A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I love Brideshead Revisited. It’s one of the few novels I knew of as a child (despite current appearances, I wasn’t a reading child) that has stayed with me to adulthood. My mother, whose love of British television I inherited (as well as her love of Lou Reed, which is another story), tried to sit me down and show me the BBC miniseries as a child. But Evelyn Waugh comes down hard on his best-known novel; upon review, he found it rather rich and gluttonous. As much as that disappoints me, I was curious about Waugh’s other novels, the ones that Brideshead Revisited deviates from. A Handful of Dust, as a recommendation, actually comes from The Lost City of Z, and it was the only Waugh in at the library that I could pin down.
A Handful of Dust concerns the lives of Tony and Brenda Last, landed gentry whose great Gothic home, Hetton, is Tony’s obsession. Brenda, who doesn’t particularly care for the place, embarks on an affair when Tony accidentally invites the louche John Beaver to Hetton for the weekend. She begins to build a life for herself in London, taking economics courses and renting a flat from Beaver’s mother. Everyone thinks it’s a fling, until tragedy strikes the Lasts, and what started out as a diversion begins to threaten not only the marriage of the Lasts, but their way of life.
I wish I could find it again, but once upon a time, io9 had a post about spoilers; namely, how it is actually impossible to be perfectly unspoiled these days. The medium the post targeted was film; there’s always trailers, posters, and other promotional material. It’s less true for books, but with the advent of young adult book franchises, the gap is starting to close. I bring this up because I think A Handful of Dust is one of the only books I’ve ever picked up sight unseen. I mean, beyond knowing it was Waugh, I had no idea of the characters or the story. On the one hand, I felt a bit lost at first, because I didn’t have any guideposts in advance—I’m the kind of person who compulsively maps any journey, be it only five minutes away. But on the other hand, it was surprisingly enjoyable to be utterly shocked at certain turns of events and have absolutely no idea what was around the corner for the Lasts. Of course, if you’re reading this review, you won’t have the same experience as I did. But the novel stands regardless of if you’ve been “spoiled” via synopsis or not.
A Handful of Dust, at least on the back cover of the softcover edition I rented, is referred to as “funny”, but the word here is satire. There’s something very dark and cutting about Waugh’s writing here, the sort of thing that crops up towards the end of Brideshead Revisited when you realize just what kind of a person Charles Ryder truly is. (Even if he is voiced by Jeremy Irons. Best audiobook ever.) There’s something tragic about it; the Lasts’ vicar, who wrote the bulk of his sermons in India, repeats them, despite the fact they’re most irrelevant to his flock, Brenda’s sister occasionally cuttingly remarks on the hypocrisy of their crowd, and the last pages of the novel prove that this cycle of violence and oppression (both the personal and the institutional), as exemplified in fox hunting, is doomed to repeat itself. Hetton becomes a symbol of aristocratic England, with its references to sanitized Arthurian legend (each room in the house is named after a character; Galahad has the most punishing bed and is where the Lasts send guests they don’t like), especially in the latter third of the novel.
Which is where things start to get problematic. In the last third of the novel, Tony leaves England on a mission to Brazil, to look for mythical city of a native people. There’s a smattering of offensive language, and Waugh himself discussed this section as Tony falling into the hands of proper “savages”, after suffering at the hand of English ones. However, you can split the difference between Waugh writing in the 1930s and the fact that it’s not the natives that terrorize Tony and the leader of the expedition; it’s their own stupidity and a madman who believes himself superior to the local tribe. Still, there are moments and things that may have been jokes once upon a very different time that fall flat to the modern reader. You have to be thoughtful about these sort of things.
Bottom line: A Handful of Dust is a dark, cutting, and mildly tragic satire on the British landed gentry of the 1930s, dealing with cycles of violence and oppression, although its problematic last third will keep modern readers from connecting with it. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.