Continuing on with my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh, last week I was reading A Handful of Dust. I seem to remember that it was the title of this book which appealed to me – which in fact was taken from T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’. This feels like a much more serious book, and I think I was ready for that after the heady abandon of the characters in Vile Bodies. That’s not to say they aren’t reckless in their own way, but they are slightly older, with more commitments in the way of family homes to run and children to care for. This makes their actions all the more shocking I think – there’s nothing particularly alarming about young singletons going out on the ran dan, but when it is done with a lack of regard to a family they have built up and are required to care for that is another matter altogether.
The story revolves around husband and wife, Tony and Brenda Last, who live out in the country in the Gothic manor that Tony has inherited. They spend their mornings lolling about, leaving their young son John in the care of a somewhat uncouth stable-hand, then reprimand him for using naughty words and saying rough things about those he meets. There is a listlessness to the Lasts – they don’t seem to do very much and it is not much of a surprise to me that Brenda becomes bored. She embarks on an affair with the dull John Beaver, who is never quite at ease in the Bloomsbury set, always waiting on last-minute invitations to dinners and events as he is known for being a single man and a readily available space-filler if someone cancels at short notice.
There were elements of this book which reminded me a little of Anna Karenina – a bored woman seduced by a young man and giving up a lot to be with him. Brenda is bored with her life, and escapes to London, spending more and more time away from home ‘studying’ and fobbing Tony off with excuses as to why she cannot come home. She completely abandons her child and it is clear that she doesn’t care much for him. It’s really hard to have much sympathy for any of the characters in this novel as they are all very flawed but they are so vague that they don’t even notice their own failings. Writing this review I almost feel that this novel left a strange feeling of malaise hanging over me, drawn in as I was by their stories.
That’s what Waugh does so well, capturing this generation between the wars that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The characters are from a slightly older generation than in Vile Bodies but the sentiments are the same; a listlessness and feeling of unreality.
After the frivolities of the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies, and the farcical comedy of errors that is Scoop, this came as something of a shock. It’s serious, but still retains a lot of elements which can be held up to ridicule. I almost would have liked for this book to be more realistic, more serious and grown-up, much as I’d like its characters to take a bit more responsibility. It’s almost as if nothing can be taken seriously again after the horror of the First World War. The beauty of what Waugh does in this book is to create these characters that are so affected by the War but they don’t even realise how affected they are.
I found the ending a bit odd and unbelievable. Like most people I’m sure, I thought that Tony was a bit wet and all too easily fooled by Brenda’s indiscretions. The moment that he finally does stand up to her feels like a big moment for the reader but leads on to him going on a strange journey into the heart of South America. I’d like to discuss this more but don’t want to give too much away! There is a particular part which Waugh had originally written as a short story called ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ – it’s quite creepy but I think led Waugh down a well-trodden road of being slightly absurd. I really enjoyed this episode and found it absorbing and quite unsettling, but I’m not sure about how well it fit in to the story.