Mr Prendergast, the hapless protagonist of Evely Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928), is one of the more unusual clerical characters in this series. The majority of the men we have met so far are either country parsons or urban priests; they have also all been incumbent when we meet them. Prendy, by contrast, we encounter in two quite different contexts: the undistinguished public school Llanabba Castle, staffed by the shady and variously disgraced, and then prison. Prendy, you see, had Doubts, of which we learn in his own words. Newly installed as rector in the genteel obscurity of Worthing, Prendy had a neat, well-decorated church, and local society enough to entertain his mother, when she was not busily making new chintz curtains for the drawing room. Most pleasant it all was, until Prendy was all of a sudden assailed by doubt. Not about the more familiar matters of which religious controversy were then made, such as the miracles of the Bible or the consecration of Archbishop Parker: ‘no, it was something deeper than all that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all…. I’ve not known an hour’s real happiness since.’ (part 1, chapter 4)
As often the case with Waugh, the funniest lines are only asides, as Prendy asks his bishop for help: ‘he said he didn’t think the point really arose as far as my practical duties as a parish priest were concerned.’ The questions of ultimate purpose were an indulgence when set beside the practical need to keep the Church running as a social reality. But the passage, only a few paragraphs long, is a poignant dramatisation of the crisis of faith, and occurs early enough in the novel that it is not overwhelmed by the grotesqueries that are to come. But Prendy continues to teach, if that be the right word, while the boys mercilessly mock his wig, and he continues to maintain an interest in ecclesiastical obscurities. ‘Are you sure he is right in the head?’ asks the local vicar at Sports Day after discussing with Prendy the apostolic claims of the church of Abyssinia. ‘I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity.’
Readers who know the novel will know of the grisly and senseless end with which Prendy meets. But the path which brings him and Paul Pennyfeather (the novel’s main character) together again in prison is a neat satire on a certain trend in the Church of England. Much to the irritation of Dr Fagan the headmaster, Prendy resigns from Llanabba as ‘he has been reading a series of articles by a popular bishop and has discovered that there is a species of person called a “Modern Churchman” who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.’ (part 2, ch.4) Prendy cut a rather pathetic figure at Llanabba, but not unsympathetic. He is a victim of a sudden and inexplicable collapse in faith to which he responded honourably by resigning his living; a misfortune which parallels that which landed Pennyfeather at Llanabba. The reader is, I think, invited to share Dr Fagan’s incredulity that it should be possible to be such a ‘Modern Churchman’; it smacks of disingenuousness, intellectual evasion. Of course, jobs in parishes are hard to come by for men who commit to no belief, and so Prendy ends up as prison chaplain to Pennyfeather. Waugh invites us to read Prendy’s modern churchmanship in parallel with the modern and enlightened methods of the prison governor, Lucas-Dockery; methods so blind to human nature that they lead directly to Prendy’s death. In Decline and Fall Waugh shows the reader the predicament of a secularised generation, but the ‘Modern Churchman’ is no answer.
With thanks to Barbara Cooke (@decafB ), I find this sage comment on Prendy from the Waugh Book Group at the University of Leicester, connected to the current Complete Works project:
‘Decline and Fall is farcical and cruel, but it is also complex. We glimpsed here a technique, which will become familiar to us as we journey further into Waugh’s literature, of using one sentence or even just a few words to cut through an apparently frivolous atmosphere and bring us up short against something altogether more profound. For example while, the drunken and doubt-ridden Mr Prendergast is ridiculed throughout the narrative, Waugh also grants him a single moment of humanity. When Paul invites him out for a ‘binge’ with Captain Grimes, he is taken aback by his gratitude:
‘”Really, Pennyfeather… I don’t know what to say… I can’t remember when I dined at an hotel last. Certainly not since the war. it will be a treat. My dear boy, I’m quite overcome.’
And, much to Paul’s embarrassment, a tear welled up in each of Mr Prendergast’s eyes, and coursed down his cheeks.
It’s as if, having encouraged us to laugh at ‘Prendy’, Waugh performs an about-face and berates us – and Paul – for doing just that.