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A Handful of Dust (1934)

by Evelyn Waugh

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,136892,458 (3.83)1 / 259
After seven years of marriage, the beautiful Lady Brenda Last has grown bored with life at Hetton Abbey, the Gothic mansion that is the pride and joy of her husband, Tony. She drifts into an affair with the shallow socialite John Beaver and forsakes Tony for the Belgravia set. In a novel that combines tragedy, comedy, and savage irony, Evelyn Waugh indelibly captures the irresponsible mood of the "crazy and sterile generation" between the wars.… (more)
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English (85)  Danish (2)  Dutch (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (89)
Showing 1-5 of 85 (next | show all)
Tony and Brenda Last seem to have a lovely marriage, living in the English countryside in Tony's ancestral, albeit slightly dreary, estate. But Brenda is easily bored and decides on what can only be described as a whim, to start an affair with a weasely momma's boy from London, whom no one else in society thinks worthy of any social status. The marriage doesn't survive the whim, and some of the characters suffer for it while others continue on their asinine, societal ways.
It sounds grim, and in part it is, but it's also a romp of a satire, and takes some surprising and interesting turns. I loved it, even though not many of the characters are likeable, because the plot and the writing were fantastic. ( )
  electrascaife | Jul 3, 2022 |
review of
Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - July 19, 2018


This is the 4th Waugh novel I've read. I've been reading them in chronological order so I started w/ Decline and Fall ( https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2250721945 ), then Vile Bodies ( https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2262010402 ), & lastly Black Mischief ( https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2312154248 ).

At 1st, I thought he was very witty & a fluid writer. But by this 4th one I started getting sick of the recurring pattern of suffering in his characters. In Decline and Fall the main character Paul Pennyfeather is a bit naive & generally good-natured. He gets used ruthlessly & gets framed & put in prison. A child dies. In Vile Bodies the author character, presumably a surrogate for Waugh, Adam Fenwick-Symes, gets dumped by his fiancé. Agatha Runcible, a likeable character, dies ina completely stupid accident. In Black Mischief an air-headed but likeable Prudence dies a horrible death. In A Handful of Dust Tony Last's wife leaves him & exhibits completely shallow selfish behavior that leads to the ruination of his life. A child dies. There's alotof shallowness in Waugh's characters. Everyone moves on from the tragedies around them w/ insensitive ease.

The epigraph lets the reader know that the title comes from a line of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." (p v). It's unclear to me what that means in relation to this bk.

Waugh's wit revolves largely around subtly revealing venal characteristics:

""Mr. Beaver, sir, there's ten shillings against you in my books for last month."

""Ah, thank you, Macdougal, remind me sometimes, will you?"" - p 9

In other words, Beaver, having already accumulated debt by postponing paying is continuing to accumulate debt by postponing paying by acting as if he's addressing it by asking to be reminded when he's in the process of being reminded. Clever, eh? In a nauseating way. A friend of mine had a grandfather who had a garage in the area where one of the wealthiest families lived. His grandfather died. Upon examination of his garage's papers it was discovered that the wealthy family had a slew of IOUs there.

The maladventure of this bk begins when Beaver is haphazardly invited to visit Tony Last at his mansion. Discussing the impending visit w/ his wife, Brenda, she suggests putting him in the most uncomfortable guest bedroom:

"["]Anyway he can go into Galahad. No one who sleeps there ever comes again—the bed's agony I believe." - p 27

"Further down the passage Beaver examined his room with the care of an experienced guest. There was no reading lamp. The ink pot was dry. The fire had been lit but had gone out. The bathroom, he had already discovered, was a great distance away, up a flight of turret steps. He did not at all like the look or feel of the bed; the springs were broken in the cneter and it creaked ominously when he lay down to try it. The return ticket, third class, had been eighteen shillings. Then there would be tips." - p 31

Even though I'd wearied of Waugh's humor-in-wch-characters-suffer by now there were still parts that I enjoyed: the former military vicar who'd 'served' in India giving the same sermons he'd given there even though he was back in England are a good example:

"The vicar preached his usual Christman sermon. It was one to which the parishioners were greatly attached.

""How difficult it is for us," he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under their woolen gloves, "to realize that this is indeed Chrsitmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered againsthe drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of an alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stares of the subjugated, though no doubt grateful, heathen. Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethlehem," said the vicar, slgihtly losing the thread of his comparisons, "we have for companions the ravening tiger and the exotic camel, the furtive jackal and the ponderous elephant..." And so on, through the pages of faded manuscript." - pp 70-71

W/o giving away too much of the plot let's just say that along the way a melodramatic former princess appears:

""John...dead. It's too horrible."

""It wasn't anybody's fault."

