Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’

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Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’


A Handful of Dust (1934), Evelyn Waugh’s best novel, is volume 4 in the Oxford edition of his Complete Works in 43 volumes.  This £95 book is nicely designed and printed but does not lie flat when opened.  Excellently edited by H.R. Woudhuysen, it has a detailed 12-page chronology of Waugh’s life, a perceptive 61-page Introduction, a helpful 43 pages of explanatory notes and a deadly 68 pages of textual variants that only a few fanatics will read.  That makes 184 editorial pages to 188 pages by Waugh.

The Introduction, Woudhuysen writes, is “an account of the book’s creation and evolution” in the biographical and literary context; “the personal, social, historical and political circumstances, in which HD was produced, its critical reception, and its relationship to Waugh’s other writing and his reading.”  He adds that Waugh “drew on his own experiences as a deserted husband and a traveller in South America, bringing to the novel his knowledge of architectural history, smart social life, divorce, Roman Catholicism, and of Victorian and more modern literature.”   Like Philoctetes’ deep wound and powerful bow in Sophocles’ eponymous play, Waugh’s book drew its emotional intensity from the vulnerability of its creator.  The devastating betrayal and rejection by his first wife, “She-Evelyn” Gardner, only a year after their marriage, revealed his misplaced love and grievous misjudgment of her character, and left him with a “stiff upper lip and dropped cock.”

Despite the exhaustive notes, more could be said about the Brazilian locale, the cunningly derived names of the characters, the rich allusions and some misinterpretations.  The Portuguese Rio Branco means White River (not Branco River).  The slightly comic name of Blenkinsop, one of the detectives observing the hero Tony Last on his fake adulterous weekend in Brighton, is a village in Northumberland.  Mrs Rattery is named for a village in Devon.  The social-climbing Polly Cockpurse suggests cocksure, cutpurse and purse cocked to open lavishly for her elite guests.  Jenny Abdul Akbar, “the servant of the greatest”, is an American married to a high-born Moroccan.  She smells of musk, bears scars of her unexplained “frightful nightmare” and is the kind of decadent exotic North African who later turns up in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.

Unlike his animal namesake, John Beaver is not industrious and hardworking. The son of a pushy money-grubbing shopkeeper, without birth or wealth, he beavers his way into fashionable society.  Waugh described his novel as “rather like [John] Webster in modern idiom,” and Tony’s shambolic guide in Brazil, Dr Messinger, suggests Webster’s close contemporary, the 17th-century Renaissance dramatist Philip Massinger.  Mr Todd, who confines Tony in the Brazilian jungle, suggests a life as unreal as Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows and the reality of impending death (Tod in German).

Several of Waugh’s allusions, not noted by the editor, enhance the meaning of the novel.  Guinevere, the name of Brenda Last’s bedroom in their home Hetton Abbey, is the unfaithful wife of King Arthur, who fell in love with his once-loyal knight Lancelot.  Tony and Brenda’s honeymoon “on the Italian Riviera” is based on the honeymoon of Waugh and his second wife, Laura Herbert, in the Portofino villa of her late father, Aubrey Herbert.  The title and epigraph of the novel come from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”  But the key word originates in “The Burial of the Dead” in The Book of Common Prayer (1549): “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  This recalls Genesis 3:19: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”, which accounts for the custom at funerals of throwing a handful of earth on the grave of the deceased.  In his story “Youth,” (1898), Joseph Conrad recalls: “I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back . . . the heat of life in a handful of dust.”

More significant in The Waste Land is “The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.”  Waugh posed for a well-known 1926 photo on his motorbike, and Eliot’s “horns and motors” unite the hunting horns that attract Tony’s son, John Andrew, and the motor’s backfire that startles the horses and causes his fatal accident.  Waugh’s “horns that sounded in the heart of the wood” echoes the mournful mood and location of Alfred de Vigny’s “Le Cor” (1826): “Le son du cor est triste au fond du bois” (“The sound of the horn is sad in the depth of the wood”).

Waugh observed that “Man without religion will seek after strange and false gods (fortune-telling, psychoanalysis, economics, lost cities)”, as well as bone-setters and chromium plating.  His statement alludes to Deuteronomy 31:16: “this people will rise up, and go whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land.”  Eliot used After Strange Gods (also 1934) as the title of the bigoted book he later suppressed.  After the Brazilian Indians steal all Dr Messinger’s goods and disappear, he exclaims, “The situation is grave.  But not desperate,” which echoes the notorious speech of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs in July 1914, one month before the outbreak of World War One.

