A Handful of Dust
by Evelyn Waugh (1934)
Penguin Classics (2000)
255 pages

I have several Waugh novels sitting on my shelf due to my sudden infatuation with his writing in late 2008. Just those two books made me start boasting that Waugh was one of my favorite authors. After over a year of neglect, I decided it was time to visit Waugh again and read what some consider his best work, A Handful of Dust. I remembered immediately why I fell for Waugh in the first place.

The title comes from one of my favorite poems (and one I’ve hated too), The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

I devoted a chapter of my masters thesis on that nasty poem; I can tell you an awful lot about it and its allusions, though I still don’t understand it all and could not explain it. I think we can all agree, though, that it is centered around a dying civilization, or, perhaps better, a decaying civilization — civilization already being dead. Its imagery, both of the city and of sex, and set pieces of conversation between lonely souls feel so sad, so dry. I think it’s beautiful. Leavened with quite a lot more humor, Waugh is taking on the same theme in A Handful of Dust. His isolated characters represent a civilization in decline.

In the novel’s first few pages we meet a young Mr. John Beaver. Beaver is relatively poor and quite lazy and selfish, though to an extent the reader might find him charming as he tells his mother he has accepted an invitation to visit Hetton Abbey, the proud inheritance of Tony Last. Tony, incidentally, did not intend his invitation to be taken literally; it was merely an act of courtesy during a night drinking at the club. Beaver probably knows this, but he is ever the social climber.

While Beaver is travelling to Hetton Abbey, we arrive there first to meet Tony and his wife Brenda. This is Tony Last at his most confident and Brenda Last at her most docile as they discuss their plans. Brenda is bored of Hetton Abbey. Tony cannot comprehend. Tony winces when he realizes that Beaver has taken the invitation seriously and decides to put him in the most uncomfortable room in the house, the room called Sir Galahad.

At this point in the novel, perhaps we can hardly blame Beaver and Brenda for commencing an affair. They flirted slightly during the weekend, and before Beaver left Brenda had already planned to go to London to see him the next weekend. Here is a nice little snippet on their behavior just after Brenda’s sister Marjorie leaves them alone this first weekend together:

They were awkward when Marjorie left, for in the week that they had been apart, each had, in thought, grown more intimate with the other than any actual occurrence warranted.

Their affair suddenly increases everyone’s interest in Beaver; he was below their notice before. That’s not to say anyone really likes him now. Perhaps Brenda herself expresses why best:

Brenda had come into Marjorie’s room and they were having breakfast in bed. Marjorie was more than ever like an elder sister that morning. ‘But really, Brenda, he’s such a dreary young man.’

‘I know it all. He’s second rate and a snob and, I should think, as cold as a fish, but I happen to have a fancy for him, that’s all . . . besides I’m not sure he’s altogether awful . . . he’s got that odious mother whom he adores . . . and he’s always been very poor. I don’t think he’s had a fair deal. I heard all about it last night. He got engage once but they couldn’t get married because of money and since then he’s never had a proper affair with anyone decent . . . he’s got to be taught a whole lot of things. That’s part of his attraction.’

As you can see, there is quite a bit of comedy involved, even when the subject is so sad when we stop to think about it. It is quite some time before Tony finds out about the affair. And the plot itself has a few twists and turns, some tragic, many comic, before he finally agrees to a divorce. And this was, for me, one of the best parts of the novel. Under British law of the time, a divorce was not easily executed. Furthermore, if Mrs. Last is found to be the cause of the severance, the court would grant her next to nothing. It is privately arranged that Mr. Last will be the cause. To this end, Tony seeks a partner in his fraud, some woman who will understand the delicacies of falsifying an affair:

But when he came to discuss the question later with Jock, it did not seem so easy. ‘It’s not a thing one can ask every girl to do,’ he said, ‘whichever way you put it. If you say it is merely a legal form it is rather insulting, and if you suggest going the whole hog it’s rather fresh — suddenly, I mean, if you’ve never paid any particular attention to her before and don’t propose to carry on with it afterwards . . . Of course there’s always old Sybil.’

Old Sybil — that ominous figure in The Waste Land. The book is still just rolling along, but much of the comedy will be absent from what remains. Which brings me to a fascinating tidbit about the novel. Waugh’s first ending takes off as Tony leave England to pursue a hidden country in Brazil, and one could feel the book is almost split in halves that don’t quite balance. I found it fascinating, particularly given the inspiration for the title. This ending was actually written first as a short story called “The Man Who Loved Dickens.” Yes — it takes place in Brazil. Waugh said that he wanted to write the story that preceded “The Man Who Loved Dickens”; hence, A Handful of Dust in its original form.

However, also included in my version, and I hope in most versions, is the alternate ending the American press demanded to give the book more balance. The ending is much shorter, very different, and much more conventional than the original. That it is shorter, different, and conventional is not to suggest it isn’t satisfying. I’m sure there are many who prefer it to the original. I’m not sure where I stand in preference, but I’m glad to have them both. Both endings were for me fantastic expansions on the first part of the novel. One is long and exotic and counterbalanced against the first half of the book; the other is short and bitter tasting, but in a satisfying way.

Here, because I couldn’t find any other place to put it in my review, but because I really just love the dialogue, is another bit of the comedy. It also showcases a bit of Hemingway’s influence on Waugh’s style of dialogue, though thankfully Waugh didn’t give up his British humor.

‘But all the same, making every allowance for your feelings, I do think that you are behaving rather vindictively in the matter.’

‘I’m doing exactly what Brenda wanted.’

‘My dear fellow, she doesn’t know what she wants. I saw this chap Beaver yesterday. I didn’t like him at all. Do you?’

‘I hardly know him.’

‘Well, I can assure you I didn’t like him. Now you’re just throwing Brenda into his arms. That’s what it amounts to, as I see it, and I call it vindictive. Of course at the moment Brenda’s got the idea that she’s in love with him. But it won’t last. It couldn’t with a chap like Beaver. She’ll want to come back in a year, just you see.  Allan says the same.’

‘I’ve told Allan. I don’t want her back.’

‘Well, that’s vindictive.’

‘No, I just couldn’t feel the same about her again.’

‘Well, why feel the  same? One has to change as one gets older. Why, ten years ago I couldn’t be interested in anything later than the Sumerian age and I assure you that now I find even the Christian era full of significance.’

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