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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By |2016-06-09T12:30:22-04:00March 26th, 2010|Categories: Book Reviews, Evelyn Waugh|Tags: , |13 Comments


  1. Lisa Hill March 26, 2010 at 3:45 am

    It’s a long long time since I read Waugh, but like you I fell in love with his work from the moment I read the first one, which was A Handful of Dust. I then read everything I could find (the Blyton Effect) and felt desolate when there was nothing else to read.
    It’s that wickedly funny British sense of humour…

  2. KevinfromCanada March 26, 2010 at 10:23 am

    We did watch the movie version again lately, but I certainly appreciate the quotes which remind me of why I liked the book so much. I am one who prefers the tighter alternate ending (my understanding was he needed it because of American copyright issues on the Dickens story) — but you are right that it is best to have both.

  3. Trevor March 26, 2010 at 10:49 am

    So I still have Scoop, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, and Black Mischief. Any suggestions where to go next?

  4. Trevor March 26, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Also, Kevin, what is your opinion on the movie version. I haven’t seen it before and am very interested.

  5. Trevor March 26, 2010 at 10:57 am

    I keep thinking of things to say well after writing and posting both review and comments.

    I think one reason I enjoyed the original ending so much is because it fragmented the book. And as much as death and decay are a central theme in The Waste Land, fragmentation is the main impetus or result, depending on the perspective. I did think the alternate ending perfectly fitting but not quite as faithful to the allusions to The Waste Land. I loved them both.

  6. KevinfromCanada March 26, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Well, you can’t go wrong. Scoop would by my choice, but then my journalistic background influences that. Black Mischief is not one of my favorites. Penfold is the dreariest, but that might make it the best novel of the three (make sure you find the UK version that didn’t cut out the racist parts — they are important to the book).

    You make a very good point about the two different endings in Dust taking it in different directions. Using the short story does take the novel into Eliot territory; the American ending raises the possibility that Tony may be ready to behave in just the way that Brenda did.

    Mrs. KfC and I love the movie version, which is certainly faithful to the book. The front half in particular is very well done.

    Also, you still have The Sword of Honour Trilogy, which is a somewhat clumsy (but still very good) look at Allied mistakes in WWII. The video of this one (let’s face it, Waugh wrote novels that made great screenplays) is particularly good. If you ever get the time to read Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, this threesome is a very interesting counterpoint.

  7. Stefanie Peters March 26, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    I was like you–I read Scoop in 2007 and immediately started telling friends that Waugh was my new favorite author. I read Brideshead Revisited, Black Mischief and Vile Bodies rather quickly after, but then didn’t get around to continuing through Waugh’s books until last summer, when I read The Loved One and A Handful of Dust. Apparently, however, my copy of the latter–an old Penguin classic I found at Brick Lane Market–didn’t have the alternative ending. I didn’t even know about it! Thanks for your review, always glad to find a fellow Waugh fan. Must now go and find an updated edition!

  8. Max Cairnduff March 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Nice review as ever Trevor, he’s good value Waugh isn’t he?

    Scoop next of those you mention I’d say, it’s not my favourite but it is many people’s and it’s pretty good.

    On the endings, I prefer the alternate ending. I thought the original ending pat and tacked on (cue angry Waugh fans looking to beat me now), whereas the more conventional ending I thought more powerful – perhaps precisely because of its conventionality. It makes the whole story darker somehow. The original ending is so bleak, and really so contrived, it just for me didn’t work well with what went before.

    As you rightly say, one should make sure one has both. It’s interesting to compare.

    I’ve only read so far the first of the Sword of Honour trilogy, that’s what I should go back to. I used to love Waugh, and then got out of the habit of reading him. You remind me I should regain it.

  9. Trevor March 26, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Yes, Stefanie, you must find an edition with both! My Penguin Classics edition in the picture has both, but that is not available in the U.S. (Book Depository time?). The always-nice-to-have Everyman’s Library edition, which is available in the U.S. does as well. Sadly, the rather intriguing Back Bay Books edition doesn’t appear to have the alternate ending.

    Max, I get where everyone comes from in liking the alternate ending more. The original one is contrived; Waugh wrote the short story and then tacked on the beginning as a way to get the tragic man into the jungle. And it certainly feels like an entirely new book. I’m not sure which one I’ll think back on most as the years pass — hopefully I’ll keep both fresh in my mind!

  10. Phillip Routh January 6, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Trevor, you asked what Waugh books to read.
    I don’t see his first novel mentioned — Decline and Fall. It’s his most light-hearted work, very funny, but it has that nice odd twist he put to things. It made a name for him in England, much as Lucky Jim did for Kingsley Amis.
    As for an alternate ending to Dust — I didn’t know one existed! I wouldn’t read it, simply on principle (I don’t approve of tampering with what an author intended).

  11. Trevor January 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks Phillip (no Philip Roth jokes here). I don’t even have Decline and Fall yet, though I have seen it around. This reminds me that I need to get back Waugh!

    I can understand your point about the alternate ending, but perhaps it will help to consider this Waugh’s intention when he didn’t get to write what he intended :) .

  12. Max Cairnduff January 7, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Authorial intent is tricky here given Waugh wrote both endings. I admit though the standard one seems to be the one he preferred, but the other is still his.

    Decline and Fall is very funny. I hadn’t known it made him his name but I can see why it might.

  13. Robert March 14, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    I’ve read all of Waugh’s works and I think I’ve found Helena to be the most satisfying.

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