A handful of dust

by Evelyn Waugh

Hardcover, 1999




London : The Folio Society, 1999.


After seven years of marriage, the beautiful Lady Brenda Last has grown bored with life at Hetton Abbey, the Gothic mansion that is the pride and joy of her husband, Tony. She drifts into an affair with the shallow socialite John Beaver and forsakes Tony for the Belgravia set. In a novel that combines tragedy, comedy, and savage irony, Evelyn Waugh indelibly captures the irresponsible mood of the "crazy and sterile generation" between the wars.

Media reviews

New York Times
The characters of Evelyn Waugh are ... the natives of a highly articulated culture that has no myths, only rituals. ... Dying of manners, they are determined to go on snubbing reality ... The most thoroughly weaned generation in the world, they are discovering that a little money is a dangerous thing. ... There is no comfortable catharsis in Mr. Waugh's comedy of manners.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lucybrown
Waugh's look at the thoroughly debauched, morally bankrupt English gentry. He savages these urbane savages with his cold rapier wit. If you like the early satires of Waught this one is for you. If you have always found Waugh too mean-spirited to be effective, this book will only strengthen that opinion. Though not quite a favorite, I rather liked the book myself, but haven't read it since the mid '80s and can't offer a really good review. For what it is worth, this book made Modern Library's List of the 100 Most Important Fiction Works of the 20th century and is considered one of the author's best works.

If you like stories of this millieu and era,but can't stomach Waugh's tone, I would suggest Anthony Powell's The Dance to the Music of Time sequence which have more depth and human sympathy, while still maintaining a level of social satire that is unparalleled.

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LibraryThing member VivienneR
I first read this decades ago and it seemed time for a re-read. I was surprised by the amount of detail I'd forgotten although it was just as enjoyable as ever.

Waugh chose to end A Handful of Dust by inserting The Man Who Liked Dicken, a short story inspired from his travels in Brazil and Guyana just two years earlier in 1932. As the story had already appeared in America, he was obliged to write a different ending for the American version of the book. Personally, I prefer the original ending which provides a bizarre type of horror that sticks in the mind. I have never looked on Dickens' books without thinking of poor Tony Last forced to read Dickens aloud until his last breath. Many readers complain that the story is ruined by the change of locale, from stately English home to the jungle. I found this was what I liked most as it gave it the quirkiness that Waugh seemed to enjoy. I gave this five stars the first time around and I still think it's deserved. I enjoyed it enormously.

Note: it reminded me of Mister Pip reading Dickens to his young charges. While reading Mister Pip I wondered if Lloyd Jones had been influenced by Waugh's story.
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LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
It starts innocuously enough; gentlemen and ladies having fun. As the book carries on, the characters become stranger and the plot more dramatic, until at the end the main characters have all but disappeared, replaced by their likes, ready to make the same mistakes. A clever and disturbing look at how simple decisions can cause major life changes.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
It's pretty brief, and its prose is pretty spare, but there's marriage, tragedy, divorce and a various kinds of finality in "A Handful of Dust," a cold-blooded, straight-faced satire of the high society types that Waugh once knew and loathed. There's humor in it, too, both of the dry, high-minded British variety and of the more accessible kind. The novel features two of the funniest, brattiest fictional children I've ever witnessed, and they do a lot to liven up a narrative that gets somewhat slow in places.

My main complaint about "A Handful of Dust," though, is Waugh's own attitude toward his characters. As expected, most of them are reprehensible: shallow society types enamored of flash, flattery and everything that signifies newness. That's more or less to be expected of Waugh, but he even seems to dislike Tony Last, a character whose sentiments most closely resemble his own. To hear Waugh tell it, Tony, who does his best throughout much of the novel to keep his family's estate intact and honor the traditions of the English countryside, isn't mistaken as much as lacking in intestinal fortitude; he aspires to standards he seems congenitally incapable of meeting. Cultural conservatives might sympathize with the author's view that the present is lacking in the sort of personages that made the past so exceptional and that the current generation is unworthy of inheriting the past's traditions. Still, by the time I reached the end of the novel, I began to suspect that Waugh had created Tony specifically in order to find him wanting, and that hardly seems fair. Waugh seems to have little sympathy for anyone trying to steer a middle path between modernity and tradition, and the novel's last chapter, which sees the Last family's traditions miraculously resurrected, smacks of deus ex machina.

