Review: A Handful of Dust

a_handful_of_dust_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 3

As a straightforward story, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is bizarre and implausible. As satire, it’s biting, hilarious, and sad. I never know what to term ‘character development’ in such books because they’re less about creating real people than lampooning a certain class.

Set in 1930s Victorian England, the action centers around the stale marriage of Tony and Brenda Last. Brenda is tired of their large estate, Hetton Abbey, which occupies her husband’s time and energy. She rents a flat in London and has an affair with John Beaver, a poor and petty young man, who uses her to secure his social footing. Most characters are too rigid and single-minded to feel fully realized, but this is balanced by the gossipy tone of the novel which allows each character to comment on the rest. Even if a character is a simple, vapid person, their portrayal feels nuanced and well-rounded. Further, this tone works to mock the upper set. We are first introduced to Brenda through Beaver’s chat with his mother (his mother speaks first):

“Where are you going for the week-end?”
“Hetton.”
“Who’s that? I forget?”
“Tony Last.”
“Yes, of course. She’s lovely, he’s rather a stick. I didn’t know you knew them.”
“Well I don’t really. Tony asked me in Brat’s the other night. He may have forgotten.”
“Send a telegram and remind them. It is far better than ringing up. It gives them less chance to make excuses. Send it tomorrow just before you start. They owe me for a table.”
“What’s their dossier?”
“I used to see her quite a lot before she married. She was Brenda Rex, Lord St. Cloud’s daughter, very fair, under-water look. People used to be mad about her when she was a girl. Everyone thought she would marry Jock Grant-Menzies at one time. Wasted on Tony Last, he’s a prig. I should say it was time she began to be bored. They’ve been married five or six years. Quite well off but everything goes in keeping up the house. I’ve never seen it but I’ve an idea it’s huge and quite hideous. They’ve got one child at least, perhaps more.” (6-7)

I love this scene. It captures so much: that Beaver’s mother is a busybody; that Beaver is forgettable; that Tony only cares about his house; that Brenda is bored… The best part is that it’s in perfect contrast with Jock’s description to Beaver which neatly sets up Tony’s oblivious nature:

“You’ll like her, she’s a grand girl. I often think Tony Last’s one of the happiest men I know. He’s got just enough money, loves the place, one son he’s crazy about, devoted wife, not a worry in the world.” (11)

Everyone in this novel has one public face and one private one and the interplay between them is rich and sad beneath the dry humor. When Brenda and Beaver gravitate toward one another, it doesn’t feel romantic. They use each other for their own needs—Brenda’s need for adventure, Beaver’s need for social legitimacy.

But with the exception of her sister’s, opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people has parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. […] Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy; Beaver, the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her in the luminous clouds of deity. (74-75)

No one rushes to tell Tony! Which is great (for the book, anyway). There’s little angst built around the affair and it feels unhinged from reality. What begins as frivolous and silly takes a turn toward the serious and cruel. I can’t say much without ruining it, but I did not anticipate the story shifting to a wild adventure in the Amazon rainforest. And if you don’t like the ending, you’re in luck! This book has two endings: the original, and a second written in response to criticism of the original. Depending on which edition you read, you’ll find one or both. Careful Googling (after reading) will help you find the other if your edition came with only one.

Overall: 4.3 (out of 5) Yeah yeah… am biased as a huge fan of Evelyn Waugh. I love dark humor and books that start out funny only to end with a sucker punch. I recently learned that this book is composed of two stories stitched together; though I do like the odd mash-up, the shift in tone is still jarring.

Translation: This is a great introduction to Waugh, but I know many people suggest Brideshead Revisited as the place to start…

Previously On in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge:
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier