Saturday, June 26, 2010
Tony Last is an aristocrat whose attachment to an ideal feudal past is so profound that he is blind to his wife Brenda's boredom with the stately rhythms of country life. While he earnestly plays the lord of the manor in his ghastly Victorian Gothic pile, she sets herself up in a London flat and pursues an affair with the social-climbing idler John Beaver. In the first half of the novel Waugh fearlessly anatomizes the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Everyone moves through an endless cycle of parties and country-house weekends, being scrupulously polite in public and utterly horrid in private. Sex is something one does to relieve the boredom, and Brenda's affair provides a welcome subject for conversation.
Tony's indifference and Brenda's selfishness give their relationship a sort of equilibrium until tragedy forces them to face facts. The collapse of their relationship accelerates, and in the famous final section of the book Tony seeks solace in a foolhardy search for El Dorado, throwing himself on the mercy of a jungle only slightly more savage than the one he leaves behind in England. For all its biting wit, A Handful of Dust paints a bleak picture of the English upper classes, reaching beyond satire toward a very modern sense of despair. In Waugh's world, culture, breeding, and the trappings of civilization only provide more subtle means of destruction.
I had read several of Evelyn Waugh's books before and really enjoyed them. Sidenote: I had always thought the author was a woman because of the name Evelyn. I own several of his books and decided that I would start reading them. The characters in Handful of Dust were not particularly likable, which usually turns me off of a book, but not so in this case. John Beaver just annoyed me, and Brenda is selfish and thinks of nothing but herself. Her husband I just felt sorry for. When her husband discovers her affair, he takes off on an adventure and leaves her to fend for herself, with no money. I thought Brenda very much deserved this. I was disappointed by the ending. I very much enjoyed the rest of the book and will continue to read Waugh's other books.