Woudhuysen is usually spot on.  He quotes Waugh’s statement, “Tony’s appreciation of Mr. Todd’s hut is an example of ‘Architecture harmonising with local character . . . indigenous material employed throughout,’ ” and calls it “the language of contemporary town-planning and civic design.”  But since Todd’s shack is a shambles and Tony is delirious with fever, the passage is surely comic and ironic.  The editor also states that “Brenda’s choice of studying the ‘modern’ subject of economics . . . is not fortuitous.”  But she never actually studies this subject and merely uses it as an euphemistic excuse to have sex with Beaver in London.  She never mentions economics to her friends and Jock Grant-Menzies teases her about the absurd study of “abstruse sciences.”  It’s quite impossible to imagine Brenda swotting up Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and J.M. Keynes’ General TheoryTatler and Queen are more her line of country.



Waugh wrote that “for the first time I am trying to deal with normal people instead of eccentrics.”  His novel is about a sponger and “some imaginary people who are happy to be married but not for long”. Alluding to Kenneth Clark’s The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste (1928), he called Tony Last “a Gothic man in the hands of savages”, both in England and Brazil.  Hetton, his beloved ancestral home and once a medieval Catholic Abbey, had been rebuilt in the Victorian Gothic style in 1864.  It has 15 servants indoors and a lot more outside.  Brenda, who had grown up in a stately mansion built by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 18th century, hates the horrible and dark Hetton.

John Beaver, aged 25, who sits near his phone waiting to be invited for free food and drink, is the unemployed sponger.  He even leeches on Brenda for taxi fare and doesn’t pay the bar bill at his club.  When the barman mentions it, Beaver ignores the request and insouciantly says, “remind me sometime, will you?”  Jock boasts about a rare event: “I made Beaver pay for a drink . . . He nearly died of it.”

Lady Brenda Last, aged 26 and the daughter of a peer, is the wife of Tony, a prig and “rather a stick”, who does not have a title and adores her.  They’ve been married for seven years and sleep in separate bedrooms.  Jock tells Beaver, with a hint of foreboding, that Tony is “one of the happiest men I know.  He’s got just enough money [to maintain Hetton], loves the place, one son he’s crazy about, devoted wife, not a worry in the world.”  As the novel progresses, Tony loses everything.

Most people despise Beaver and consider him a tasteless joke.  Brenda thinks he’s rather pathetic when he unexpectedly turns up at Hetton after Tony’s offhand invitation.  Later on, she condescendingly calls him “second rate and a snob and, I should think, as cold as a fish, but I happen to have a fancy for him, that’s all . . . besides I’m not sure he’s altogether awful.”  Brenda is remote from and rather indifferent to her nanny-brought-up son.  Bored with Tony and Hetton, she becomes duplicitous and unfaithful.

Their names, Brenda and Beaver, sound similar when his final consonant is not pronounced, and in slang his name means a woman’s pubic hair.  She is shallow, he is worthless; they have little love and no future.  But she’s a glamorous aristocrat and pays for him, and he has nothing better on offer.  Brenda’s friends have no interest in art, literature, theatre or ballet—only in clothes, parties, gossip and affairs.  Waugh does not explain Brenda’s weird attraction to a nonentity and rotter, like his treacherous friend John Heygate, whom She-Evelyn found more attractive than Waugh.  (Heygate married She-Evelyn in 1929, divorced her in 1936, divorced his second wife in 1947 and committed suicide in 1972.)

Brenda flatters, wheedles and kisses Tony to get what she wants: a modern flat in London, sold to her and done up by Beaver’s odious mother, and freedom to dally there with Beaver.  The expense of buying the flat makes it impossible for Tony to make the necessary improvements at Hetton.  The flat is too small for him to sleep there, though it has plenty of room for Beaver.  Brenda tells transparent lies but sweet Tony is not suspicious.  She always sends bad no-show news whenever she rings, writes or telegraphs him.  Brenda is completely selfish; Tony worries about the feelings of other people, especially about Brenda and the horsewoman Miss Ripon after the riding accident.  Pleading fatigue, Brenda refuses to sleep with Tony on three different occasions.  She’s guilty about having sex with Beaver, an unsuitable consort, and can’t handle both bedmates at the same time.  Tony can’t sleep in the Guinevere room when Brenda is present, so he sleeps there when she’s absent.

