Warning: this blog contains plot spoilers for the novels discussed therein, not to mention some tenuous trains of thought.
On a recent impromptu trip to my ancestral hometown of Bristol I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Bloom and Curll, a beautiful little bookshop not far from the top of the Christmas Steps. I could have stayed for hours browsing the finely curated stock, but as my time was limited I had to make a quick decision. I chose two novels which might seem, at least if judged by author and title alone, to be from two completely separate cultural milieux: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan. But it was in fact their curious similarities that recommended them to me.
Sōseki was born in 1867 in Edo, a year before the city was rechristened Tokyo and Japan embarked on the breakneck modernisation of the Meiji era. In a sign of the times, he studied English along with the Chinese classics at Tokyo Imperial University, before teaching at the rural school which would provide the inspiration for Botchan, published in 1905. He was sent to England on a government scholarship in 1900 to study English literature. Although by all accounts his two years spent in London weren’t the happiest of his life, this experience enabled him to gain a Professorship in English literature at his alma mater, and embark on a celebrated career in Japanese literature which lasted until his death in 1916.
Botchan is the quintessential modern Japanese novel, taking a sidelong and humorous look at a society in flux. Its eponymous protagonist is a typical product of the new Japan, much like the author, who takes a teaching job in the backwater of Matsuyama where all is not quite as it seems. Botchan clashes with both staff and students before becoming embroiled in the politics of the school, and is ultimately forced to return home after uncovering a sexual scandal (beating up the headteacher in the process).
Although Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was of a different generation and nationality to Sōseki, Decline and Fall, his first novel, displays several striking similarities to Botchan. Waugh’s protagonist Paul Pennyfeather is another well-educated and morally upright young man who finds himself thrown into a bizarre rural school, although in this case he hasn’t chosen to be there. Paul is sent down from Oxford after an unfortunate debagging incident in a quad at Scone College, caused by the ‘Bollinger’ Club (a parody of the Bullingdon Club), who are celebrating their annual dinner. The novel sees Pennyfeather settling in to the unorthodox methods of Llanabba Castle School in North Wales, becoming engaged to the mother of a pupil there, ending up in prison after inadvertently aiding her business in human trafficking, and finally escaping prison after an elaborately faked death. Both books are masterclasses in sarcasm and poke fun at the authors’ respective societies, although Waugh’s takes a particularly acerbic tone towards the privileges and quirks of the upper classes.
Waugh’s protagonist is the victim of various representatives of the upper classes in the novel, from his unceremonious expulsion from Oxford due to the antics of the Bollinger Club, to his manipulation by his fiancé Margot Beste-Chetwynde, ending with his death and rebirth. In a circular fashion, Sir Alistair-Digby-Vane-Trumpington, host of the original Bollinger party, is the key to Paul’s escape from jail. Although Sir Alistair has married Paul’s fiancé in the interim, he does at least manage to get Paul readmitted to his Theological degree at Scone College, under a new identity, leaving the novel in exactly the same situation that it started. Still, there is a sense that this is a journey that Paul might have a preferred not to take, spelled out in the architect Professor Silenus’ soliloquy about the ‘wheel of life’, the whole point of which ‘is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to’. It doesn’t really seem as though Paul had much of a choice in joining the wheel. There is a basic hypocrisy exposed by the novel, one in which the privileged always escape the consequences of their actions, and anyone who gets in their way is an unfortunate but unavoidable sacrifice. This strong commentary on class in Decline and Fall was particularly striking, not to mention the fact that the principal objects of satire remain topical to this very day. It’s hardly a secret that the Bullingdon club of the 1980s and 90s featured several of our leading politicians, including the former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, as well as the current Foreign Secretary and ex-Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
This commentary is made even more obvious in the character of Captain Grimes, the ‘public-school man’ who believes that there is a ‘blessed equity in the English social system’. In exchange for the ‘four or five years of perfect hell’ of his school years, ‘the social system never lets one down’. Despite being expelled from Harrow, he gets a letter of recommendation to any future employer, and is exempted from a court-martial in Northern France by ‘a cove I’d known at school’, who considers it ‘out of the question to shoot an old Harrovian’ He even fakes his own death to avoid being exposed for bigamy. Grimes revels in describing how he has at various times ended up ‘in the soup’. Whenever this happens, he’s bailed out by contacts or by his own irrepressible charm.
The world that Waugh conjures up in the novel is a comic satire, wrly observed and brilliantly executed. But what does it say about our country that the terms of reference in a work written in 1928 are still disturbingly familiar today? The antics of the Bullingdon Club in the 1980s have now been a persistent feature of the news for years. David Cameron’s first cabinet was 62% privately educated, and every Prime Minister since 1937 bar Gordon Brown was educated at Oxford University. A lot may have changed in 88 years, but it would seem that a great deal of the apparatus of privilege has remained in place. And as for the charming public school chap who’s always getting ‘in the soup’, look no further than Boris Johnson, the old Etonian who has risen to high office on the back of a decidedly chequered career in journalism and politics. Indeed, he’s recently seen fit to drag all of us into the soup with him, although exactly how we’ll get out of it again remains to be seen…