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Evelyn Waugh: A Handful of Dust

He may have written better and greater novels than this one but this is my favourite Waugh novel, if only because of its wicked humour. It is based on Waugh’s own personal experience when he travelled to Brazil in 1932 after the failure of his first marriage. The novel starts with John Beaver, a dull society man and son of a fairly horrible interior designer. He goes to visit the Last family at Hetton Abbey. Tony Last loves the seclusion but Brenda Last misses London society and Beaver is her link to that society. She starts an affair with Beaver and soon spends most of her time with him. When Tony and Brenda’s son is killed, Brenda seeks a divorce from Tony. Realizing that her settlement may make him have to sell Hetton Abbey, he sets off on an expedition to South America.

This is where the novel becomes interesting. Brenda and Beaver are, of course, drifting apart. Tony is looking for El Dorado but falls into difficulty. His travelling companion drowns and he gets fever. He stumbles on a settlement of Indians, run by Mr Todd, who has fathered a variety of children with the Indians and who has a passion for Dickens. Tony is rescued and cured but the price he has to pay is to stay and read Dickens to Todd – forever. The picture Waugh paints of his reading of Little Dorritt is priceless. Tony is presumed dead so Brenda remarries (but not Beaver) and, of course, Hetton Abbey is sold off.

This novel is wickedly funny as Waugh is back to his earlier satirical form but taking the conceit one step further with the Dickens-mad Todd and the poor victim, Tony Last. The symbol of Hetton Abbey – a Victorian Gothic folly and described by a guide book as devoid of interest – is telling, particularly when compared to Mrs. Beaver’s”elegantly” remodelled flats. Poor Tony.

Publishing history

First published 1934 by Chapman & Hall