This is another book from my 2011 reading list and a quick read. I think I’ve said before that you never really know what you’re going to get from Evelyn Waugh. To begin with A Handful of Dust is one of his satirical books on the lifestyle of the English upper classes but exactly half way through it turns into something much less comfortable.
Brenda and Tony Last have been married for several years and have one small son – John Andrew. Tony is really only interested in his family stately pile which is one of those very gothic places which is decorated in a sort of mock Arthurian style. Brenda hates his rural idyll and is bored stiff there.
She’s so desperate that she starts an affair with John Beaver, a young mummy’s boy type whom everybody dislikes. Brenda has no interest in John Andrew at all and spends all of her time in London with John Beaver who is penniless and is hoping to be able to live off Brenda’s husband when she gets divorced and is given alimony.
Quite a bit of the book concerns the hoops which people had to jump through to get a divorce in those days. In fact I can remember as late as the 1970s that men used to go off to seaside hotels and pretend to be having an affair with someone so that their wife could get their divorce without the wife’s lover being named as correspondent. How gentlemanly they were!
Anyway, when Brenda demands loads of alimony Tony quite rightly sees red and takes himself off abroad to avoid going to court. He gets involved with an explorer and ends up in a god awful place where disaster follows disaster.
I really disliked the end of this book. Apparently the American version has a different ending and I would have preferred that one. If you’re interested in knowing more about it have a look here. It is included in the Modern Library List of Best 20th Century Novels. I can’t say that it would make it on to my list. It was readable but I wouldn’t say it exactly set the heather alight!.
My copy of A Handful of Dust is an ancient Penguin from 1953 which originally belonged to my grandad but it was first published in 1934. Evelyn Waugh is mentioned quite a lot in Deborah Devonshire’s autobiography so now I can’t think of him without picturing him rubbing a bottle of alcohol into his hair when he was absolutely stinking drunk – which he often was. He did become part of her set though which he would have been very pleased about as he was a monumental snob, by all accounts.