A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"'I never thought it would last but she seems really keen on it . . . I suppose it's a good plan . . . there wasn't much for her to do at Hetton. Of course she would rather die than admit it, but I believe she got a bit bored there sometimes. I've been thinking it over and that's the conclusion I came to. Brenda must have been bored.'"
Kristin Scott Thomas adds sizzle to the 1988 movie version as Brenda.
Tony and Brenda Last have been married for seven years and although they don’t have a fiery passionate relationship they have settled into a predictable, comfortable one. They live on the Last family country estate named Hetton Abbey, an ugly neo-gothic creation that would need to wait a few decades more before coming back into fashion. Tony is perfectly happy with the house, but Brenda is subtly, or maybe not so subtly, convincing him to make changes. Plans are made to slowly convert the interior to a more modern appearance and also add some much needed bathrooms to the house.
They have one son who is mostly just a source of annoyance to them. He is precocious and starved for attention, and is often shuffled off to the horse trainer or to the housekeeper to keep him from under the feet of his parents.
They are moderately rich, but feel pinched for money as most of it is being funneled back into Hetton Abbey. Entertainment, as most of us know when we hit a financial snag, is the first and easiest to cut back on. This does create childish resentments in Brenda towards Tony and towards the house, even though, she is the one that is insisting on the remodel. After all she doesn’t even like that ugly old house anyway.
Overall, though, despite the snag in their social life things are going rather well
John Beaver invites himself down to Hetton Abbey for the weekend. He is a social parasite who lives off the family associations. He was reasonably desperate for some one to sponge off or he would have never ventured out to the country to spend time with the Last family.
”Beaver was so seldom wholly welcome anywhere that he was not sensitive to the slight constraint of his reception.”
He is oblivious, completely oblivious to any irritation his hosts might feel at his presence. He is relying on the unshakable, ancestral sense of decorum that people have for guests, even uninvited ones.
The ever so clever Evelyn Waugh.
Beaver is not a dashing figure nor is he all that charming. He is mostly just a young lad more boy than man. He is surprised at Brenda’s interest in him. She has been out of London society for a while and seems to have lost all her bearings for what she should find attractive in a man. Beaver really has nothing to offer except youth.
She ends up leasing a small apartment in London from Beaver’s rather disreputable real estate mogul mother. Brenda begins to instruct Beaver in an attempt to mold him into a more respectful version of a man she should be seen with. This starts to create some friction with young Beaver.
”You are one for making people learn things.”
Beaver goes along as she is paying for most of their expenses as they start appearing in society together.
Brenda tells Tony she is taking economic classes. Tony does the best he can to believe her.
Beaver as far as society is concerned is just a family friend. It is so nice of him to escort her around town. The rest...well...that is all hush hush.
”That’s always the trouble with people when they start walking out. They either think no one knows, or everybody.”
It has been way too long since I’ve read Evelyn Waugh. This may be one of his bleakest novels, but also the one most rife with wonderful biting sarcasm that exposes the self-absorption of the English upper class and the disregard they have for any retributions for their actions. When tragedy strikes the Last family the understated, cold reactions of both Tony and Brenda are so selfish it reveals their truest nature. I felt sorry for Tony for most of the novel because the decisions that Brenda was making were so destructive and based on such an absurd set of reasoning that it all just seemed so unfair. My feelings for Tony changed and by the end it felt like each got what they deserved. Both are so naive and though raised in this upper crust, seemingly conservative society, they seem to know very little about how to conduct themselves in such a rigid system of socially judgmental families.
A Handful of Dust
A bleak story, filled with a flurry of witty daggers that I’m sure stuck between the ribs of many a reader in 1930s Britain, but at the same time the book is laugh out loud funny. The plot is a series of absurd situations in which the Lasts and their friends ignore the most sensible course and sail into the rocky reef completely oblivious to the fact that they will most likely lose the ship.
Certainly Waugh was pointing a few fingers and wagging his eyebrows at the upper classes. This is a superb balancing act of black humor and social commentary writing that is not only difficult to do well, but also entirely entertaining in the hands of Evelyn Waugh.
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