PENGUIN'S DECLINE AND FALL





I'm going to remember this Easter as the one where I researched and revealed all Penguin's covers of first
Scoop and now Decline and Fall. Evelyn Waugh may have suggested I include images of the crucifixion in this process. But I don't think that's going to happen. Wrong vibe.

In 1937, Penguin (then an imprint of The Bodley Head) first published Waugh starting in January with his first novel,
Decline and Fall.

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Back cover. To which one is tempted to say: 'lose the detail' and 'lose the penguin':

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It was reprinted in
April and October of that year. By which time Penguin Books Ltd had been set up, sundering it from The Bodley Head. The books had dust-jackets in the same style as the book itself. Here is an October 1937 copy, currently for sale on Abebooks, showing - from a perspective of 2019 - the value of a dust-wrapper.

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It's like a two-stage rocket. Eventually the first stage gets jettisoned. There are very few dust-jacketed copies of
Decline and Fall still around.

My own oldest Penguin of
Decline and Fall, is the next edition, July 1938. Exactly the same cover as above, except no longer protected by a dust-cover and showing its eighty years of age.

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Here is the - more reader-friendly than before - back cover. Waugh in the mixed company of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway and Bernard Shaw. Many of the other names have fallen by the wayside. James Hilton? G.D.H. Cole? Donn Byrne? (James Mackay of Penguin Collectors Society keeps me right on this. GDH Cole shouldn’t be bracketed with the other two: He was a prominent left-wing intellectual, the author of several Pelicans on economics.)

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This book doesn't contain a biographical note. It would have been on the dust-wrapper. Below is the back flap of the wrapper from the August 1939 edition.

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My copy of this book is protected by a dust jacket, hence the cover is crisp and gorgeous. The orange has been so generously applied that it leaks through into the ovoid and onto the penguin's belly.

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The back cover sees Penguin still banging on about other titles, using a diary format on this occasion.

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A remarkable number of these books are now forgotten. Being published is only the beginning. Lasting fame comes from being published, republished and republished again. Each new generation of editor seeing something in the work.

Decline and Fall was published yet again by Penguin in May 1940. Note, as in the 1939 edition, the slimmed down penguin. After all, Britain was at war and rationing would have been imposed. Feeding of penguins would have been strictly prohibited. Well, not strictly prohibited, after all, any English Channel fish given to a British penguin was another that Hitler couldn't swallow!

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The back of the book featured an advert for shoes. Nice one. Forget giving a long list of books, just tell the reader about a pair of sturdy shoes that can be relied on.

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1940 man or woman: "A Penguin in me pocket and a sturdy pair of Norvics on me feet. Do your worst, Adolf."

Wartime shortages and economy standards meant that dust-jackets were dropped. The biographical note was moved inside the book to the page opposite the title page. It's the same as used on the 1939 flap and contains some odd sentences. So it's worth reading.

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I'll just pull out a few choice phrases:

"...with a frolic welcome taken the thunder and the sunshine."

"He penetrated African forests, practically unexplored by white men."

"He is a man of many friends, and of distinguished associations."

After the 1940 edition, there was no reprinting until 1951. I suspect this means that there is no edition of
Decline and Fall which shows the penguin bending forward, as in these 1945 and 1948 editions of Scoop and Put Out More Flags.

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What a missed classic, the Pennyfeather penguin! Actually, I can do better than that: Paul Penguinfeather.

As it is, the 1953 edition has the next image for a cover. Still hardly any change since 1937. The intervening 16 years at Penguin HQ had not exactly been spent honing in-house design skills!

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The biographical note had moved to the back and the author's photo had been updated with a 1951 one by Madame Yevonde. Much of the idiosyncrasy of the previous biographical note is no longer evident. So I wouldn't bother reading it.

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Further editions followed in 1955, 1958 and 1960. Here is the 1960 cover with a drawing by Derek Harris. I've a feeling that the 1958 cover was this one, as the 1957
Brideshead cover also has a Derek Harris drawing.

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At last, an image to engage with. I like it a lot, not least because Evelyn Waugh proposed to she-Evelyn at the Ritz Restaurant in December 1927, after having made a start to
Decline and Fall. Much of the novel's exuberant energy comes from her saying yes to his proposal. Decline and Fall is one happy, laughing novel.

The back cover sensibly enlarges the author pic and cuts back on the biographical note. Of course, by 1960, Waugh looked more like the penguin in the side-bar than the portrait.

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The next edition came out in 1962 and the cover is the work of Quentin Blake. A rendering of Sports Day at Llanabba School. Lovely Margot staring into Paul's eyes. Mr Prenderghast firing the starting gun nowhere near Tangent's leg. Well done, Prendy! And, yes, he may well be wearing a wig.

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Instead of a biographical note on the back cover, there is blurb about the book. It's good. However, I can't agree with its last sentence, that
Decline and Fall is a 'compassionate' story.

