Review of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 40: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

A Handful of Dust takes its title from the ominous words of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Evelyn Waugh writes dialogue in a way that is easy to read, and the story’s pace and tone is light as it mocks the collapsing of the world of Tony Dust, and by extension many others who saw their way of life under threat by the changing cultural winds that occurred between the two World Wars in England. Tony Last loves his home, his wife, and his son and is very satisfied with their life on the gothic designed estate of Hetton. It is a world of attending church, watching his son ride horses, participating in social clubs, and managing the affairs of the estate. Yet, after seven years of marriage his wife, Brenda, becomes bored with this life and embarks on a path which brings unravels everything. She decides to begin an affair with a London man of limited ambition and interest named John Beaver. John, who still lives with his mother and has no regular responsibilities, is viewed by many in society as a bore with little prospects but Brenda’s presence invites him into many new places in London society.  Brenda conspires with John’s mother to purchase a flat in London, so that she may stay there for extended periods under the guise of studying economics while she engages in an open affair in London while her husband stays generally supportive of her and unaware in Hetton. Everything unravels when Tony and Brenda’s son is killed in an accident while he is out on a hunt with his father. Brenda asks for a divorce and Tony, humiliated but still the honorable English man attempts to grant her that. When Brenda and her lawyers make increasingly large demands, demands that would require the sale of the Hetton estate, Tony departs on an expedition to the unexplored regions of South America and never returns.

Evelyn Waugh writes well, and I can understand why this book is on the top 100 list. Like Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, this is set in a time period and world that I don’t find greatly appealing and even though both works are dealing with the unraveling of that world they are not things I would seek out to read. With A Handful of Dust, I identified strongly with Tony Last and for personal reasons I really disliked Brenda’s shallow and careless actions which destroyed not only her marriage but the entire world of her husband. In my own story, I have been the husband whose wife embarked on an affair with a person who others looked upon as awkward and boorish. I was the last to know what was going on, and had several people come to me after the revelation and disclose that they had known but were afraid to say anything. Even though I may not have chosen to live in Tony Last’s world, I could empathize with the trauma he must have endured as it quickly is taken away from him and he finds himself in unfamiliar territory still attempting to be the person he once was. All reviews of any work of fiction are subjective, and although the work unearthed some painful memories for me, and it is not a genre or a time period that I find compelling it is well written and I can understand why many people enjoy its mocking of the collapse of this stilted and formal world. These brief reflections are, for me, a way of consolidating my thoughts after engaging with each work.

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