Thursday, 14 August 2014

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

published 1930




Adam and Miss Runcible and Miles and Archie Schwert went up to the motor races in Archie Schwert’s car. It was a long and cold drive. Miss Runcible wore trousers and Miles touched up his eyelashes in the drinign-room of the hotel where they stopped for luncheon. So they were asked to leave. At the next hotel they made Miss Runcible stay outside, and brought her cold lamb and pickles in the car. .. They spent a long time over luncheon because it was warm there, and they drank Kummel over the fire until Miss Runcible came in very angrily to fetch them out.

Then Archie said he was too sleepy to drive any more, so Adam changed places with him and lost the way, and they travelled miles in the wrong direction down a limitless by-pass road.

And then it began to be dark and the rain got worse. They stopped for dinner at antoher hotel, where everyone giggled at Miss Runcible’s trousers in a dining-room hung with copper warming pans.





observations: Recently I have been thinking about the books and scenes I particularly wanted to illustrate when I started Clothes in Books – Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, entry here, was one of them, and I listed a few others. This was on the list too: those trousers made a big impression on me when I first read this book years ago, and this chapter was one of the jumping-off points for the piece I did for the Guardian last year tracing the history of women wearing trousers in fiction….

So it might be surprising that I’m only just doing it now, but there is a reason for that, which is that this may be my least favourite Evelyn Waugh book. I like some of his books very much (Brideshead Revisited), and the letters he exchanged with Nancy Mitford are one of the great joys of life – their collected correspondence would be one of my Desert Island books.

But Vile Bodies I have read several times, always wondering
if this time I will like it, and I don’t. I don’t like the foolish adventures the young people have, I don’t like the very flat style of narration, and I don’t like the way everyone in it is horrible. (Poor Agatha Runcible comes off well compared with some of the others.) It’s a great pity because the book contains plenty of great clothes mentions, including Agatha in a Hawaiian costume, 





and Miss Mouse in a ‘very enterprising frock by Cheruit’ – let’s give her this one: already assigned to Harriet D Vane in this entry.  


Then there are the angels – the book always improves when Mrs Ape’s Angels turn up: I think I’d rather have read a whole novel about Chastity, Prudence and Divine Discontent.







Top picture is from the Helen Richey archive at the San Diego aviation museum. Angels from Flickr. The Hawaiian picture shows filmstar Eleanor Powell, whose finest dancing moments included the film Honolulu, and Broadway Melody of 1940, as shown in this blog entry.

15 comments:

  1. Seems like the sort of book I'd read if I wanted to punish myself, not for me thanks. So pleased you managed to sneak in a Mitford mention also.
    A double negative now, which won't = a positive

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    1. Result all round, including making me laugh into my morning coffee!

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  2. I like the way you re-read hoping this time it will click, when the rest of us will have tossed it over our shoulders and run screaming from the room! I do love those trousers tho'.

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    1. Normally I can easily self-persuade to give up on a book, but this one... I keep thinking 'it must be me, I'm missing something.' Giving up now though.

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  3. Moira - Not my cuppa either. At all. I could even deal with the unpleasant characters if the plot was gripping or the narration style the kind that draws you in. But I'm sorry to say that trousers aren't enough to keep me engaged in a story.

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    1. No - he's such a good writer, and there are moments in this book, but I can't recommend it as a good use of reading time....

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  4. I agree with you about Vile Bodies, Moira. It's not one I'd ever chose to reread. There is a cynicism about it and a heartlessness that's unappealing.

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    1. That's a very good description Christine, exactly what I dislike about it. Waugh is a very problematic character, but he was able to write with great heart and feeling elsewhere, even while holding onto his cynicism and tendency to despair....

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  5. Interesting Moira - in many ways I like the hardness in this book (as well as its surreal ending) and often prefer it to BRIDESHEAD, which always seemed a bit self-indulgent by comparison. But that's just a question of tone - I find it pretty hard to like any of the characters in BRIDESHEAD too frankly

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    1. I know what you mean about (some of) the people in Brideshead, but I think they have explicable failings and shortcomings. In Vile Bodies no-one seems to have any real depth or backstory. But then I think most of Waugh's effects are intended, he presumably would say it's meant to be like that...

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  6. I did not recognize the photo of Eleanor Powell at all. She is close to the top of my list of female tap dancers. Glen does not care for her, too strait laced I think.

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    1. I agree with you, I think she was one of the very best tap dancers although you don't hear of her so much. I think I know what Glen means - I always thought there was a contrast between her rather serious looking head and her wonderfully mobile body! She didn't look sexy and cheeky like Ginger Rogers, or stiff like Ruby Keeler. But I love her, I could watch her all day.

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  7. I think over here Katherine Hepburn was one of the vanguard women who wore "trousers." Photographs of her in and out of movies show this. She did what she wanted to do, Hollywood be darned. Good for her.

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    1. She looked fantastic in her trousers, didn't she?

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  8. Yes! How I wished I could wear "trousers" and a nice fitted blouse tucked in and look like she did, casual, and like she was enjoying her life.

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