It'd be easy to dismiss "A Handful of Dust" as the work of a bitter, culturally atavistic British curmudgeon if the novel weren't so expertly constructed in so many other respects. Unpleasant as they can be, Waugh seems to know most of his characters through and through, and he matches them with social situations and personal possessions that seem perfectly appropriate to them. In fact, at no point in this novel do any of these characters act like anyone but their truest selves, and that's a rare and wonderful attribute for a novel to have. He describes the Lasts' marriage, to cite just one example, as a union that will fall apart with the slightest shove, and when such an event occurs it seems to collapse entirely of its own accord. The aforementioned ending aside, I wasn't at all conscious of Waugh using his authorial license to consciously arrange his character's fates. Tony's own end, which I can't spoil here, is delightfully unexpected, strangely poetic, and, in its way, wholly appropriate. As the novel ends, a sort of Victorian super-order has been achieved: there's a place for everyone, and everyone's in their place, even if you didn't catch the author putting them there.

This sort of subtlety suggests that Waugh may have possessed the skill that separates great writers from merely good ones, but the reason I can't bring myself to award "A Handful of Dust" more than three stars is rather personal: I just don't cotton to novels completely bereft of sympathetic characters. In the hands of another author, Tony last might qualify as sympathetic, or at least nobly conflicted, but Waugh's own contempt for him ruin him for me. Since I'm a twenty-first American of liberal sensibilities, it's possible that Evelyn and me are just poles apart and too hopelessly different to get along. Whatever the reason, and although I recognize his talent, "A Handful of Dust" left an appropriately unpleasant taste in my mouth.
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LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh at first seemed to be a light, witty and satirical novel that pokes fun at the upper class of Britain during the time between the wars. However, as the story developed into the disintegration of a marriage, the author revealed the cynicism and bleakness that gave this story it’s brilliant edge.

While much of the story has it’s roots in Waugh’s own life, A Handful of Dust is a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy that captures the self-absorption of the English upper class and the total disregard they had for others. It also struck me how cleverly Waugh turned the tables on his characters by making first one than another the “villain” of the piece. For me, however, the character of Brenda was the worst of the lot. She is the bored, slightly resentful wife that takes up with a society wastrel whose only purpose seems to be that of being the perfect “extra man” that society hostesses can call upon at the last minute. Brenda’s husband, Tony is overly complacent and seems to be fonder of his home than he is of his wife but the resolution of his story could either be considered good or bad, depending on how one feels about Charles Dickens.

Elegant, sophisticated, lively and chilling, A Handful of Dust was quite the read and has me looking forward to reading more of this author.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This book was chosen by the LibraryThing 1001 Group to read in November 2018 and I thought I should try it. I read Waugh's Brideshead Revisited many years ago when it was shown on PBS (Google tells me that was 1981) and I remember I had a hard time with it. But I have learned that certain books that didn't work for me when I was a callow youth have more appeal now that I am a senior. I'm not sure if that is the case with this book or if it is just that it was more accessible but I quite enjoyed this tale of an upper class marriage gone wrong.

Tony Last is the owner during the 1930s of Hetton Abbey, a gothic mess of a country estate that requires all of Last's income to maintain or try to maintain because it is in rather poor shape. The estate taxes that Last has to pay for inheriting the property are onerous and are the main reason the Lasts are short of money. Tony has been married to Brenda for seven years and they have one son, John Andrew. A young man with no job and no prospects of one, John Beaver, comes to Hetton Abbey for a weekend and for some reason Brenda becomes attracted to him. She takes a flat in a converted house in London that Beaver's mother, an interior designer, has divided into small abodes for a pied-a-terre for country folk. Everyone except Tony knows that Brenda and Beaver are having an affair and when Brenda finally tells Tony that she wants a divorce he is astounded. In the law of the time adultery was the only ground for divorce and it is considered bad form to use the wife's adultery. So Tony has to go off to a seaside hotel with a young woman who will appear to the detectives hired to provide evidence to be his lover, This particular chapter is pretty nearly farce and shows just how the divorce laws forced people to suborn testimony. Brenda decides that in order to keep Beaver she needs more alimony than Tony can provide and still keep Hetton. Finally showing some backbone Tony refuses and goes off to British Guiana on an expedition to find a mythical lost city. When gets sick and is abandoned by all the guides he stumbles into a habitation run by a lunatic who has a collection of Dickens' novels that he requires Tony to read to him. A virtual prisoner Tony Last will never return to England and distant cousins inherit the estate with a new round of death duries to pay.

