribly keen on fishing, so when he married, he married a woman with worms. That's rich, eh? You see he was keen on fishing, see, and she had worms, see, he lived in Aberdeen. That's a good one that is."
"D'you know, I think I shall go on deck for a minute. A bit stuffy in here, don't you think?"
"You can't do that. The sea's coming right over it all the time. Not feeling queer, are you?"
"No, of course I'm not feeling queer. I only thought a little fresh air… Christ, why won't the damn thing stop?"
"Steady, old boy. I wouldn't go trying to walk about, not if I were you. Much better stay just where you are. What you want's a spot of whiskey."
"Not feeling ill, you know. Just stuffy."
"That's all right, old boy. Trust Auntie."
The bridge party was not being a success.
"Hullo, Mr. Henderson. What's that spade?"
"That's the ace, that is."
"I can see it's the ace. What I mean you didn't ought to have trumped that last trick, not if you had a spade."
"What d'you mean, didn't ought to have trumped it? Trumps led."
"No, they did not. Arthur led a spade."
"He led a trump, didn't you, Arthur?"
"Arthur led a spade."
"He couldn't have led a spade because for why he put a heart on my king of spades when I thought he had the queen. He hasn't got no spades."
"What d'you mean, not got no spades? I got the queen."
"Arthur, old man, you must be feeling queer."
"No, I ain't, I tell you, just tired. You'd be tired if you'd been hit on the back same as I was… anyway I'm fed up with this game… there go the cards again."
This time no one troubled to pick them up. Presently Mr. Henderson said, "Funny thing, don't know why I feel all swimmy of a sudden. Must have ate something that wasn't quite right. You never can tell with foreign foods—all messed up like they do."
"Now you mention it, I don't feel too spry myself. Damn bad ventilation on these Channel boats."
"That's what it is. Ventilation. You said it."
"You know I'm funny. I never feel seasick, mind, but I often find going on boats doesn't agree with me."
"I'm like that, too."
"Ventilation… a disgrace."
"Lord, I shall be glad when we get to Dover. Home, sweet home, eh?"
Adam held on very tightly to the brass-bound edge of the table and felt a little better. He was not going to be sick, and that was that; not with that gargoyle of a man opposite anyway. They must be in sight of land soon.
It was at this time, when things were at their lowest, that Mrs. Ape reappeared in the smoking-room. She stood for a second or two in the entrance balanced between swinging door and swinging doorpost; then as the ship momentarily righted herself, she strode to the bar, her feet well apart, her hands in the pockets of her tweed coat.
"Double rum," she said and smiled magnetically at the miserable little collection of men seated about the room. "Why, boys," she said, "but you're looking terrible put out over something. What's it all about? Is it your souls that's wrong or is it that the ship won't keep still? Rough? 'Course it's rough. But let me ask you this. If you're put out this way over just an hour's seasickness" ("Not seasick, ventilation," said Mr. Henderson mechanically), "what are you going to be like when you make the mighty big journey that's waiting for us all? Are you right with God?" said Mrs. Ape. "Are you prepared for death?"
"Oh, am I not?" said Arthur. "I 'aven't thought of nothing else for the last half-hour."
"Now, boys, I'll tell you what we're going to do. We're going to sing a song together, you and me." ("Oh, God," said Adam.) "You may not know it, but you are. You'll feel better for it body and soul. It's a song of Hope. You don't hear much about Hope these days, do you? Plenty about Faith, plenty about Charity. They've forgotten all about Hope. There's only one great evil in the world today. Despair. I know all about England, and I tell you straight, boys, I've got the goods for you. Hope's what you want and Hope's what I got. Here, steward, hand round these leaflets. There's the song on the back. Now all together… sing. Five bob for you, steward, if you can shout me down. Splendid, all together, boys."
In a rich, very audible voice Mrs. Ape led the singing. Her arms rose, fell and fluttered with the rhythm of the song. The bar steward was hers already—inaccurate sometimes in his reading of the words, but with a sustained power in the low notes that defied competition. The journalist joined in next and Arthur set up a little hum. Soon they were all at it, singing like blazes, and it is undoubtedly true that they felt the better for it.
Father Rothschild heard it and turned his face to the wall.
Kitty Blackwater heard it.
"Fanny, dear, do you hear singing?"
"Yes, dear, thank you."
