A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
|A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Magda Healey
|Summary: Sharp, compelling and still painfully close to home, this is an excellent satire on the mores of the British upper classes in the 1930's and comes highly recommended.
|Date: December 2000
|Publisher: Penguin Classics
A complex class society which evolved into a highly sophisticated culture is invariably a fertile ground for development of social satire, and British literature would have been hugely depleted if all novels that can be regarded as such were suddenly to disappear. Evelyn Waugh made the genre his own, and A Handful of Dust is a sublime example of his mastery of it.
Tony Last lives contentedly in his hideous country mansion, just about able to afford its upkeep, ensconced in his lordly duties, happy with his son and a pretty wife blessed with social graces he finds a bit of a conundrum. His wife Brenda is, however, getting bored after seven years of such rural bliss. Tony's life starts to disintegrate when she takes up with John Beaver, a worthless cad of a young man whose limited means don't allow him to live the lifestyle he aspires to, but who hovers on the fringes of London's society, always ready to accept a last-minute party invitation or a free lunch. When a real tragedy strikes, Brenda and Tony have to both decide whether they are able to carry on as usual in socially accepted if hypocritical manner.
In Handful of Dust dark comedy combines with the ridiculously absurd, a farce mixes with tragedy to produce a dazzling gem of a novel: angry and bitter, scathing and merciless and yet curiously humane in its treatment of moral failings of the main characters. Waugh's finger seems to be pointing more to the unspecific forces of history and culture that make a society that creates the likes of Beaver and Brenda than to their individual personalities. Brenda, who is the one character in the novel who is seen to do something utterly morally reprehensible (and it's not her affair) is allowed the redemptive power of self-awareness that somehow tempers the moralistic condemnation.
Tony Last, ostensibly the most sympathetic figure of a very unsympathetic cast, is not exactly a model of reason, intelligence, efficiency or even maritial sensitivity, utterly obsessed with the maintenance of the family pile and continuing with the superficialities of a way of life whose time has passed. Waugh still mourns this passing, because the likes of Tony embody all that's left of decency and worth in a society engulfed by tides of barbarism and moral decay: and yet, having survived Mrs Beaver's attempts to chromium plate the morning room and Amazonian Indians superstitions he eventually succumbs to a bastardised fusion of the two.
Savagely sharp, compelling and still painfully close to home, Handful of Dust reads well as a piercing satire on the mores of the British upper classes in the 1930's. The ending gives the novel the touch of the absurd poignancy hinting at later existentialism and lifts Handful of Dust to the ranks of truly memorable.
My previous experience of Waugh was limited to Brideshead Revisited which I didn't particularly like, but this one is highly recommended and deservedly a modern British classic.
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