The copy I read contained an alternate ending to the book that Waugh had to do for the American publication because the chapter about the madman in British Guiana had been published as a short story called The Man Who Loved Dickens. This certainly shows how powerless writers were to preserve their art at that time. The alternate ending is much less satisfying than the original and I wonder how many Americans at the time realized they had been cheated.
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LibraryThing member otterley
Darkly cynical, Waugh portrays a world where appearance (chromium plated walls and flashy London flats, appearing at the 'right party' with the 'right person') rules, where tragedy strikes suddenly, knocking the world out of kilter in very unexpected ways, and where nothing in the end is real or valuable. Waugh's world of high society is remarkably contemporary - the Peaches Geldofs and Henry Conways of today's London society would be at home with Mr Beaver and Mrs Beaver's work at Hetton would feature in the Sunday supplements. Waugh tells us that the world of chivalry and tradition is equally arbitrary, a mirage in the jungle, and provides no alternative in a remarkably unsettling and uncomfortable novel. Which is, of course, also very funny.… (more)
LibraryThing member Helenliz
This starts off as a portrait of a marriage in the upper echelons of British society. Tony & Brenda are married and having to economise to keep the family pile, Hetton Abbey, afloat. Tony is fully invested in the place, Brenda less so. Brenda is now bored of her lifestyle, Tony's settled down and she either isn't ready to, or is bored with how their life has established itself. In fact, she's the one who precipitates the action, in some senses. She finds a flat in London and starts an affair with a worthless society sponger. She has friends who she attends parties with, but none of this gets to the root of her meaningless existence. You may guess from this that i didn't have a lot of sympathy for her. After agreeing that they will divorce, things take a turn for the worse when Brenda starts wanting Tony to finance her lifestyle and, in effect, buy her the man she now thinks she loves. Good for him that he does not.
It all takes a turn for the somewhat odd when Tony heads off to Brazil and gets himself stuck in a most unusual situation, from which he will be unable to extricate himself.
The book ends with Hetton being the focus of attention of another branch of the Last family, and it seems to have a life that somehow it lacked with Brenda as lady of the house.
The language is delightful, the portrait of a couple who are falling apart and failing to understand that is poignant. Waugh shows his teeth occasioanlly, and there is certainly a satirical edge, espeically with some of the pointed allusions and comparisons. Throughout the characters remain fairly two dimensional, this is about what happens to them, not how it affects them. An enjoyable short novel.
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LibraryThing member Dr_von_K
Waugh gives us a bleak yet blackly comic account of a failing marriage between the aristocratic Tony and Brenda Last, set in a climate of genteel social barbarism.

Moving between the worlds of sham-gothic English feudalism and decadent inter-war London society, Waugh's characters act with increasing selfishness and amorality. In the aftermath of the Lasts' breakup, we are given a disturbing vision of where such behaviour leads.

This is a starker book than his more exuberant, earlier novels 'Scoop' and 'Decline and Fall', though still with plenty of darkly absurdist humour.
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LibraryThing member DameMuriel
I never met Evelyn Waugh but I always feel as though we’d have gotten along well because we both dislike children so very much.
LibraryThing member abbottthomas
I found this novel - at least the first hundred or so pages - immensely depressing. It deals with the breakdown of an upper-class marriage for no reasons other than tedium and whim. It says much for Waugh's writing skill that the violent death of a six-year old child comes as light relief. His mother's first reaction on hearing the news is "....oh, thank God..." and presages a more active approach to life from all the characters. Waugh's typical cynical disregard of fairness gets moving and we are treated to much amusing unpleasantness. The cuckolded husband and bereaved father abandons tedium, but not whim, and commits himself to a very unwise course of action resulting in one of the more grisly fates in fiction. The bored and faithless wife goes through a bad patch but ends the story comfortable. The old order, with which one imagines Waugh had much sympathy, passes and is replaced by something much more middle-class.

The ending of the book used an earlier short story of Waugh's: when an American magazine wanted to serialise the work, copyright issues forced him to write an alternative ending which is sometimes reproduced as an appendix to the original novel. It is worth seeking out, if only as an example of a bored author dashing something off for the sake of a cheque.
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LibraryThing member trench_wench
The first book by Waugh I've ever read. It was a quick read, Waugh's style is nice and light. the characters ar detestable, mainly for their shallowness and lack of morals in the case of Brenda and Beaver, and cowardice in the case of Tony. The best bit about the book was the creepy Mr. Todd at the end, he certainly freaked me out a bit.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tafadhali
I know Waugh considered Brideshead Revisited overblown, but that's still where I first encountered his work and it's still my favorite. I miss its expansive, elegiac tone sometimes when I read his other work. This book is obviously brilliant, but the satire was so black that I just felt a bit repelled.
LibraryThing member ritaer
Woman betrays her husband for no particular reason, asks for divorce after their child is killed in riding accident. When he kicks up over her outrageous alimony demands and goes to Brazil we are left with two possible endings, one which leaves him imprisoned in the jungle and assumed dead, the other returns him to their marriage. An odd book partly a response to breakup of authors marriage.… (more)
LibraryThing member dmzach
What a discouraging book. The author was giving a slice of life of the idle rich moderns back in the early 20th century - and I ended up disliking all the characters and now even have a grudge against the author.
LibraryThing member lucybrown
Waugh's look at the thoroughly debauched, morally bankrupt English gentry. He savages these urbane savages with his cold rapier wit. If you like the early satires of Waught this one is for you. If you have always found Waugh too mean-spirited to be effective, this book will only strengthen that opinion. Though not quite a favorite, I rather liked the book myself, but haven't read it since the mid '80s and can't offer a really good review. For what it is worth, this book made Modern Library's List of the 100 Most Important Fiction Works of the 20th century and is considered one of the author's best works.

