A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh (First published, 1934)

dustIn his chosen career as a novelist Evelyn Waugh has to write about human beings but you get the strong feeling from this cynical and morally vacuous novel that he didn’t like people much. He became a committed Catholic soon afterwards and presumably he took comfort from an organized religion that takes it for granted that we are all born sinners.

Its title comes from a line in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – an allusion to death given that someday all of us return to dust.

Like a vindictive deity or grim reaper, Waugh moves his sad characters around like someone idly engaged in a game of chess with himself. None of them are presented in a flattering light and their actions are mainly driven by apathy, ennui or spitefulness. They are well off, comfortably placed and bored out of their skins.


Evelyn Waugh 

At its heart the novel is a relatively conventional study of the marital break up albeit with a surprising twist in the tale. Nice but dim Tony Last appears to love his crumbling Gothic mansion Hetton Abbey more than his wife, Lady Brenda. He has no interest in socializing and, after seven years of his tedium, Brenda not unreasonably craves a little more excitement or at least a change of scene.

She begins an extra marital fling with John Beaver who is no great catch and whose main attraction is that he is not Tony. If this were written now they’d be more raunchy sex scenes but since this was written in the 1930s we have to settle for innuendo and suggestion.

Brenda’s slow-witted husband is the last one to know about this infidelity which only comes to light when their only son is involved in a tragic accident. This incident is the catalyst for a farcical and surreal chain of events that ultimately leaves Tony stranded in a Brazilian jungle and Brenda an outcast from the superficial London society she mixes in.

At one point, and somewhat incongruously, Waugh writes : “All over England people were waking up, queasy and despondent” but he has no real interest in how his contrived plot fit into a wider society. Indeed, he seems only marginally interested in the upper class twits who idle away their time hunting in the country or attending a never-ending sequence of social engagements. Aside from the desire to keep up appearances it is hard to see what else motivates them.

This novel is dated but stands the test of time because the author’s cynical detachment has plenty of parallels with the modern age. And unfortunately, the loathsome privileged classes he portrays still retain power and control over those of us who have to work for a living.

Come the revolution ……