When I picked up Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, I did so because I knew the writing would be satisfying even if the content might ultimately be forgettable. I was not wrong–about the writing. As always, the writing is lovely and perfect and clean and compelling. I was wrong about the content, however, but not in the way you’re thinking. I believe I shall never forget the conclusion of this novel because it is so very, very bad.
But more about that anon. Right now, a brief consideration of the early plot before things go insane. (Warning: I reveal a great deal more of the details of the plot than I normally do.) Brenda and Tony Last are a young couple with a young son, living quietly on Tony’s family estate in the English countryside. They are all exceptionally British in tastes, habits, and social activities: there is the organizing and overseeing of the estate for Tony; the learning to ride horses as a precursor to hunting, as well as bossing around the staff by young John Andrew; and there’s shopping and sometimes visiting and generally being bored for Brenda. All is not entirely picture perfect, however, for there is a slight imbalance in the distribution of marital power: Tony, buttoned down as he is, is clearly more enamoured of his wife than she is of him.
They don’t visit London much and they don’t entertain at home much; when they do engage in the latter, Tony tends to make himself scarce and the house generally inhospitable, with the result that Brenda ends up doing more talking with guests than one person should have to. The other result: a young man of no money, accomplishments, talent or attractiveness of ANY SORT, ends up spending a lot of time there. John Beaver usually spends his time at home (he’s 25 years old and lives with his mummy) waiting for his phone to ring. Literally. He doesn’t appear to read anything or think about anything or do anything at all while waiting to be invited out to dinner or luncheon. Waugh couldn’t have created a more limp cipher of listless youth if he’d tried. Beaver visits the Lasts and for no reason more convincing or noble or sensible than mere boredom, Brenda begins an affair with this young man. He is even less passionate about her than she is about him, and yet the affair lasts quite some time…
And when the Lasts’ son dies in a terrible hunting accident, Brenda leaves Tony for this wretched worm. She’s a wretched worm too, expressing terrible gratitude that it’s her son and not her lover who’s died!! She then tries to get a divorce so she can marry the toothless Beaver, employing all her friends and family in trying to get Tony to bestow a settlement on her that is so large that the only way he would be able to do so would be to sell his family estate–the only thing he has left that he loves.
Tony is treated very badly indeed; but he’s no saint either. He never noticed Brenda being bored or considered asking her if she’d like to do more with her life than lie about in the country being his wife. He’s never actively malicious, but it also never occurs to him that it might be wrong to try to seduce 18-year-olds when he’s still married and therefore can’t offer them anything but trouble. He’s oblivious, a cliche of the upper class man so certain of his own position and privileges that he barely registers others’ presences as real. He does love Brenda, in his way, but his way is passive, self-assured, and completely devoid of active reflection or empathy.
Brenda and Tony are products of their larger social milieu. If reading about them feels degrading and appalling, and it did to me, that’s as much the result of the context Waugh creates for them as it is of their individual failings. There’s no way they could be anything other than what they are; there is no-one and nothing better that they may measure themselves against or aspire towards. To give you a sense of how gross it all is, here’s how “everyone” feels about Brenda’s affair with John Beaver:
[O]pinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. For them her circumstances shed peculiar glamour; for five years she had been a legendary, almost ghostly name, the imprisoned princess of fairy story, and now that she had emerged there was more enchantment in the occurrence, than in the mere change of habit of any other circumspect wife. Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy…the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity. If, after seven years looking neither to right nor left, she had at last broken away with Jock Grant-Menzies or Robin Beaseley or any other young buck with whom nearly everyone had had a crack one time or another, it would have been thrilling no doubt, but straightforward, drawing-room comedy. The choice of Beaver raised the whole escapade into a realm of poetry for Polly and Daisy and Angela and all the gang of gossips. (p. 54)
This passage gives a sense of just how stupid and shallow Waugh imagined his characters and their world to be; their concerns are entirely defined by a need to be passively entertained. But Waugh’s use of literary terms here, so conspicuous in frequency and variety and ridiculousness, is really clever. It’s clever because it reveals the extent of these characters’ lack of recognizable humanity, but it’s also clever because it makes fun, I think, of readers (like me) who would look for earnest verisimilitude in an art form as carefully crafted as a novel. It’s impossible to ever lose sight of the fact that you’re reading a fiction with A Handful of Dust. It’s all just too offensive and shabby and absurd.
I hate the ending of this novel. But in light of these gestures towards meta-literariness, it might actually make sense (something which I hadn’t considered, to be honest, when I began writing this post). What happens is this: in a fit of broken-hearted bitterness over his wife’s attractive combination of infidelity and pettiness, Tony decides to slough off his domestic Britishness and don the mantle of the British explorer. Under the guidance of the idiot Dr. Messinger who imagines he “understands the native mind,” Tony embarks for the heart of darkness of the Brazilian wilds. They’re roughing it, getting eaten alive by myriad insects and having natives carry their things, in pursuit of some lost tribe and their lost city.
As always, Tony passively inhabits his role, comfortable in its appropriateness. He fails to notice the doctor is a quack and all around dumbshit the same way he failed to notice his wife’s unhappiness. He’s just so certain, in a quiet born into it sort of way, of his position both in the world and in relation to others that it never occurs to him that he is not very important to absolutely everyone.
Things, inevitably, go very wrong in South America. Messinger gets himself killed just as their native guides abandon them and Tony is incapacitated by an enervating and lingering fever. Poor Tony goes wandering in his delirium and is saved, miraculously!, by what appears to be an Englishman living by himself just outside a small local native village.
Cue scary music…
Mr. Todd is illiterate but also obsessed with the novels of Charles Dickens. He helps Tony back to health, because he is, of course, a medicine man of sorts courtesy of his native mother. Tony enjoys reading to Todd as he convalesces but it’s curious how every time he brings up getting back to civilization, Todd changes the subject. Long story short: Todd becomes increasingly menacing as Tony becomes increasingly sick of Dickens and the end result is Tony realizes not only that he’s a hostage, but also that it is Todd’s intent to keep him for life. Todd wants nothing but to be read the complete works of Charles Dickens forever and ever, amen. Tony tries to escape and then to have a passing explorer help him. He is not successful; Todd ensures that when people do come looking for him, Tony is drugged and safely hidden away and they’re convinced that the last of this branch of the Lasts is dead. And so, the book concludes with the promise of Tony being constrained to read and re-read the bombastic Victorian till he dies.
I admit, I felt a degree of irritation that looked almost exactly like rage when I realized Waugh was really going to end A Handful of Dust this way. It’s just so absurd: the heart of darkness (the horror! the horror!) is a hackneyed idea of pure Britishness–or, more precisely, a half resentful and half adoring savage’s notion of Britishness. My god. I would think Waugh was making fun of British imperialism–dying the death for certain when this book was penned–except for all the apparently straightforwardly racist things he wrote in Brideshead Revisited. And how disconnected, if clever, this novel’s component parts are.
I really don’t know what to make of Waugh. His writing is truly superb but his novels either slide right off my brain like they’ve never been there or they’re incredibly clever and Full of Meaning of some sort, but the writing makes it all too slick for me to get a firm interpretive foothold anywhere.
Feel free to tell me What It All Means.