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CLASSICS ON CASSETTE

Oxford Revisited

August 18, 1991|JOHN ESPEY

Ranging from the fruitiest of upper-class English accents to the lowest of the low, reader David Case brings out the mad comedy of Evelyn Waugh's first novel, "Decline and Fall." The highly personal satire on the public-school values of British life was published in 1928 with the subtitle "A Novel of Many Manners."

Waugh was something of a complainer all his life, and his first experience of the world's injustice stemmed from the fact that his older brother, Alec, had, at the green age of 18, published his own first novel, "The Loom of Youth" (1917), an expose of what life was really like in his and his father's public school, Sherborne. Alec had been "asked to leave" that institution after being discovered indulging in what the less privileged have always considered a standard public-school exercise between friends and equals. The immediate results were that the names of both Alec and his father, Arthur Waugh of the Chapman and Hall publishing house, were "struck off the roll of Sherborne Old Boys" (not to be reinstated until 1933), and Evelyn, barred from that particular Eden, was sent off to Lancing, a run-down, high-church school several cuts below Sherborne.

Even so, Waugh won a scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford, in 1921, from which he went down in 1924 without a degree or any particular prospects, and owing 200 pounds. He was later to destroy the Oxford section of his diaries, which presumably recorded his falling in with unsavory company. The following year found him teaching in Wales. After a failed attempt at suicide, he taught for a time in a Berkshire school, from which he was fired, and his teaching career ended ingloriously with a temporary appointment in Notting Hill, London.

Paul Pennyfeather, the protagonist of "Decline and Fall," is forced to leave Scone College, Oxford, where he was a divinity student, having been unjustly charged with "indecent behavior." He soon learns that the only career open to such failures is teaching, and finds himself stationed at Llanabba Castle in north Wales, run by Augustus Fagan, Esquire, Ph.D.

This is as good a place as any to comment on Waugh's Dickensian talent for naming his characters. "Decline and Fall" is notable for Mr. Sniggs, the junior dean of Scone College; Lumsden of Srathdrummond (Laird "over unchartered miles of barren moorland"); Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington; Lord and Lady Circumference, parents of the unfortunate little Lord Tangent, who is accidently shot in the foot on Llanabba's Games Day, and Peter Beste-Chetwynde, Paul's favorite student and protector, whose mother, Margot Beste-Chetwynde, proprietress of some interesting South American houses, rescues Paul Pennyfeather from Llanabba and becomes engaged to marry him, only to land him in jail, courtesy of Scotland Yard.

The resolution of all this must be left to the listener. But I am giving nothing away when I say that Waugh based Lady Circumference, an awe-inspiring presence, on the American mother of his close friend Alastair Graham, who appears twice in Waugh's later work, first as Hamish Lennox in "A Little Learning" and later contributing to the character of Sebastian Flyte in "Brideshead Revisited," Waugh's most famous novel in this country, if not to the cognoscenti--Waugh leads one into these affected gestures--his best.

I could go on with one Maltravers, who becomes Viscount Metroland, but it is more suitable to end with a return, as in the book itself, to the quadrangles of Scone College. This full-circle pattern gave Waugh an opportunity to record his feelings about his own, not particularly distinguished, Oxford college.

A curiously familiar divinity scholar at Scone receives "a little note from Hertford," sent by his friend Stubbs, inviting him to meet the college secretary of the League of Nations Union and the chaplain of the Oxford prison. The Scone man accepts the invitation because "He liked the ugly, subdued little College, and he liked Stubbs."

And today's listeners should like this extravaganza set in an earlier world than today's, and may even be moved to go on to other seductive readings of Waugh by David Case: "Brideshead Revisited," "Black Mischief," "Charles Ryder's School Days," "A Little Learning," "When the Going Was Good."

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