Taking place in England in the mid 1930’s, A Handful of Dust is a tale about the decadent behavior of upper-class society. After Evelyn Waugh’s painfully unsuccessful marriage, nasty divorce, and recently rejected marriage proposal to another woman, he was understandably bitter. So it comes as no surprise that this story is also about the consequences of a marriage gone bad.
Brenda and Tony Last have been married for eight years, have a precocious six year old son, and live at Tony’s inherited family estate in the country. Well, it’s more like a gothic castle with thirteen bedrooms identified by legendary medieval names like Tristram, Lancelot, and Galahad, a huge staff of servants, gardens, stables and horses, land and tenants. Tony is perfectly content to putter around the estate all day doing routine maintenance and sit by a fire in the evening with Brenda reading a good book. He’s old fashioned, reliable, easy going, and just plain boring.
Brenda was satisfied with that too, so it seems, until she meets John Beaver. John Beaver is everything you don’t look for in a man… he lives with his mother, does not work, is cheap, mooches free drinks at the mens clubs, and thrives on getting invitations to upper class luncheons and dinner parties. He’s also an opportunist, so Brenda appeals to him… as long as she’s paying the bills.
The plot of A Handful of Dust reflects William Boyd’s description of Waugh in the introduction of the “Everyman’s Library” edition, “he saw life as anarchic, indifferent, and absurd.” (page xii) In this scathing satire Brenda starts an affair with Beaver for all London’s society to witness. Everyone knows about it but Tony. And most everyone encourages it or at least conveniently ignores it. Brenda and her girlfriends mischievously try to find a woman to seduce Tony so he won’t mind so much if he does find out she is sleeping with Beaver. In spite of Brenda and Beaver’s disgusting gouache behavior, the first half of the book is quite funny. Absurd situations, amusing dialogue, and comical names like Jock Grant-Manzies, Polly Cockpurse, Souki de Foucauld-Esterhazy, and Princess Jenny Abdul Akbar.
Some amusing moments:
A comment from little John when the nurse maid takes him up to bed while his parents are formally entertaining the princess Akbar and a few other guests downstairs, “I think she’s the most beautiful lady I’ve ever seen. D’you think she’d like to watch me have my bath?” (page 84)
A description of one of the exclusive mens’s clubs, “It was not an expensive club to run, because none of the staff except the band receive any wages; they make what they can by going through the overcoat pockets and giving the wrong change to drunks.” (page 67)
Of an unwanted overnight guest at the Last estate and which bedroom to give him, “he can go into the Sir Galahad. No one who sleeps there ever comes again… the bed’s agony” (page 23)
But shockingly, half way through the book, I stopped laughing. What begins as a light witty comedy, turns into a darkly grotesque Hitchcock-style psychological suspense finale.
Waugh apparently didn’t know what to do with the plot but did know he wanted things to end badly so he altered a previously published dismal short story, and tacked that on the end of A Handful of Dust. It worked. It’s a classic. It’s rated number 34 on the Modern Library best English novels of all time. But the whole mood shift was disconcerting. And Tony’s personality seemed to undergo an abrupt and drastic change. The Tony Last in the first half of the book was not one to take risks, crave adventure, or stray from his comfort zone. In the second half, his actions are unpredictable… perhaps the circumstances warranted his rash behavior.
Sometime later, because of copyright issues, Waugh wrote a second ending and if you plan on reading this book make sure you get an edition with both endings. The later ending is more suited for the milieu of the plot, and a little more palatable, but be prepared as neither ending is happy one.
Rated 4.5 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.