Waugh’s friend, the novelist Henry Green, mistakenly called John Andrew “that horrible little boy”.  But the little gentleman—a strong contrast to the truly horrible daughter Milly brings to Brighton—is friendly, curious, cheeky and bold on his pony, and must remain sympathetic before his tragic death.  Waugh notes, with bitter irony, that John Andrew’s horse is named Thunderclap “in spite of her imperturbable disposition” and that she’s “quite safe.”  His nanny says he’ll have to leave the hunt early and “won’t see any death”.

The rather grim mood of the novel is lightened by two comic scenes.  The vicar in Tony’s village has spent most of his career in India, but does not revise his sermons for his English congregation.  He always “concluded with some reference to homes and dear ones far away” and, during the reign of George V, thanked “our Gracious Queen Empress in whose service we are here”.  When Tony and Jock turn up drunk and late at the swindling Old Hundredth nightclub, they have to buy a whole bottle of brandy, are duped instead with a bottle labeled “Very Old Liqueur Fine Champagne” and are actually served bubbly ginger ale.  They refuse an offer of “nice haddock” and wonder at the “frightful piece of fish” that the waiter claims they ordered.

John Andrew’s riding accident takes place in a narrow country lane when two horses are blocked by an omnibus and a motorbike backfires with a sharp detonation.  Miss Ripon’s skittish horse shies sideways and knocks John Andrew off his horse.  It kicks him in the head “and into the ditch, where he lay bent double, perfectly still”—both immobile and silent.  When Tony loses his only son and heir, he ironically declares, “the last thing one wants to talk about at a time like this is religion”.  To distract themselves the heartbroken Tony and Mrs Rattery (Jock’s friend who flew in her own plane) play Animal Snaps, a childish game more suitable for John Andrew.  Though he’s lying dead upstairs, they laugh hilariously and inappropriately to relieve their pent up emotions,  and earn the disapproval of the butler.

In the greatest scene in the novel, which reveals Brenda’s true character, Jock drives from Hetton to London to tell her in person about the accident.  He says John is dead and “she frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying.  ‘John . . . John Andrew. . . I . . . Oh thank God . . . ’ Then she burst into tears.”  Her reaction shows that she loves Beaver, and loves him more than her son.  John Andrew’s death is punishment for her affair and marks the end of her marriage to Tony.  He suggests they travel abroad.  She sends a letter, modeled on the sentiments of She-Evelyn, falsely assuming that Tony knows their marriage is over: “You must have realised for some time that things were going wrong.  I am in love with John Beaver and I want to have a divorce and marry him.”  Some friends correctly predict she won’t last long with Beaver; others mistakenly think she might even return to Tony.

Brenda’s letter leads to Tony’s weekend in Brighton, interview with Brenda’s older brother Reggie St. Cloud and ill-fated expedition to Brazil.  In gentlemanly fashion Tony agrees to be the defendant in the divorce case and must provide judicial evidence of his adultery.  He hires Milly, who works at the Old Hundredth, to accompany him to Brighton.  She must be seen in bed with him by the hotel servants, who are familiar with this ruse and willing for a price to testify in court.  Against Tony’s wishes, Milly insists on bringing her eight-year-old daughter Winnie, who is truly, and comically, horrible: unattractive, spoiled, selfish, whining, demanding and complaining.  Tony is forced to take care of and amuse her while Milly has a long lie-in.

Tony has generously agreed to give Benda £500 a year.  But Reggie, deputed to inform him that this sum is inadequate, demands that he quadruple it to £2000.  There’s no question of Beaver working to support Brenda.  Reggie says “Beaver is cutting up nasty.  He says he can’t marry Brenda unless she’s properly provided for.”  Tony, realising that he must now make a financial sacrifice even greater than the purchase of the London flat, declares: “So what your proposal really amounts to, is that I should give up Hetton in order to buy Beaver for Brenda.”  He refuses, and Reggie threatens: “Brenda will ask for alimony of two thousand a year from the Court and on our evidence she shall get it.”