If you like stories of this millieu and era,but can't stomach Waugh's tone, I would suggest Anthony Powell's The Dance to the Music of Time sequence which have more depth and human sympathy, while still maintaining a level of social satire that is unparalleled.

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LibraryThing member js229
Unattractive but recognisably human protagonists subjected to brutal plotting. Brilliantly terrible final misfortune for the hero in passages that rather reminded me of the later Michael Innes books of 'abroad' like The Daffodil Affair.
LibraryThing member tloeffler
Brenda and Tony Last are a moneyed couple, living in their manor in the English countryside with their John Andrew, having weekend visitors and generally living the sort of life those people lived. Then Brenda gets bored and takes up with a social climber with no discernible means of support. When tragedy strikes, she decides to divorce Tony, who is clueless, and move to London. When her demands for money get too great, Tony emerges out of character and makes a life-changing decision.
Extremely well-written, and just as cynical as one would expect of Waugh, I came away angry at the lot of them; angrier still because I am pretty sure he didn't make much of this stuff up. But I couldn't help admire Waugh's style...
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LibraryThing member RobinDawson
The writing is excellent. Waugh is scathing about the world he describes, yet he does so with such light, satirical humour. However, the characters are so odious I didn’t want to know them and don’t want to think about them now that the book is behind me.

Furthermore, I found the structure very bizarre. Two thirds of the novel is set in England and centres on the vapid life of English ‘society’, then in the final third the husband sets off for the deepest, darkest Amazon jungles with a stranger he chances to meet. The stranger has some absolutely crackpot idea and the two go off very poorly prepared into the jungle where the hero and the stranger both perish. This final section is actually a short story Waugh happened to have lying around and tacked onto the end, and it reads just like that – the final section is alien and unrelated to the first section of the novel.

If this is his best book I'm not sure I'll be on the lookout for more Waugh.
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LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
This struck me as a mix between Brideshead Revisited and Scoop. It starts off as an English country house drama, and ends up as an adventure story in the jungle. Huh? But it was entertaining through and through -- Evelyn Waugh at his snarky best.
LibraryThing member maryanntherese
The story of Lady Brenda and Mr. Tony Last in 1930's British society. A stinging satire of the upper class, where stories don't always have happy endings.
LibraryThing member stillatim
I'm unsure about this one- the ending seems just too absurd for the rest of the novel. How does homebody Tony end up as a reading slave in the Amazon? I have no idea. On the other hand, it's incredibly creepy/witty as a stand-alone story and I can see why Waugh liked it enough to include in the novel. It provides a nice encapsulation of the moral of the story: everyone sucks, and if you don't suck, you're f'ed. So although it's not as tight as Brideshead, or as funny as Vile Bodies, it's worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member accidentally
waugh's finest, and most scathing. the ending clubs you from behind.
LibraryThing member mikestocks
You can't beat Waugh for prose style and QLPC (Qualiy Laughs Per Chapter)
LibraryThing member clq
Reading the first few pages of A Handful of Dust it quickly becomes obvious that this is going to be a standard, reliably funny, amusingly overdone story involving British caricatures of the 30s. And it is. But it really isn't. Sort of.

While the story kind of is all of those things, they serve as a backdrop and an excuse to drag the story in a number of directions. It goes a bit further in all of those directions than it needs to, but not quite far enough to overreach itself. It somehow manages to incorporate a number of rather significant plot-twists which don't seem like twists at all, but just elements of the rather solid underlying story of a wife having fallen out of love with her husband, and the amusing/funny/sad/tragic events that follow on from that. While the story at times gets rather dramatic and immersive, the overall, somewhat detached, tone suggests that the events are pretty much insignificant and entirely irrelevant to anyone but those directly involved. This also seems to be a point made in the endings (two of which were kindly provided in the edition I read, neither of which I liked that much).

The book has some really good moments, and it has many of them. Among other things it has the best few pages of fever-induced delirium I have read in a while. The sheer number of those notable moments makes this a very good book. I fully understand why it is considered to be a special and notable piece of literature. I just didn't think it was as exceptional or as best-book-ever'y as it is made out to be.
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