Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, More Summer Reading, & Do We Have to Read All of the Award Winners?

a handful of dust evelyn waugh 518A+dSVjKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Evelyn Waugh is a mercilessly observant satirist.

I prefer his elegiac Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited to his relentlessly acrid satires, but Waugh was astonishingly able to do it all:  satire, comedy, realism,  Catholic fiction,  a war trilogy, short stories, travel, and essays.

I just finished rereading A Handful of Dust.

And when I Googled it I discovered:

The WSJ Book Club is reading Evelyn Waugh’s tragicomic masterpiece “A Handful of Dust.”

Although A Handful of Dust is gut-wrenching,  most critics consider it a satire.  (Yes, it is a satire.)   Is it Waugh’s masterpiece? Well, it is pretty damned good.  Waugh is so harshly hyperbolic in his depiction of London society and the casual wantonness of the charming Brenda Last that we laugh.  But as the novel progresses, we are shocked by the suffering of the innocent.

The relationship of the Lasts is the crux of the novel.  Tony Last, a landowner who adores his unattractive Gothic house, Hetton Abbey,  is not very sociable.  While Brenda longs to go to weekend parties, Tony likes to putter about the estate.  When he reads in the  guidebook that his house is “now devoid of interest” because it was rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style, Tony is amused.

Unkinder things had been said. His Aunt Frances, embittered by an upbringing of unremitting severity, remarked that the plans of the house must have been adapted by Mr. Pecksniff from one of his pupil’s designs for an orphanage.

The Dickensian note sounds early in A Handful of Dust.  The Pecksniffian architecture divides the feelings of Tony and his charming wife, Brenda, who finds the house depressing.  Tony likes tradition; Brenda wants novelty. They are the Lasts.

At first they seem to be a happy couple.  He and Brenda endearingly play games about being on a diet, though they are healthy and slim:.  And they are amused by their son John, age 6 or 7, who hilariously quotes the racier sayings of Ben, the groom.

But when John Beaver,  a London parasite who mooches off his mother, shows up at Hetton Abbey for the weekend, bored Brenda becomes infatuated.  That shows a high degree of boredom, because he is very boring.

So she takes off to London and Tony believes she is studying economics..  Brenda is mad for Mr. Beaver, and Tony is the only one who doesn’t know she is having an affair.

I cannot go further without giving away the plot, but there are tragic, shocking developments. Tony pays a high price for Brenda’s infidelity (almost literally).  So is this a Catholic novel?  What happens is horrifying.

The ending may change your feelings about Dickens.


Summer-ReadingI used to love literary prizes.  I was a serious woman and considered it my duty to read the winners of the Man Booker Prize, the  Orange Prize, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner

Now I suffer from the opposite ailment:  “internet overload.” There are so many literary  prizes to read about online in excruciating detail that I have become indifferent.    Nay, I do not just have ennui:  I am traumatized by prizes!   Somebody just won?  For WHAT!  For 1-2-3-Ennui:  a collection of poetry written at the End of the Empire.  God, I don’t know when that was.  I’m too busy blogging to remember any history dates except 451 B.C.   Or was it 452?  You get my drift.

Shall I catch up with the Man Booker this summer?  If I can finish two, I will be satisfied.

Here are three I need to read:

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.  I loved Wolf Hall, but a little of Cromwell goes a long way with me.  And I didn’t see the PBS version.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.  I read part of it and found it very entertaining, but I put it aside because I was in a Tolstoy phase. I shall go back to it one day  (I hope).

I don’t think I can bear to read another war novel, so haven’t checked out Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  I have already read Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives (World War II POWs in Australia), and two Korean War novels, Jane Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite and Chang-Rae Lees’s The Surrendered. 

Why so much war?

End the war.  Bring Home the troops.

All right?


8 thoughts on “Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, More Summer Reading, & Do We Have to Read All of the Award Winners?

  1. I like the Evelyn Waugh I’ve read, but he can be surprisingly dark. As for award winning books – fortunately, I feel no need at all to read them. I shall just stick to what I like!


  2. I enjoyed the ending of the Waugh book and, yes, it did give me to think about Dickens.

    Bring Up the Bodies was very good, but I did not enjoy it as much as the first book. The PBS series is outstanding. Maybe when the biking weather is over, you can get the DVD and take a look.

    Like you, I have outgrown the need to read award books. Sometimes an award reminds me of a book I had intended to read.


    • I must read BOB before Mantel’s next book comes out. I WILL look for the DVD.

      So many good books win awards, but there are so many others of our choice to read.


    • Alex, I loved Helena! That is very different from his other work. I had forgotten all about it and yet it is one I enjoyed very much. So glad you reminded me.


  3. Ah my dear Bring Up the Bodies is different from Wolf Hall. It has a stealth heroine. I’m now listening to Simon Slater read aloud Wolf Hall (CDs, unabridged text, in car). Wolf Hall is a great book — though the praise gorges us.
    But an unacknowledged source is Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Try it …

    The ending of A Handful of Dust unforgettable. I am persuaded Waugh loathed Dickens. Yes he’s dark and his comedy raucous. I will never be able to reread The Loved One, a send-up of American funerals and hypocritical ways of ostentatious grief.

    But I’m with you on prizes as such. Devices to sell books to niche audiences.


    • I do want to read Bring Up the Bodies. It took me years to get around to Wolf Hall. I THINK I read The Other Boleyn Girl. I did read a couple by Gregory and she is one of those underrated popular writers.

      Well, Dickens is very dark, too. How horrifying to be stuck reading Dickens in a kind of satiric Heart of Darkness. Ugh!


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