Monday, July 24, 2017

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (85 down, 15 to go)

I will show you fear in a handful of dustThe Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot (the source for the title of this novel)

This is the first time I’ve read A Handful of Dust and the second novel I’ve read by Evelyn Waugh. The book is a modernist, and/or humanist novel according to Waugh, and the third-person narrative of Tony Last, an English gentleman, set in 1930s England and Brazil.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category #10 – A classic set in a place I’d like to visit (Brazil).

Tony Last is an English gentleman, lord of the ancestral home, Hetton Abbey, a large country estate where he lives with his wife Lady Brenda and eight-year-old son John Andrew. Tony and Brenda seem happy together and a perfect match; John Andrew is being raised a proper British gentleman, and not terribly spoiled by his privileged life. Tony seems to love being guardian of the family legacy, though he is struggling to restore the decaying manor to what he envisions as its proper state. Tony and Brenda were considered by their friends as a pair who were – preeminently successful in solving the problem of getting along well together. It all seems a perfect picture of early 20th Century British nobility.

You probably caught the ominous use of the word “seems” – everything “seems” idyllic, but then – it all unravels rather quickly.

SPOILER ALERT – the following contains a spoiler.

Two events turn Tony’s world upside down. His son, John Andrew is killed in a hunting accident – no one to blame. Shortly after the funeral, as in later the same day, Brenda tells Tony she’s been having an affair and wants a divorce. The reader has known about the affair for a while, along with most of Tony and Brenda’s friends. The affair was so inexplicable, I at first thought it a severe weakness in the plot.

Brenda seemed genuinely to love Tony, and even to like him. The two were cute together. They were affectionate and playful. She didn’t seem bored or restless. The man she has the affair with, Mr. Beaver, is not handsome, accomplished, wealthy, or charming. In fact, he lives with his mother – every woman’s dream, right? Nor does fate does throw them together in some intimate way. Brenda just decides to have an affair, and Beaver is the closest man.

She is completely cavalier; all her friends and even casual acquaintances know, as do Tony’s friends, Brenda’s sister, and Mr. Beaver’s mother. No one is shocked, and no one tells Tony.

It just didn’t make sense to me. Until I learned that Evelyn Waugh received a similar shock from his first wife. He was the wronged and innocent party. It probably didn’t make sense to him, so I’ll give him some credit for what initially seemed a weakness in the plot. I believe, witting or not, he was expressing through Tony what he must have felt. It worked, because I was certainly hurt for Tony and rather disgusted with Brenda.

Tony is of course, staggered by these two blows coming in such short succession. He has lost his wife and his son. He might have struggled on with one blow or the other, but his whole existence:  lord protector of the Last family manor and legacy is in jeopardy. He has no heir and no mate to give him one.

In order to cope, Tony travels abroad and plans to be gone many months. He joins a jungle excursion in search of a lost city in the Amazon, grand adventure – all that, with a new acquaintance. The reader is dubious of Tony’s qualifications for such an adventure, and Tony’s companion does not inspire confidence either. Nonetheless, in intrepid British fashion they soldier on to the jungles of modern day Brazil.

It doesn’t go well.

But I’ll leave it at that. It is a terribly depressing story. I can get past that. I shouldn’t like every tale to be “happily ever after”. I didn’t like it much when I first finished, though, I have to admit I was engrossed. I read it in two sittings. I’ve been ruminating on it since and it has grown on me.

Waugh described Tony Last as "a Gothic man in the hands of savages…" The savages were not just those in Brazil, they were also the civilized savages back in England. It’s not clear which the worst were. As I say, it grew on me, but I didn’t like it as much as my previous experience with Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited.

Sometime after the initial publication, there was an alternate ending published – a happily ever after ending. I didn’t like it. I generally don’t like alternate endings in principle, but this one was completely incongruous.

A Handful of Dust is VERY reminiscent of American Pastoral by Philip Roth - a contented successful man, has it all - and then...

I liked the epigraph Waugh used from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland

…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

References to Classic Literature:

All of the rooms at Hetton Abbey are named for characters from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  One of them then is of course, Tristram – reminding me of the last classic novel I read: Tristram Shandy.

The library at Hetton Abbey had, among other works, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

There is a character who possesses the complete works of Charles Dickens – but he cannot read and must employ someone to read to him

Trivia:  Evelyn Waugh’s first wife – her name was Evelyn.



  1. I read this in college in the late 70's and remember really liking it, but I remember nothing else about it. I'm not sure I would actually like it this time around--depressing books don't do much for me these days. I do like the bit of trivia at the end of your post :)


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