Let’s start with the title. About ten years ago a film was made of this novel, but due to wrangles with the Waugh estate the film was called “Bright Young Things” not “Vile Bodies”. (This is from memory, unverified by Wikipedia). The name change mattered, because the irony of the phrase “Bright Young Things”” is easy to miss (or dismiss), whereas there is no missing the bitterness and bleakness of the original title. And make no mistake, this is a bitter, and unblinking bleak portrait of the mid-war, middle class world Waugh inhabited, where the humour underscores the emptiness of people’s lives rather than detracting from it.
This is satire at its crystalline, brilliant, best. The plot, such as it is, follows the misfortunes of Adam Symes and his assortment of friends, relatives and acquaintances. But the series of disjointed incidents portrayed is simply a vehicle for Waugh to shine a light on the shallow, broken society of mid-war Britain. There are several deaths, too many for them to be shrugged off, including an accident with a chandelier, a suicide, and Agatha Runcible’s descent into madness and thence death arising from a motor racing accident. (The choice of name here, from a nonsense word coined by Lear, points out the nonsensical nature of the lives of many of the characters. All of these deaths are passed over very lightly, almost in passing; Simon Balcairn’s suicide in particular is quite chilling – he gasses himself, and in putting his head in the oven he at first holds his breath, realises this is missing the point, then chokes, collapses and dies.
It would be all too easy to take this as simply a light hearted portrait of the rich and stupid at play. There is some playfulness in the novel – for example in the way Symes creates characters and themes for his gossip column, which are then picked up and copied by fashionable London. But the novel is a much more damning critique of British mid war society than this. Waugh seems full of bile towards his subjects, constantly snatching any prospect of happiness or financial stability from them. The Bright Young Things portrayed are not happy or fulfilled – their relentless parties and jaunts are just a desperate attempt to district themselves from the emptiness of their lives. The final “Happy Ending” chapter, in which Chastity’s broken life casts her up in a war zone as part of the detritus of some devastating future conflict, is a chilling summary of where the country is heading – to death, dissolution, and decay. Instead of having partying young people on the front cover, a better illustration would be Munch’s “Scream”.