"Fanny, dear, I hope they aren't holding a service. I mean, dear, it sounds so like a hymn. Do you think, possibly, we are in danger? Fanny, are we going to be wrecked?"
"I should be neither surprised nor sorry."
"Darling, how can you?… We should have heard it, shouldn't we, if we had actually hit anything?… Fanny, dear, if you like I will have a look for your sal volatile."
"I hardly think that would be any help, dear, since you saw it on my dressing table."
"I may have been mistaken."
"You said you saw it."
The Captain heard it. "All the time I been at sea," he said, "I never could stand for missionaries."
"Word of six letters beginning with ZB," said the Chief Officer, "meaning 'used in astronomic calculation.' "
"Z can't be right," said the Captain after a few minutes' thought.
The Bright Young People heard it. "So like one's first parties," said Miss Runcible, "being sick with other people singing."
Mrs. Hoop heard it. "Well," she thought, "I'm through with theosophy after this journey. Reckon I'll give the Catholics the once over."
Aft, in the second-class saloon, where the screw was doing its worst, the angels heard it. It was some time since they had given up singing.
"Her again," said Divine Discontent.
Mr. Outrage alone lay happily undisturbed, his mind absorbed in lovely dream sequences of a world of little cooing voices, so caressing, so humble; and dark eyes, night-colored, the shape of almonds over painted paper screens; little golden bodies, so flexible, so firm, so surprising in the positions they assumed.
They were still singing in the smoking-room when, in very little more than her usual time, the ship came into the harbor at Dover. Then Mrs. Ape, as was her invariable rule, took round the hat and collected nearly two pounds, not counting her own five shillings which she got back from the bar steward. "Salvation doesn't do them the same good if they think it's free," was her favorite axiom.
Have you anything to declare?"
"Have you wore them?"
"That's all right, then."
"Divine Discontent gets all the smiles all the time," complained Fortitude to Prudence. "Golly, but it's good to be on dry land."
Unsteadily, but with renewed hope, the passengers had disembarked.
Father Rothschild fluttered a diplomatic laissez-passer and disappeared in the large car that had been sent to meet him. The others were jostling one another with their luggage, trying to attract the Customs officers and longing for a cup of tea.
"I got half a dozen of the best stowed away," confided the journalist. "They're generally pretty easy after a bad crossing." And sure enough he was soon settled in the corner of a first-class carriage (for the paper was, of course, paying his expenses) with his luggage safely chalked in the van.
It was some time before Adam could get attended to.
"I've nothing but some very old clothes and some books," he said.
But here he showed himself deficient in tact, for the man's casual air disappeared in a flash.
"Books, eh?" he said. "And what sort of books, may I ask?"
"Look for yourself."
"Thank you, that's what I mean to do. Books, indeed."
Adam wearily unstrapped and unlocked his suitcase.
"Yes," said the Customs officer menacingly, as though his worst suspicions had been confirmed, "I should just about say you had got some books."
One by one he took the books out and piled them on the counter. A copy of Dante excited his especial disgust.
"French, eh?" he said. "I guessed as much, and pretty dirty, too, I shouldn't wonder. Now just you wait while I look up these here books"—how he said it!—"in my list. Particularly against books the Home Secretary is. If we can't stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside. That's what he said the other day in Parliament, and I says 'Hear, hear…' Hullo, hullo, what's this, may I ask?"
Gingerly, as though it might at any moment explode, he produced and laid on the counter a large pile of typescript.
"That's a book, too," said Adam. "One I've just written. It is my memoirs."
"Ho, it is, is it? Well, I'll take that along, too, to the chief. You better come too."
"But I've got to catch the train."
"You come along. There's worse things than missing trains," he hinted darkly.
- "It may shock you, but it will make you laugh."—New York Times
- "A wickedly witty and iridescent novel."—TIME
- "A hectic piece of savage satire....I laughed until I was driven out of the room."—V.S. Pritchett, The Spectator
- "Evelyn Waugh is a satirist, no doubt, but not a skeptic, for he believes, and proves, that amusement can be depriced from the most unpromising material, from people, that is, whose one occupation in life is the quest for amusement, people who give and attend parties."—Saturday Review
- "A savage study in public and private morals....It is uproarious. It is also ferocious."—John K. Hutchens, New York Times
- "Wonderfully funny."—Jessica Mitford, LIFE
- On Sale
- Dec 11, 2012
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Back Bay Books