""Oh yes," said Jenny. "It was. It was my fault. I ought never to have gone there...a terrible curse hangs over me. Wherever I go I bring nothing but sorrow...if only it was I that was dead...I shall never be able to face them again. I feel like a murderess...that brave little life snuffed out."" - p 139

Well, our boy Tony goes to South America to get away from his scheming shallow wife:

"The first stage of the journey was over. For ten days thay had been chugging upstream in a broad, shallow boat. Once or twice they had passed rapids (there the outboard engine had been reinforced by paddles; the men strained in time to teh captain's count; the bo'sun stood in the bows with a long pole warding them off the rocks). They had camped at sundown on patches of sandbank or in clearings cut from the surrounding bush. Once or twice they came toa "house" left behind by balata bleeders or gold washers." - p 207

People who aren't accustomed to jungle might want to think twice about casually going there:

"At sunset the cabouri fly disappeared. Until then, through the day, it was necessary to keep covered; they settled on any exposed flesh like house flies upon jam; it was only when they were gorged that their bite was perceptible; they left behind a crimson, smarting circle with a black dot at the center. Tony and Dr. Messinger wore cotton gloves which they had brought for the purpose, and muslin veils, hanging down under their hats. Later they employed two women to squat beside their hammocks and fan them with leafy boughs; the slightest breeze was enought to disperse the flies, but as soon as Tony and Dr. Messinger dozed the women would lay aside their work, and they woke instantly, stung in a hundred places. The Indians bore the insects as cows bear horse-flies; passively with occasional fretful outbursts when they would slap their shoulders and thighs." - p 224

Well.. one thing leads to another & the next thing ya know the world's become a bit, ahem, unreal:

""Order," said the Mayor. "I must ask you gnetlemen to confine your remakrs to the subject under discussion. We have to decide about the widening of the Bayton-Pigstanton road. There have been several complaints that it's impossible for the Green Line buses to turn the corner safely at Hetton Cross."

""Green Line rats."

""I said Green Line rats. Mechanical green line rats. Many of the villagers have been scared by them and have evacuated their cottages."" - p 247

""It has been hard to keep out the worms and ants. Two are practically destroyed. But there is an oil the Indians makes that is useful."

"He unwrapped the nearest parcel and handed down a calf-bound book. It was an early American edition of Bleak House." - p 258

All in all, this was clever. Bravo! Bully! But I mainly found it depressing. The most venal people lead the best lives. To hell w/ that. ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
I first read this book years ago and yet it has stuck with me due to being so completely insane. Everyone in it is a terrible person to one degree or another and its cruel and funny in its depiction of London social life. It then takes a very odd turn and we are suddenly in the Amazon surrounded by madness and Dickens. I did thoroughly enjoy how awful everyone is, especially Brenda. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Nov 9, 2021 |
"Why would any novelist put the most important and impactful moment right in the center of the book?" That is the question I kept asking myself after I finished A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. The part that I'm referring to is no doubt tragic and well written, but the fact that it is put where it is makes the rest of the reading experience ineffective.

Besides the fact that the structure of the plot was not great, the dialogue was superb. The way that Evelyn Waugh makes a conversation so interesting and yet realistic is a gift from god himself. Unfortunately, the faults outweigh the strengths within this novel, which is why this is one of the lower-rated books on my shelf. ( )
  connorshirs | Aug 11, 2021 |
The comedy didn't land for me because the jokes were either too dry, incomprehensible, or relied on a meanspirited delight in other peoples' suffering that I don't have.

The tragedy didn't work for me because the characters were either so reprehensible that their suffering was meaningless or so thinly drawn that I couldn't sympathize with their pain.

The end of the book included a very twisted section that read like an independent short story, and the afteword indicated that indeed it was originally published as a completely separate short story. It is also reprehenisbly racist in a way that was shocking to me as a modern reader and completely unexpected. ( )
  wishanem | May 27, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 85 (next | show all)
The characters of Evelyn Waugh are ... the natives of a highly articulated culture that has no myths, only rituals. ... Dying of manners, they are determined to go on snubbing reality ... The most thoroughly weaned generation in the world, they are discovering that a little money is a dangerous thing. ... There is no comfortable catharsis in Mr. Waugh's comedy of manners.
added by Roycrofter | editNew York Times, Anatole Broyard (Dec 28, 1977)
 

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Evelyn Waughprimary authorall editionscalculated
Boyd, WilliamIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Canavaggia, MarieTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davis, RobertForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davis, Robert MurrayEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lustig, AlvinCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Riera, ErnestTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sachs, AndrewNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wangenheim, Lucy vonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
...I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
— The Waste Land
Dedication
First words
"Was anyone hurt?"
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Do not combine with the movie directed by Charles Sturridge.
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After seven years of marriage, the beautiful Lady Brenda Last has grown bored with life at Hetton Abbey, the Gothic mansion that is the pride and joy of her husband, Tony. She drifts into an affair with the shallow socialite John Beaver and forsakes Tony for the Belgravia set. In a novel that combines tragedy, comedy, and savage irony, Evelyn Waugh indelibly captures the irresponsible mood of the "crazy and sterile generation" between the wars.

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Hachette Book Group

An edition of this book was published by Hachette Book Group.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141183969, 0141037237

 

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