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Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies - A Fantastic Novel About High Society's "Bright Young Things" Of The 1920s
Vile Bodies is the second book by Evelyn Waugh and was published in 1930. Like Waugh's first novel Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies is set in 1920s high society London. This book is a witty satirical observation of the group of Bright Young Things whose privileged lifestyle entitles them to non-stop partying and wild antics that frequently made the gossip columns of tabloids.
Evelyn Waugh's first book Decline and Fall was hugely successful, and Brideshead Revisited is Waugh's best known work. Vile Bodies never reached the same acclamation. In my opinion though, this is my favourite of his books- it's smart, laugh out loud outrageous and thought provoking too. The book may have been written in the 1920s but stays fresh today with the spooky parallels with the Bright Young People of the 1920s and today's obsession with celebrity and tabloid culture.
A Summary of Vile Bodies
Without giving away the ending....
The principle character in Vile Bodies is Adam Fenwick Symes, a struggling writer. Adam is engaged to be married to the beautiful and monied Nina Blount who is at the very epicentre of the bright young things.
In the first chapter we see Adam arrive across the English Channel amid a horrible storm with an assortment of colourful characters that feature throughout the book, such as the eccentric socialite Agatha Runcible, the effeminate Miles Malpractice and "last weeks prime-minister" Mr Outrage.
Adam has written his memoirs and once published he will be rich enough to marry Nina. However, on arriving back in England, customs officials burn the manuscript for being "downright dirt".
The flippant tone of book is set in the subsequent telephone conversation between Adam and Nina, when Adam calls to say his book has been burnt and they can't be married:
"Oh I say Nina, there's one thing - I don't think I will be able to marry you after all".
"Oh, Adam, you are a bore. Why not?"
Adam checks himself into a run down hotel and on the advice of a drunk major, Adam places a bet on a horse of Â£1000 - only problem is, the drunk major disappears with his money. Throughout the book we follow Adam's quest to find the drunk major and/or find enough money to marry Nina.
Vile Bodies is more of a character observation than a story with a definite beginning, middle and end. The plot flits like the Bright Young People themselves, and the reader follows this thrill seeking group as they make their round of parties, dinners and other wild social events. We meet an collection of eccentric characters; drunk majors, loopy colonels, debauched flappers, an evangelist minister and her choir group of "Angels".
The Summary On The Back Of My Vintage Copy Of Vile Bodies (1986)
"Here again, as in Decline and Fall, we are in the fashionable Mayfair of the twenties, when the Bright Young Things exercised their inventive minds and Vile Bodies in every kind of capricious escapade."
The Darker Subtext Of Vile Bodies
On my first read of this book, I found the first chapter very difficult, Waugh doesn't introduce the characters and you are thrown into the deep end. By the second chapter you get the hang of it though and if you are a fan of the Roaring Twenties you will love this book.
In conventional romantic parody, the hero or heroine has to overcome obstacles in society in order to win his/her true love. Adam seeking his fortune in order to marry his sweetheart imitates this, but Waugh portrays a world that is fickle and uncertain - even the government is unstable with a new prime minister every week. Because of this Adam is unable to have the conventional ending to his story - the obstacles cannot be resolved in the traditional manner.
A Social Observation
On my second read (and subsequent reads) I noticed that there is more to Vile Bodies that just an amusing account of Upper Class society between the wars. Evelyn Waugh is showing a group of people that were children in the First World War and lived through their brothers and fathers dying in the trenches. No wonder they want to party with no thought, and no wonder they seem flippant, uncaring and cold towards their futures and each other.
Vile Bodies is an observation to the state of society after the First World War. Waugh simultaneously pays tribute to the Bright Young Things and also foretells their downfall and doom. The light gossipy dialogue gives way in the last short chapter to a bleak apocalyptic scene - the "biggest battlefield in the history of the world" - did Waugh predict the Second World War?
Facts About Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies
Waugh originally wanted to call this book "Bright Young Things", but settled on Vile Bodies after deciding it was a less clichÃ©d title. Vile Bodies comes from the Bible, Epistle to the Philippians 3:21:
"Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself"
Whilst Evelyn Waugh was writing Vile Bodies, his marriage was dissolving. Many years later, Waugh attributed his marriage breakup to the dark tone towards the end of the book. Evelyn Waugh's wife left him for a newspaper editor.
Evelyn Waugh dedicated Vile Bodies with love to "DG and BG" - this is Diana Guinness and Bryan Guinness, the golden couple of 1920s London high society. Waugh was great friends with Diana Guinness, but then they fell out - due to his falling in love with her. Diana Guinness (born Miflord) had an extraordinary life and was a real "Bright Young Thing". Diana eventually left Bryan Guinness for Oswald Mosley, the famous leader of the British Union of Fascists in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s. Diana and Oswald's marriage was attended by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.
Waugh claimed that this is the first novel ever written that included dialogue between characters on the telephone.