Tony has always been passive and tolerant of Brenda’s financial demands and refusals of sex, of Beaver’s unwanted appearance and love affair with his wife, of Milly’s exploitation and Winnie’s repulsive behavior and, later on, of Messinger’s hopeless quest for a lost city and the permanent captivity by Todd.  But he now stands his ground for the first time and tells Reggie: “Brenda is not going to get her divorce.  The evidence I provided at Brighton isn’t worth anything.  There happens to have been a child there all the time.  She slept both nights in the room I am supposed to have occupied.  If you care to bring the case I shall defend it and win, but I think when you see my evidence you will drop it.”  Brenda, playing the injured party, calls Tony’s behavior vindictive and monstrous.

Wanting to get away from all the people who knew him with Brenda or Beaver or Reggie, Tony flees from England after the breakup of his marriage and death of his son.  Waugh expertly alternates the contrasting scenes between Tony in Brazil and Brenda in England.  He winds up in the unexplored jungle (based on Waugh’s 1933 trip to British Guiana); he has to eat armadillo, iguana and fat white grubs; and he meets the fantastically named but real tribes, the Macushi and Pie-wie.  They are terrified by and run away from the squeaky mechanical mice, never before seen in the jungle, that Messinger thought would charm and attract them.  Messinger drowns when his canoe hits troubled waters, crashes into boulders and surges over a turbulent waterfall.

Tony wakes from a feverish dream to find himself the captive of the illiterate Mr Todd.  His father was a Barbadian missionary, his mother a Pie-wie Indian.  Until his recent death, a Black man had read Dickens’ novels to him for two hours every afternoon.  Todd tells Tony “You are under no restraint.  Go when you like. ” But Todd exerts paternal power over all the village Indians who “would do nothing without my authority.  They regard themselves, quite rightly in many cases, as my children.”

Tony realises that he can’t escape without Todd’s help, that he’s not a guest but a prisoner.  He’s innocent, but like the sinners in Dante’s Inferno, he’s doomed to repeat the same Todd-Tony punishment forever.  Todd gives him a powerful soporific drink that puts him to sleep for two days.  He then cruelly tells him that he’s lost his last chance to escape: “I have been quite gay when you were asleep.  Three men from outside, Englishmen.  It is a pity you missed them.  A pity for them, too, as they particularly wished to see you.”  Unlike Todd, Tony is no more interested in the Indian women than he was in Milly.  It’s not clear how he spends his waking hours when not reading Dickens to Todd, who particularly delights in the sentimental passages.  Tony is soon overcome by inertia and doesn’t try to escape.

At the end of the novel an ugly plain monolith, profitably arranged by Mrs. Beaver, is erected at Hetton as a memorial for Tony, the last of the old-fashioned gentlemen in the modern world.  Before her marriage to Tony, everyone thought that Brenda would marry Jock.  But she always lands safely and marries him now.  Jock, more worldly and sophisticated than Tony, and well aware of Brenda’s callous reaction when he told her about the death of “John,” cannot resist the heartless but enchanting Brenda.

A Handful of Dust was a great critical and commercial success.  Edmund Wilson and Frank Kermode, two of the best modern critics, called it Waugh’s masterpiece.  Recalling the epigraph, Wilson observed the “sense of fear that permeates the novel”—the fear of loss, treachery, imprisonment and death.

Despite several attempts, A Handful of Dust was not filmed in Waugh’s lifetime.  But the 1988 film was superbly acted by an all-star cast: Kirstin Scott-Thomas as Brenda, who wears fox furs to allude to John Andrew’s fatal hunt, and is attractive and awful at the same time; James Wilby as Tony Last; Rupert Graves as Beaver; Judi Dench as Mrs Beaver; Anjelica Huston as Mrs Rattery; Stephen Fry as Reggie; and Alec Guinness as Todd.  Filmed partly in Venezuela with dazzling tropical scenery, it was faithful to the plot and dialogue of the novel, the mixture of humour and tragedy, the themes of betrayal and cruelty.

Jeffrey Meyers will publish both James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist and Parallel Lives: From Freud and Hitler to Arbus and Plath with Louisiana State University Press in 2024.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 76%
  • Interesting points: 76%
  • Agree with arguments: 75%
17 ratings - view all

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