Waugh’s English Gentleman

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

I really do enjoy reading Evelyn Waugh. In his novels, Waugh’s privileged Depression-era English society becomes alive on the page and relevant to the modern reader in all of its satirized glory. The wonderful “tragicomedy” A Handful of Dust is certainly no exception as Waugh demonstrates his keen ability to parse a society he found frivolous and vapid and expose it in a way that is at the same time hilarious and grave.

A Handful of Dust is the story of Tony Last, a relic of England’s not-so-distant pre-World War I past. The list of Tony’s pleasures in life is simple and brief, consisting of: Hetton, his beloved family estate, and Brenda, his adored but wholly incompatible wife. In an elite society growing increasingly obsolete due to both the War and Depression, Tony’s prized lifestyle begins to feel archaic and boring to the abominable Brenda. To entertain herself, Brenda seeks out an affair with social bottom-feeder John Beaver and begins consorting with a vacuous circle of friends comprised of memorable characters with names like Lady Polly Cockpurse and Princess Abdul Akbar. The affair is, as one would expect, “hard cheese on Tony”, and once he becomes privy to it he sets out on a journey that results in Twilight Zone-worthy consequences.

One of my favorite features in A Handful of Dust is Waugh’s surprising compassion for his hapless protagonist. While Waugh is unrelentingly critical of the beastly Brenda and her vapid London social circle, he is uniquely sympathetic to Tony and his plight. In fact, at the end of the novel Waugh even ventures as far as to honor Tony’s disappearing lifestyle as cousin Teddy fondly attempts to restore Hetton to its pre-War glory.

Finally, any praise of A Handful of Dust is certainly incomplete without an homage to its brilliant dialogue. The clever, Dorothy Parker-esque exchanges make the novel not only very enjoyable, but also very quick, to read. In fact, the novel is so replete with dialogue that I found myself savoring Waugh’s descriptive paragraphs all that much more. Overall, I found A Handful of Dust to be an excellent novel; can’t wait to move on the next in Waugh’s oeuvre!

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