Narrative style: third person narrative
Synopsis: When Paul Pennyfeather is expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour, his life spirals downwards. He begins his new life at a boys school and ends it in jail. Non of it is Paul’s fault. Events happen to him as he wanders through his life. Paul is an innocent abroad and Waugh uses his journey as an opportunity to satirise the 1920s society.
Reading challenges: TBR Challenge
Time on shelf: I inherited this book in 2014 when my husband’s aunt died.
This was an entertaining read. It was quite different from the only other Waugh I have read – Brideshead Revisited – but was very amusing nonetheless. Paul Pennyfeather is a useful character, wandering oblivious through Waugh’s satirical landscape. He has little will of his own, making nothing happen and, it seems, never truly understanding what is happening to him.
The novel is littered with eccentric characters such as Prendy an ex-vicar plagued by religious doubts or Captain Grimes who is always in the soup. Paul’s first port of call after being sent down from Oxford (after accidentally wandering into the drunken exploits of the Bollinger Club) is a Welsh public school. Here he meets Prendy and Grimes as well as Solomon Philbrick who has told at least three different stories of how he came to be at the school and is one the run from the police.
When Paul falls in love with the mother of one of his charges, his life really starts to take off. Margot Beste-Chestwynde agrees to marry him and immediately sends him off to deliver some women to South America. Paul, of course, has no idea that Margot’s money comes from prostitution and is incredibly surprised when he is arrested on the morning of his wedding for human trafficking.
The novel is very amusing and cleverly mocking of the mores of the time without ever explicitly saying anything. Paul eventually ends up exactly where he started, back at Oxford where nobody recognises him and his life returns to some sort of normality. There is no sense of character development or lessons learned – this is not a bildungsroman. In fact, there is little emotional interest for the reader. Waugh’s satire is clever and funny but I couldn’t help wishing for more emotional depth.