Evelyn Waugh's first novel "Decline and Fall" pops like a cork from a bottle of champagne. While many authors take years and volumes to find just the right tone, the 25-year-old Waugh, who had just published a biography of Dante Rossetti, seems to have had his literary concept perfectly in mind from the start and hit the ground running with this raucously funny yet astonishingly mature debut.
The hero (although Waugh would disagree with the term) is Paul Pennyfeather, a divinity student at Scone College, Oxford, who as the book begins is expelled for "indecent behavior" of which he is actually innocent, and is promptly disowned by his guardian over the shame educed by this incident. Now, in need of money, he searches for a job, and the only one he can get is a teaching position at a small boys' school located in a Welsh castle called Llanabba.
Llanabba, while not quite rivaling Dotheboys Hall of "Nicholas Nickleby," is a woefully undignified educational facility, an institution of incompetence. The headmaster is a crafty curmudgeon named Dr. Fagan, the butler Philbrick is a criminal who prospers by constantly falsifying his identity, and the boys are an undisciplined and ungifted lot. The other instructors seem to have been deposited there for having failed elsewhere: Mr. Prendergast, a clergyman who has left the Church because of "Doubts," and Captain Grimes, a maimed ex-soldier ("Think I lost it in the war," he tells Pennyfeather about his missing leg) who is continually "in the soup" but always manages to extricate himself.
Romance, or rather that badinage between the sexes that passes for romance in Waugh's world, turns out to be Pennyfeather's bane, initiating his misadventures in the second half of the novel. His engagement to marry the voluptuous Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde, the widowed mother of one of the Llanabba boys, is interrupted by his incarceration for unwittingly assisting her business of procuring prostitutes, one of whom is Grimes's wife; in prison he unsurprisingly encounters some old friends who can help him break free, and by the author's grace everything comes full circle in the end.
One of Waugh's many strengths is his ability to create a multitude of humorous characters out of completely original cloth. There is a family whose names are inspired by geometry: a Llanabba boy named Tangent and his mother, the globular Lady Circumference, whose boorish manners belie her title. The indirect cause of Pennyfeather's predicament, and his eventual savior, is the young dandy Sir Alistair Trumpington, who makes a major appearance in Waugh's later novel "Put Out More Flags." And the brainiest character in the novel is Otto Silenus, a young German architect with a philosophical outlook and a radical style who is hired by Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde to renovate her celebrated country house called King's Thursday.
Silenus's concluding metaphor about life--a spinning wheel on which some people are meant to be riders and the rest spectators--is not as silly as it sounds; it seems as if Waugh's authorial impulse is to exhibit the contrast between the two types of people and observe the comical results when the boundary is crossed.