Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh
I was invited to speak to the American Woman’s Association Book Club. We met in the Chairwoman’s house, and I read to them from one of my novels. They laughed at all the right places and sighed a bit at the sad part then the floor was opened for questions. It was all the old familiars: Do you write every day? Are you a millionaire? Have your books been made into movies? (By the way, the answers are “No”)
Then one lady asked: “What is your favourite novel?”
I was taken aback - is it possible to have only one favourite novel? I can think off-hand of at least a dozen which I reread for pleasure and comfort; I carry them with me when I travel; I think of them as old friends...
I chose one at random. I said: “A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh.”
Afterwards at the potluck supper, while I was tucking into pavlova and cream, the aforementioned lady cornered me. “Why A Handful of Dust?”
That’s easy; because it’s a masterpiece. It is witty and it is sad. It has marvellous, imaginative twists and a harrowing conclusion of Gothic proportion.
A Handful of Dust is the story of an unsuccessful marriage. For seven years dull Tony Last and the dazzling Brenda have been buried away at Hetton Abbey, playing happy families with their son John Andrew. Tony is very content; he adores being Lord of the Manor. But Brenda is bored to sobs and so desperate for a bit of excitement she throws herself at John Beaver, an unscrupulous cad and social climber who invites himself to Hetton for the weekend. Stupid, bored Brenda thinks it’s a lark to instigate a flirtation with Mr. Beaver; she buys a flat in London from Mr. Beaver’s mother then tells trusting Tony she’s regularly visiting London to take a course in economics.
So far, so shallow, until Brenda decides she’s in love with Mr. Beaver and must have a divorce from Tony. But since this is the 1930s, divorce is difficult to obtain. Ever the gentleman Tony agrees to pretend he’s the guilty party; he heads to Brighton with a professional dancer and her eight year old daughter, to a seedy hotel renowned for illicit liaisons, with two private detectives in tow...
It is only when Brenda and Beaver get greedy, and insist Tony sells Hetton Abbey to fund inflated alimony payments that the worm turns with alarming and astonishing consequences....
Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born in 1903. He was educated at Hertford College, Oxford where he mixed with and closely observed the British upper classes. (Asked if he had competed in any sport for his college, Waugh famously replied “I drank for Hertford.”)
A Handful of Dust was first published in 1934. It is included in the Modern Library List of Best 20th Century Novels and was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English language novels from 1923 to present. The title is an allusion to TS Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land:
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.
VERDICT: Show me the person who cannot read of the death of John Andrew and his father’s heartbreak without crying and I’ll show you an insensitive brute.

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