A Handful of Dust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
English writer Evelyn Waugh lived from 1903 to 1966. His novel, A Handful of Dust, was published in 1934. The story is set in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Tony Last and his wife Brenda belong to the upper crust of English society. They have a country estate called Hetton, Tony’s ancestral home. Tony loves Hetton and is content to be there and no other place. Brenda isn’t happy with country life and loves to pop up to London on the train to shop and eat in smart restaurants and go around to the best nightclubs. In short, she is a social butterfly, while Tony is the more sedate, stay-at-home type. We see right away that they are mismatched. They have one child, an eight-year-old son named John Andrew.
Enter John Beaver. Tony and Brenda invite him down to their home for the weekend because that’s what these people do. He’s a rather dull, uninspiring young man, but Tony and Brenda treat him decently; the weekend ends and he goes home. We don’t know until later that he and Brenda have begun an unlikely love affair.
Brenda begins spending more and more time in London. She claims the need for a small “flat” so she can stay nights and not have to go back home to Hetton on the late-night train. She tells Tony she is studying economics but the truth is she’s carrying on with Beaver. Everybody knows it except Tony.
Finally things come to a head when a terrible riding accident claims the life of Tony and Brenda’s young son, John Andrew. Brenda is, of course, in London when it happens. After the dust settles, Brenda tells Tony that she is in love with Beaver, she’s through pretending, and she wants a divorce so she can marry Beaver.
Tony is perfectly willing to give up Brenda. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but he agrees to give her what he considers a fair amount in the divorce settlement. To Brenda, though—and especially to Beaver—it isn’t enough. Beaver will not marry Brenda, he says, until she is amply provided for. The amount Brenda and Beaver are asking for is ruinous to Tony. He refuses to grant them the amount they want and he tells Brenda he will not give her a divorce.
To try to escape his painful memories, Tony agrees to go on an ill-fated “expedition” to South America with a crackpot “explorer,” Dr. Messinger. The purpose of the expedition is not quite clear, except that Tony hopes to find a lost city. As might be expected, the expedition doesn’t go as planned and things turn very bad for Tony. Meanwhile, back in England, Beaver has abandoned Brenda and she is struggling to get by on the little bit of money she has. Tony is in South America, of course, and she can’t get in touch with him to ask for more.
A Handful of Dust is a satire on marriage and societal mores. We see how easily these people fall into infidelity and even encourage infidelity in one who isn’t predisposed to it. Brenda is a selfish bitch who cares more about her lover than she does about her son and husband. The ironic part is that her lover doesn’t care that much for her. She throws it all away for nothing and, through her selfishness and grasping for money, brings her world crashing down. If Tony had never married her, he could have had a happy life.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp