Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies – The Undergraduate

Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies – The Undergraduate

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1370412_10151593332211199_1180075003_nIn our second collaboration with the Undergraduate, Mim Hubberstey examines Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies…

‘Oh Nina, what a lot of parties.’

(…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris- all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies…)

                                                                                                            Vile Bodies 104

 

This passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies uncannily epitomizes what I expect most of us feel after the end of the first term, perhaps minus the tinned crab and Turkish cigarettes (if one wasn’t in Holland Hall). Vile Bodies is a book which penetrates through the gloss of the glamorous persona and exposes the raw vulnerability of youth underneath, while paradoxically trying to whisk the reader up in comedy and frivolous dialogue. Perhaps the Wildean philosophy, that ‘Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril’ applies very poignantly here. There are moments of black comedy which renders the reader an uncomfortable observer, such as when Simon Balcairn prepares to commit suicide:

‘Inside [the oven] it was very black and dirty and smelled of meat. He spread a sheet of newspaper on the lowest tray and lay down, resting his head on it. Then he noticed by some mischance he had chosen [his rival] Vanburgh’s gossip-page in the Morning Despatch. He put in another sheet. (There were crumbs on the floor).’                                                                                                                                                                         Vile Bodies 89

In both the above quotations, the narrative voice in parenthesis offers an alternate perspective, the voice of reality which strips these bright young socialites of their colourful personas and reveals them as nothing but vile bodies. Despite the elitism largely associated with Waugh and his set, referred to in various sources as the ‘Bright Young People’ or the ‘Children of the Sun’; such labels only mythologize these figures. Nevertheless if we read Vile Bodies carefully, we can see that particularly in Simon’s case, the reminder of a meat-smelling oven and crumbs on the floor brings us back to a corporeal existence, and it is this realisation which makes the comedy of the scene so ominous.  There is a reason that the critic Humphrey Carpenter referred to Vile Bodies as a ‘modern Inferno’ (186) for the characters, like Icarus in Greek mythology, are destined to fall in all their youthful beauty. The ‘Children of the Sun’ may bask in the rays of limelight, but this is as short-lived as youth itself and ends in their hubristic fall.

Vile Bodies also captures something of the intensity and fragility of youthful relationships. The book’s protagonist, Adam Fenwick-Symes and his fiancée Nina Blount treat their engagement with triviality to the extent that the reader is unsure whether they are ever serious. Written during the period in which Waugh was filing for divorce from his first wife, Evelyn Gardner, critics largely focus on the book as testament to Waugh’s disillusionment with his own marriage. Nevertheless, Vile Bodies is a brilliant portrayal of the pressures put on young people to form intense physical relationships, a pressure which still resonates with young people today. Indeed, the dissonance between Adam and Nina climaxes once they have slept together for the first time. Despite Adam’s insistence that ‘It’s great fun’ (Vile Bodies 68), the book doesn’t allow the couple sublime romance, but instead brings it back down to earth with Nina’s bathetic  assertion that ‘“All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day”’ (Vile Bodies 76). In this respect, the book removes any romantic ideals and returns to the body: its frailty, its vileness, and its limitations. Nevertheless, there is still a note of humour in Nina’s irony, and this allows the reader to distance emotionally from the characters, perhaps in the same way that the characters distance from each other, as Carpenter suggests, ‘each is conspicuously wary of emotional involvement. […] This is an implicitly critical portrayal of a brittle, rootless society’(188). Indeed, when in the final chapter Nina announces that she is to be a mother, she is ambiguous about the identity of the father, the suggestion being that relationships are not bound but instead able to wander and fluctuate. While Stephen Fry’s adaptation Bright Young Things gives Nina and Adam a happy ending together, the book leaves us instead with the impression of uncertainty and conflict, ‘And presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return’ (Vile Bodies 189). In fact, it leaves the reader with a sense of unrest and anticipation, for Waugh does not give us the satisfaction of a neat conclusion. In the same way, Adam’s relationship with Nina is not consolidated through marriage but hangs in the realm of ambiguity.

The chaos of modern life is apparent throughout Vile Bodies, and it is interesting that Waugh chose to cite extracts from Through the Looking Glass in his epigraphs. In the same way that the Red Queen tells Alice ‘it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place’, so in Vile Bodies can we see the characters frantically trying to pursue more and more daring feats to maintain their status as the ‘Bright Young Things’. It is also a novel in which meaning is frequently misinterpreted. When Adam visits Colonel Blount for the second time, there is an amusing breakdown of understanding:

                        “I came to see Colonel Blount.”

                        “Well, you can’t, son. They’re shooting him now.”

                        “Good heavens. What for?”

“Oh nothing important. He’s just one of the Wesleyans, you know- we’re trying to polish off the whole crowd this afternoon while the weather’s good.”

Adam found himself speechless before this cold blooded bigotry.

The reader too, is as shocked as Adam until it is evident that they are in fact shooting a film. Nevertheless, this creates an uncomfortable parallel between the media and death, which is all too evident in Simon’s case. That Waugh allows the reader to become horrified before turning this misapprehension into a joke cleverly awakens our sense of moral conscience and perhaps makes us wary of the black humour which pervades Vile Bodies. This is a book which makes the reader question one’s perception, for under the facade of sophisticated precocity lurks a dangerous vulnerability; the realization there is no escape from the body. However, it is more than simply a dystopian satire on society. It conveys the insecurities of young people who rely on bright personas in order to sparkle in society, uncovering their feigned mannerisms and unstable relationships. Vile Bodies encapsulates a modern society, and reminds the reader not to take society at face value alone.

Works Referenced

Bright Young Things. Dir. Stephen Fry. Perf. Stephen Campbell More, Emily Mortimer, Dan Aykroyd, James McAvoy. Warner, 2004. DVD.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and his Friends. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. Print.

Green, Martin. Children of the Sun. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1977. Print.

Shreve, Emily. “From Vile Bodies to Bright Young Things: Waugh and Adaptation”, Evelyn Waugh Newsletter & Studies, Vol. 39. Pennsylvania: Dr John H. Wilson, 2008. pp. 6-13.  EBSCO HOST. Web. 02/01/2014. 

Waugh, Evelyn. Vile Bodies. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Print.

Mim Hubberstey

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