Sunday, 30 May 2010

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

I had been meaning to read some Waugh for some time and, as this was published in 1934, I thought that it would kill two birds and contribute to Nymeth at Things Mean A Lot's mini 1930s challenge which I signed up for a wee while ago.

This book was surprisingly easy to read and for some reason this surprised me. I think that Waugh has been looming over me for a while.

Although highly readable, this novel is quite disjointed. The first chapter reminded me of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love In a Cold Climate. The social setting and tone are initially very similar; waspy and witty with a wry authorial eye. Mrs Beaver (mumsy) and her son gossip about the socialites of their acquaintance and idly wait around between luncheon invitations.

" I should say it was time she began to be bored. They've been married five or six years."

"Mumsy you are wonderful. I believe you know about everyone."

"It's a great help. All a matter of paying attention when people are talking."

The characters of Brenda and Tony Last are introduced and Tony Last is described by one man as "one of the happiest men I know."

Chapter two changes the tone with the sentence "all over England people were waking up feeling queasy and despondent."

The tone becomes a lot less arch and more realistic. Brenda and Tony's relationship is described naturalistically and seems to be fond, playful and close.

By the end of the chapter, however, Brenda is preparing to embark on an affair with John Beaver almost out of boredom and with the amused and detached help of her sister.

" Oh he's pathetic all right, d'you fancy him?"

Evelyn Waugh's first wife had left him for another man, an event which apparently changed him forever, so it is not difficult to see the impetus behind this novel about a heartless woman casually tossing a devoted husband aside.

He is so very fair to Brenda though, she is shown to be a cold and careless woman but there is no vindictive twist of the knife and this is definitely not a misogynistic book. None of the women end up looking particularly good but then, neither do the men. Even Tony, who is kind and decent, is not held up as a misunderstood and badly-treated cuckold, but a bit foolish, dull and naive.

A Handful of Dust is a weary sigh of a book which shrugs its shoulders at a shallow and broken world. This weary tone is leavened by Tatler-esque gossip and farcical trips to the sea-side but there is no real redemption for any of the characters. These people may be silly and fey but Waugh does not shy away from following the consequences of their actions realistically.

This despair at modern life reminds me of another famous novel from the 30s, Brave New World. There is no mention of WW1, apart from a few sentences about a character being too young to have fought, but there is a feeling of the shock and numbness that often follows catastrophe. People are determined to enjoy themselves and yet have forgotten how.


  1. This is one Waugh book I just can't read - it breaks my heart every time I try. It captures everything that's rotten about society at the time and made it all seem so hopeless to me. I love Waugh though and really recommend more of him if your in the mood for it!

  2. Yes, I think that this was maybe a tough one to start with! Hopeless is the word.

    The writing is great though so I'm thinking of trying Scoop or Brideshead Revisited next.

  3. I actually love this book. It's my favourite Waugh though I also love Brideshead Revisited. It's a sad book but so brilliantly written.

  4. Hi Mrs B,

    I definitely enjoyed the book and it has made me eager to try more Waugh. I re-read the first chapter which made me laugh the first time I read it and the sadness is actually there from the very beginning isn't it?

  5. Isn't it nice when an author you felt as "looming" slips into the "accessible" pile?! Suddenly you wonder who else has been scaring you, whose works might actually be just as readable.

  6. Exactly! This has happened to me countless times and yet I am still a book wuss.

  7. I've only read Scoop. Starts well, with some great characters, but I sort of felt that it doesn't really go anywhere.

    But then I recently took 5 weeks to read Twilight so I think I shouldn't be allowed to comment on books for a while...

  8. At least you have read it Bob, I feel like I am the only one left...

  9. "A Handful of Dust is a weary sigh of a book which shrugs its shoulders at a shallow and broken world."

    How can I resist it after this description? Call me a masochist but I'm drawn to bleak books like a moth to a candle. To the wishlist it goes.

  10. I know what you mean, sadness sometimes feels great! The book is not unremitting though thankfully, there are laughs to be had as well.

    Thanks for putting on the 30s mini challenge Nymeth, I've enjoyed this book, have found out about others and enjoyed reading the reviews.