Book # 659
Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily
I first laid eyes on Vile Bodies back in 1989 while travelling through Europe on my OE with a friend from university. It was my first time reading the very English wit of one of the Waugh family and I remember absolutely loving it. It fit in with my penchant (then and now) for stories written or set between the two world wars.
This was all brought back to me when I pulled my copy off the bookshelf in order to revisit it this year. As I opened the page, out fell two tiny pieces of paper. One was for the Casa del Libro in Madrid and the other for the Paperback Exchange in Florence. After so many years, I am unsure which was the supplier of my Waugh but I am grateful to whichever it was.
This satirical look at the era and goings-on of The Bright Young Things was first published in 1930. It is the story of two young lovers, Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount. They are part of the crazy, hedonistic set of young aristocrats known as the Bright Young People. It is raw satire, with seemingly ridiculous goings-on and brilliantly silly character names. I mean, you can’t go wrong with names like Miles Malpractice, Fanny Throbbing, Lottie Crump and Mrs Melrose Ape, can you?
At the very start of the novel we find Adam aboard the Channel ferry during a rough crossing and it is here that Waugh begins introducing us to some of the colourful characters he has created,
Other prominent people were embarking, all very unhappy about the weather; to avert the terrors of sea-sickness 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 Honourable 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.
Throughout the work there are passages of wonderfully expressive writing and the crossing of the Channel is one of them. Waugh describes it thus,
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.
The main line of the story follows the ups and downs of Adam’s attempts to wed Nina. As a writer he is hoping to get published until the customs men decide to confiscate and burn the one and only copy of his manuscript. His great intention of being able to support a wife evaporates in that instant. We then chase along behind him as he gains employment and then loses employment, approaches his future father-law for assistance and gets embroiled in all sorts of unexpected adventures. All the while he and Nina are ‘on’ and ‘off’ again, before he faces the ultimate challenge of a rival in the form of Ginger Littlejohn.
It is at once cutting and full of caricatures. The behaviour is over the top, the reckless abandonment of several of the characters and the whimsical choices made are both ridiculous and poignant. It is as though the aftermath of World War I seemed to imbue a spirit of living totally in the moment with little regard for the outcome. As a young woman I certainly thought it was extremely funny and crazy, but as an older adult I can now see a huge depth of poignance in the behaviour of the Bright Young Things. I can now see the underlying sadness and the carelessness with life, as well as the humour.
At 220 pages, it is a snip of a read. If you are a fan of writing about or during the Interwar period, then you will most probably appreciate this. If you are not, you may still enjoy it as a somewhat exaggerated view of a time of past glories and excess. The huge dose of humour will help it go down, but don’t be expecting a Wodehouse-style read, as it is nowhere near as gentle.