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[388] A Handful of Dust – Evelyn Waugh

” That’s always the trouble with people when they have affaires. They either think no one knows, or everybody. The truth is that a few people like Polly and Sibyl make a point of finding out about everyone’s private life; the rest of us just aren’t interested. ” (III 130)

The book is both vicious and witty. A Handful of Dust is an upright exposé of aristocratic decadence and soulful emptiness in England between the wars. Well-meaning but priggish, Tony Last, the last stand of the feudal past, is sold out for maintaining Hetton, his hereditary estate, that he doesn’t notice when his wife Brenda engages in an affair with an inconsequential, unbecoming young chap named John Beaver.

If I were you I should refuse to recognize that anything has happened . . . I am sure there was never anything wrong . . . (IV 174)

Although the novel runs its slow course to a tragic end, punctuated by the death of their young son, Waugh maintains a comic tone as he depicts the breakup of a marriage in the London gentry. The novel satirizes the privileged stratum of society whose cardinal sin is snubbing reality: going on about things with unconscionable persistence.

With the exception of her sister, opinion was greatly in favor of her adventure, even people with whom he has the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver . . . (II 74)

Tony’s indifference and Brenda’s selfishness sustain an equilibrium in their relationship until their son’s tragic death forces them to face the reality. Fearing the cost of alimony and the consequent loss of the estate, he doesn’t agree to the divorce. It’s the cavalier attitude toward Brenda’s affair on the part of the Lasts’ social circle that completes the farce. If their depravity is not complete, at least the moral compass is skewed.

It’s previously unclear the reason for Tony Last’s expedition to the Amazonian wilderness, which eventually leads to his denouement. But the twist of events that forays into an opposite world to that of Tony’s further anatomizes the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Tony throws himself into a jungle only slightly more savage than the one he leaves behind in England.

303 pp. Little, Brown softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]