by Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh has been updated for the screen. Bright Young Things, directed by Stephen Fry, is released on 3rd October 2003. Waugh's second novel, written at the end of the 20s and published in 1930 when Waugh was 26, Vile Bodies is a fine example of a period piece. However, a century after Waugh's birth, much re-evaluation has taken place, Waugh's shrewd observations of his times seem particularly appropriate at the moment, a similar zeitgeist linking both worlds. It is very clear that parallels exist between then and now, and it seems completely right that suddenly everyone is talking about Evelyn Waugh.
In was the summer of 1974 that I became a teenage Waugh fan. My peers thought I was just strange, but in my eyes, Waugh's writing struck chords with the 1970s (just look at the fashion similarities.) I felt like I was carrying on a family tradition, as my father is a lifelong Waugh fanatic, and especially during the bleakness of the 1940s and 1950s he was greatly cheered by slim, hardback volumes of Evelyn Waugh. These became treasured possessions; they accompanied him everywhere - down Welsh coalmines (when he was doing his National Service) and up mountains on Alpine climbing trips.
After such mystique, I still found Waugh an unexpectedly rich vein to tap into. These are fabulous treats to read! The world in miniature, and seemingly, always another one to get started on! Vile Bodies is not my favourite, that place will always be reserved for grimmest, blackest, most ridiculous novel of all time - The Loved One. Waugh's writing was my first taste of a superbly dry and scathing style, and I seem to have spent 30 years looking for other writers who have it. My conclusion is that many do, but only in small helpings, so my advice is don't search any further as Waugh's are the best. These are beautifully crafted books, populated by fantastic, hideous, Dickensian creatures, and though they are very much of their age, but have survived the test of time strangely well.
Vile Bodies refers to the human being stripped of its humanity - leaving only a shell or vile body. Waugh perfectly captures a moment in time - the 20s and the shock of the new, as this is the first decade of the truly modern world. Against a backdrop of legendary partying, human experience is avoided and ultimately lives are thrown away. Waugh cleverly recognises that through the frenzied partying, his Bright Young Things communicate a terrible, blighting loss and the relentless fun thinly disguises grief. There is a spectre of death and destruction - past and future, which haunts them all, and although those times may appear to be worlds apart from our own but there are obvious connections. The Bright Young Things of pre- war may seem doomed to extinction, but are actually alive and well; hounded, photographed and scrutinized relentlessly by Heat, Hello and every gossip column in print. Our appetite for the vapid and the trivial more goes on and on, it's a bottomless pit!
Attitudes have changed; we still have a fascination with all that is superficial. Money, beauty and above all, celebrity are hugely and extravagantly admired, but in a rather conditional way; nastiness and cruelty are never far behind. However, the love affair with new money, 'easy come, easy go' and wallet - power has all but replaced royal - worship. In fact we are now highly critical of the aristocracy (perhaps they have become too like us) and we expect them to do something useful to justify their wealth. Waugh's idle aristocrats probably will become extinct, but their spirit of excess lives on in the new social mix inhabiting in the fast lane.
Waugh the compulsive satirist would be highly amused by today's gossip columns. The wonderful Daily Excess "Mr Chatterbox" column in Vile Bodies certainly has real, modern counterparts. He would relish our chronicles of the lives of the rich and famous; Vile Bodies' definitive Bright Young Thing the Hon Agatha Runcible has been much likened to It-girls such as Lady Victoria Hervey, and so the comparisons continue… Read Alan Franks and Lucy Alexander, 'Waugh Revisited', The Times Magazine 20.9.03
There is a resonance with modern society and our Bright Young Things are more in fashion than ever before. Vile Bodies is a fabulous read, certainly a great springboard for discussion in any book group and although the satire is scathing, the message is not too vicious to spoil the fun. It is absolutely the right time to be re-discovering the incomparable Evelyn Waugh, as 100 years after his birth, society has grown to resemble his vision.