Evelyn Waugh’s novel, A Handful of Dust, makes having an active social life in England’s upper class during the 1930’s seem like really hard work. The characters made such an effort to be invited to dine, or to parties with other toffs, that I don’t think I could have been bothered. I would much rather stay at home and read Evelyn Waugh’s version of what happened at an event.
A Handful of Dust has two distinct parts, which were so different from each other that for me, they didn’t gel. (I can’t believe I am actually criticising the great Evelyn Waugh, who wrote Brideshead Revisited, Vile Bodies and many other wonderful books and stories, all of which showcase the author’s clever, cruel and funny style, but there it is, when you have your own blog you get to express your own opinion).
The first part of A Handful of Dust is set in England during the 1930’s, at a time when even the upper classes had no money. The main characters are Lady Brenda Last and her husband Tony, who have been married seven years.* Brenda is bored with country life at Tony’s family estate, although Tony is happy. Tony particularly loves their Gothic monstrosity of a home, Hetton Abbey, which costs them more than they can afford to run. Tony and Brenda have a young son, who clearly wants to be just like his father when he grows up.
Things change when Brenda falls in love with a spare man about town, John Beaver. It is impossible to understand why Brenda fell in love with John, except to say he was the only man available to Brenda at the time. John, who is selfish and dull, doesn’t seem all that interested in Brenda, although I suspect he would have been, had she any money of her own.
After making a fool of Tony for two-thirds of the book, by gallivanting through London society with John, Brenda and Tony’s son dies in a horse riding accident. Later that same week, Brenda asks Tony for a divorce in order to be with John.
Tony very gallantly goes away for the weekend with a woman of not-much-virtue in order to provide Brenda with evidence of infidelity in order that they can divorce, but when her financial demands mean that he would have to sell Hetton Abbey, he comes to his senses and tells her that he is going away for six months, and that on his return, if she still wants a divorce, she can have one, although she will not get any money from him at all.
Tony then goes off exploring in the jungles of South America. Yes, South America, to the Amazon to be precise, where he meets a man who wants him to read the novels of Charles Dickens aloud to him for the rest of his life. I didn’t see that coming, and the ending was just weird. However, who am I to question Evelyn Waugh, even if I can’t figure out why he didn’t let this story finish in England where it belonged?
I very often wanted to slap Brenda, who behaved like a fourteen-year old girl throughout this novel. She was a selfish, greedy woman who destroyed Tony’s life, for the sake of entertainment. I don’t believe she genuinely felt anything for John Beaver and only wanted a bit of excitement.** I wish Evelyn Waugh had written a third part of the novel, where Brenda went to Papua New Guinea looking for cannibals. It would have been just desserts if the story had finished with Brenda sitting in a pot of hot water, waiting to be eaten.
The characters spoke in a distinctive slang, which must have been fashionable during the 1930’s. The slang was clever and witty and didn’t feel dated, although it did set the story in a particular time. Brenda’s and her social set’s use of their slang was a sign of their exclusiveness, full of in-jokes and it served very well to make me feel on the outer, looking in at fashionable people’s lives.
As much as I enjoy Evelyn Waugh’s writing, I think in real life people probably loved his company, and sat with him and laughed themselves silly while he said maliciously funny things about other people, then suffered the same fate when their backs were turned.
A Handful of Dust is said to be autobiographical of Evelyn Waugh’s own divorce. I wish the book hadn’t gone off into the jungles of South America, but had stayed in the English social jungles instead. Otherwise, I recommend this book and author to all readers who like to be amused at the expense of others.
*I wonder if the seven-year itch started with this novel?
**Tony should have found a handsome game-keeper for Brenda to romance and kept her at home, happy. He already had a heir…