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The Quentin Blake cover was the one also used in 1964, 65, 67 and 68. However, in 1969, a new design by Bentley/Farrell/Burnett appeared. Apparently, it was Peter Bentley alone who was responsible for the Waugh work. Perhaps this was the first Evelyn Waugh book given to the graphic design company. To my mind, it's the best of Bentley's series. It was used throughout the 1970s and into the 80s. And why not? It perfectly captures the mood of the book and the hopeful wanderings of youth.

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When I read the book in 1973, I was into David Bowie's music and image. I associate this cover with a line from 'Young Americans' that could almost have been sung by Paul Pennyfeather.

"Gee, my life's a funny thing
Am I still too young?"

On the back is a synopsis:

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That is an apt, concise summary of the book. 'Comic, yet curiously touching' does it for me.

As I say, this was the reprinted cover in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1983. Coincidentally, there were so many great Bowie albums in those precise years, all with iconic covers. Let me list them:

1969:
Space Oddity
1970:
Man Who Sold the World
1971:
Hunky Dory
1972:
Ziggy Stardust
1973:
Aladdin Sane
1974:
Diamond Dogs
1975:
Young Americans
1976:
Station to Station
1977:
Low; Heroes
1979:
Lodger
1980:
Scary Monsters
1983:
Let's Dance

Decline and Fall and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Those words go some way to defining the 1970s for me.

Importantly, I suspect, for Waugh's success in the 1980s, the Peter Bentley designs were the covers on his paperbacks when the wonderful version of
Brideshead Revisited was screened by ITV in 1981.

But all good things come to an end, and in 1986, this cover image took over.

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True, there's a
Station to Station feel about it. But it doesn't work for me. It suggests neither comedy nor absurdity. Instead, it suggests pose and poise. It suggests Bowie's Thin White Duke rather than Waugh's Pennyfeather.

True also, I can just about imagine this guy, this Pennyfeather, talking to Grimes in a pub. Trying to get his head round the nudge-nudge innuendo of the serial paedophile. Not wide-eyed enough, though.

I don't have this version of the book, so don't know what was on the back cover. It was reprinted in 1989 and 1990. Why no new printing of the title from 1990 to 2000? Because the mismatch of a cover was not selling the novel, perhaps. So no need for a reprint when the books were still there on the shelves!

The next edition was in 2001, containing an introduction by David Bradshaw. Just as in 2000 an equivalent edition of
Scoop came out with an essay by Christopher Hitchens. This edition incorporates the preface that Waugh wrote in 1961 (as an academic, Bradshaw would have made sure of this). Presumably subsequent editions do as well, but that's something I'll have to check when I have the books to hand.

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That's an ambitious cover image. It's also based on a found image. 'For Theatreland, Travel by Underground' is a poster designed in 1924 by H.S. Williamson.

The signs of night-life in inter-war London can just about be read through the interference of nature. However, the novel itself has three distinct environments: the Welsh school that Pennyfeather escapes from; Margot's modernist mansion; and a couple of prisons. (Not forgetting the Oxford college, where PP begins and ends the story.) So London at night? I don't think so.

Below is the back cover. Is 'outrageous circumstances' an improvement on 'indecent behaviour'? I doubt it. But the paragraph sets things up quite well for the prospective reader.

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The cover below only appeared once, in 2001. The equivalent
Scoop cover is terrible and I'm not keen on this one either. I can see the female figure as Margot, but the guy is no Paul Pennyfeather. He has too much weight and precision. The cigarette and the fingered hands see to that.

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This next edition appeared in 2003 and 2008. It suggests Margot and modernism rather than Pennyfeather and Waughism, so it can't be more than an interesting variation.

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As with
Scoop, the version with the commissioned introduction from 2000 hasn't gone away. It was printed again in 2017. 'Tonight's the night and every night and all night', screams the side of a building. Sounds like a dream of Pennyfeather's when Margot allowed him to get lucky at King's Thursday.

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Also in 2017 appeared the edition brought out to take advantage of the very good TV version of
Decline and Fall starring Jack Whitehall. His wide-eyed look is perfect for Pennyfeather.

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What is that shell backdrop for? To suggest modernism? Fine, but the dreamy background to the Bentley/Farrell/Burnett is perhaps more evocative of Pennyfeather's comings and goings, his rises and falls.

Let's end with all the covers to date.

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As with Scoop, the golden period of covers is the time when they were specifically designed for the book. That is numbers 5 to 7, covering 1960 to 1986. Since then the themes of Decline and Fall have only been alluded to, with photographs or paintings done with something else in mind. That is, until the Jack Whitehall cover.

One last thought. When the TV biopic about Waugh was made in 1983 (on the back of
Brideshead TV success) Anthony Powell, Harold Acton, Kingsley Amis and John Mortimer are seen reading from a Penguin copy of Decline and Fall. I'm pleased to say it's the version designed by Bentley/Farrell/Burnett that they all hold in their by-then-elderly hands.

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Let our ever-young eyes linger for a second more on this special edition's kingfisher flash.

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Note
Thanks to Jeff Manley for images of the first edition of
Decline and Fall in paperback, 1937.

Thanks to James Mackay for filling in some gaps in my original essay with his detailed knowledge of Penguin.