Truman Capote, in his last literary project, decided to stitch together
a novel out of bits of gossip. He never completed the work, which
he called Answered Prayers, although some chapters were
published in Esquire and later collected into a book after his death.
Yet Capote talked and boasted about it
incessantly, extracting a string of cash
advances from his publisher along the
way with unanswered promises about its
forthcoming completion. How fitting that
the great literary novel of gossip turned
out, itself, to be mostly a matter of literary
But those seeking a witty and polished
gossip novel don't need to settle for the
scraps from Capote's society roundtable.
Back in 1930, the young Evelyn Waugh
published Vile Bodies, a follow-up to his
successful debut Decline and Fall (1928),
offering readers (and posterity) an incisive
satire of British society at the midpoint
between the two World Wars. Here
gossip serves as the centerpiece for
one of the finest comic novels of the era.
Evelyn Waugh was in his mid-20s when he wrote Vile Bodies, but he
had already seen enough of the foibles of the ruling class to provide
ammunition for a lifetime of storytelling. Although he hailed from a
solidly middle class family, Waugh associated at Oxford with a circle
known as the Hypocrites' Club, centered around Etonians Harold
Acton and Brian Howard—a group that gained notoriety as a magnet
for the debauched, dissipated and disputatious. After Oxford,
Waugh continued to hobnob with the rich and fatuous, courting
and marrying Evelyn Gardner, the daughter of Lord and Lady
Burghclere—the newlyweds became known among friends as
He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn—and battling with his disapproving
in-laws. (Lady Burghclere’s investigations had led her to learn, to
her horror, that Waugh was known to "live off vodka and absinthe
and went about with disreputable people.") The marriage lasted
only 15 months, ending when Waugh found that his wife had taken
a lover, novelist John Heygate (later Sir John Heygate). Waugh, for
his part, had to work for a living like the rest of the bourgeoisie, but
was dismissed as schoolmaster, when he got drunk and tried to
seduce the new school matron. At the close of this tumultuous
period, Waugh turned to writing and converted to Catholicism.
Such were the building-blocks of Vile Bodies. And if Christian
virtue plays a modest role in the novel—a Jesuit priest and an
American lady evangelist have bit parts in the story, but seem every
bit as worldly as the other characters—the shallow and tawdry
preamble to Waugh's conversion is given center stage. The
"Bright Young People" who populate Vile Bodies drink too much,
party too late, sleep too little, and borrow today what they can't pay
back tomorrow. Around the same time this novel was written,
Hemingway had popularized the idea of a "lost generation" (the
phrase borrowed from Gertrude Stein) of bohemian and alienated
writers, mostly American ex-pats living in Paris. But Waugh shows
in these pages that London possessed a "lost generation" that
could match up with the Paris contingent drink-for-drink and
But a few characters in Vile Bodies find a way to make a decent
living off of indecency—mainly as gossip columnists for the London
press. The public has an insatiable appetite for tawdry tidbits and
insulting innuendos, and Fleet Street does its best to accommodate
their curiosity. But the job of tattle-teller has its drawbacks, and
before the mid-point of the novel one of the gossip writers, the
Earl of Balcairn commits suicide in dismay over his exclusion from
a fashionable party. In a final act of revenge, before placing his
head inside the gas oven and breathing in the fumes, he files one
last news article filled with imagined confessions of transgressions
by society leaders.
…the Countess of Throbbing rose to confess her sins, and in a
voice broken with emotion disclosed the hitherto unverified details
of the parentage of the present Earl….The Archbishop of
Canterbury, who up to now had remained unmoved by the
general emotion, then testified that at Eton in the 'eighties he
and Sir James Brown…..
A suicide seems not quite cricket for a comic novel, but Waugh
never found death incompatible with humor—two decades later
he even wrote a very funny book about the funeral business, The
Loved One (1948). Certainly in Vile Bodies, Waugh makes every
effort to live up to the cynicism of his book's title, delivering both
vileness and the bodies in ample measure. The Earl is not the
only "Bright Young Person" to meet an untimely end in this novel.
Waugh exhibits an almost Dantesque desire to mete out punish-
ments to his characters, and this may be the most telling sign that
the novel’s author had recently embraced the Church of Rome. There
is no Inferno here, but one could easily imagine Waugh creating
different levels of his own British ruling class version of hell,
assigning special spots to dipsomaniacs and fornicators,
scroungers and snitches, hypocrites and whingers.
Soon another gossip columnist steps in to relate the colorful
transgressions of the ignoble nobility for public consumption.
Adam Fenwick Symes mixes with high society but is always low
on cash, and a career as a journalist could help him out of his
pecuniary embarrassment. He first gains a wide following by
writing tell-all accounts of lunatics and eccentrics among the
most prominent families in the land.
There is an amusing story of how, when lunching with the then
Dean of Westminster, Lord —— startled his host by proclaiming
that so far from being of divine ordinance, the Ten Commandments
were, in point of fact, composed by himself and delivered by him to
Moses on Sinai….
Lady ——, whose imitations of animal sounds are so life-like, that
she can seldom be persuaded to converse in any other way…..
Adam soon learns that it is easier to make up gossip rather than
track it down. He begins populating his columns with phony fashion
trends—touting, for example, the stylishness of green bowler hats
and black suede shoes—and imaginary exploits by unreal people.
But he proves to be too clever for his own good, and is fired after
one too many made-up stories.
Waugh is often admired for his dark humor, but rarely is recognized
for the structural innovations of his novels. Yet Vile Bodies is as
daring in its construction as in its titillating tales. As Truman Capote
later learned, any novel built around gossip tends to fall apart into
bits and pieces. Waugh does not fight against this tendency, but
uses it to his own advantage. From the very start of Vile Bodies,
Waugh employs a kaleidoscopic technique in which the perspective
and personages constantly change. More than twenty characters are
introduced in the first 15 pages, and although many of them are soon
abandoned in the course of this peripatetic novel, Waugh comes up
with others to take their place.
Three Literary Gossip Novels
A few story lines recur throughout the novel—notably Adam's
on-and-off-again engagement with Nina Blount, and his attempt
to track down an intoxicated major who owes him a large sum of
money—but these are more running jokes than developed plots.
Waugh really has little to fall back on here except his own wit,
inventiveness and sprightly dialogue. No high-flown ambitions
or dramatic conflicts are allowed to intrude on the festivities.
Well, not until the end, when Waugh dishes up a new World War
for his grand finale. But Vile Bodies never lags, despite the
emptiness at its center. Waugh, like an inspired prattler at the
bar, can draw humor out of the passing anecdote, and always
seems to have another to tell when the last one is finished.
In our current day, the comedy of manners has fallen on hard
times. Some may suggest that it's hard to laugh at manners
when there aren't any manners. That’s not entirely fair. Certainly
codes of correctness have emerged to take the place of what we
once called etiquette. These attitudes, supplemented by our
egalitarian ideals, may have gradually led us to lose our eye for
the quirks of different social classes and the unintended humor
entrenched in the rituals and observances of everyday life. But
the British have been masters of this kind of comic invention at
least since the time of Shakespeare, if not back in the days of
Chaucer. And its golden age came in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century, with Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Noel
Coward and (the youngest of this group) Evelyn Waugh.
But I wouldn't say that Vile Bodies is out-of-date. Rather its
comedy may seem all the fresher since it embodies a type of
humorous attitude that readers today will rarely encounter
among their own generation. Or put differently, we are still a
lost generation, just a little less able to laugh at ourselves.
Give Evelyn Waugh some credit: this book shows you how
it might still be done. Perhaps we should learn from the example.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published June 24, 2013
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