During the last 12 months, countless old movies, books, and plays have been remembered or reinterpreted to help us make sense of the pandemic and its miseries. Few works from the past evoke the cognitive dissonance of our moment, the sense that we are watching society go to pieces from the comfort of a picture window, better than Evelyn Waugh’s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust, a masterpiece that was judged one of the last century’s 100 best books by the Modern Library.
Read today, A Handful of Dust may lack some of the obvious pleasures of other major works by Waugh. It has neither the acidic humor of Scoop (1938) nor the resplendent solemnity of Brideshead Revisited (1945). But at its center is a character whose condition, if not his circumstances, mirrors our own: the quintessential upper-class Englishman, Tony Last, who with his wife Brenda and young son John Andrew, leads a life in retreat from a hostile, declining society.
As sketched by a teasing but ultimately empathetic Waugh, Tony is an aristocrat as well-mannered as he is well-heeled. In one of the novel’s most memorable passages, Tony learns that John Andrew has committed the sin of referring to his nanny as a “silly old tart.” Instead of merely scolding or punishing the lad, Tony uses the occasion to provide a kind of moral education. “Poor people use certain expressions which gentlemen do not,” Tony tells John Andrew. “You are a gentleman. When you grow up all this house and lots of other things besides will belong to you.”
That Tony should make reference to what he understatedly calls his “house” in the course of correcting John Andrew is telling. In Waugh’s account, Tony’s sense of what is true and good is bound up in his family homestead, a huge, outrageously ornamented faux Gothic estate called Hetton Abbey. Waugh relishes describing its features: the sleep-interrupting clock tower, the hammer-beam roof in the dining hall, the tapestry-lined walls in the bedroom. Aware that the architectural style of Hetton has fallen out of favor, Tony nonetheless insists that it will one day regain its proper stature. “Already it was referred to as ‘amusing,’ and a very civil young man had asked permission to photograph it for an architectural review,” Waugh writes.
Tony has neither the hankering to leave Hetton nor the inclination to invite others to tramp through it. Unlike Jay Gatsby, Tony doesn’t wish to keep his domicile stocked “full of interesting people, night and day.” Waugh writes appealingly, even cozily of Tony’s Sunday regimen of attending services at his church, cutting through a field on his way home, taking a detour to one of his greenhouses to pluck a flower for his lapel, and plunking himself down in his study for a glass of sherry.
It’s debatable how much of this is intended as satire. By the time of A Handful of Dust, Waugh had already made his much-noted conversion to Catholicism, but he only gently sends up what seems to be the inchoate Anglicanism of Tony, who admits to never having given deep thought to the existence of a deity. In the novel’s terms, the church functions not as a vessel of Tony’s piety (or lack thereof) but as a brick-and-mortar symbol of the stolidity of his life at Hetton Abbey. The pine pew built by his great-great-grandfather is, like the house itself, something of “tender memory and proud possession.”
All of this splendid isolation is insufficient for Brenda, who complains more than once that she and Tony never go anywhere or see anybody. In an act of literary precognition, the incongruous pairing of Tony and Brenda prefigures the similarly ill-matched union of the Tony-like Prince Charles and the rather more high-spirited Lady Diana Spencer. As with the real-life royal couple, many are inclined to take the side of the vivacious bride rather than the glum groom. “She’s lovely, he’s rather a stick,” says Mrs. Beaver, a nouveau riche interior decorator in London.
Crucially, Waugh gives Brenda’s view of Tony a hearing but never fully endorses it. “Brenda teased him whenever she caught him posing as an upright, God-fearing gentleman of the old school and Tony saw the joke, but this did not at all diminish the pleasure he derived from his weekly routine,” Waugh writes. He defuses Brenda’s judgments by acknowledging that Tony was, at least in part, aware of what others considered to be his limitations.
Tony’s dream of digging in for the duration at Hetton begins to come undone when Brenda, making good on her idle musings about her unhappy lot at home, conspires to get to London after all: Brenda prevails on Tony to allow her to decamp periodically to a modest rented flat designed by none other than Mrs. Beaver, whose perpetually short-on-money, pathetically on-the-make grown son, John Beaver, has become the unlikely object of Brenda’s affections. “He’s second-rate and a snob and, I should think, as cold as a fish, but I happen to have a fancy for him, that’s all,” Brenda tells her uncomprehending sister of the affair known to all but Tony.
While Brenda plays at being a talked-about adulteress in London, tragedy engulfs Hetton. After being permitted to participate in a fox hunt, John Andrew falls from a horse and suffers fatal injuries. In having Brenda, upon being told the news of the death of “John,” momentarily assume the name to stand for her lover rather than her son, and to fleetingly be relieved when it turns out to be the latter and not the former, Waugh arguably overplays his hand; few could be so callous as Brenda is here.
From here, the novel takes on a certain grim plausibility, as Waugh initiates a series of events to finally pry Tony from Hetton. Deciding that there is no better time than after the death of her son to leave her husband, Brenda writes a letter to Tony stating her love for John Beaver, her intention to seek a divorce, and her permanent move to London. “I am not coming back to Hetton,” Brenda writes. Gallantly permitting Brenda to stand as the wronged party, Tony willingly—sheepishly, even—participates in a plot by which he is framed as a supposed adulterer. Yet Tony is not too much the gentleman forever. Facing a request for outrageously high alimony payments, and the related suggestion that he part with Hetton to raise the funds, he insists: “But I don’t happen to want to go anywhere else except Hetton.”
In fact, he does. In a long section derived from a masterly, near-concurrent Waugh short story, 1933’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Tony retreats again—not to Hetton but to untamed South America, where he journeys in the company of an eccentric, finally inept English explorer. Truly a stranger in a strange land, Tony becomes seriously unwell, feverish, delusional. He is returned to health thanks to the intervention of a despotic, psychotic English-speaking man known as Mr. Todd, whose illiteracy threatens to confine Tony evermore: discovering that Tony has a gift for reading aloud, Mr. Todd enjoins his captive to talk his way through the collected works of his favorite author, Charles Dickens. “Let us read Little Dorrit again,” Mr. Todd says, alarmingly, near the end of the novel. Taking Tony for dead, his cousins install themselves at Hetton, setting up a silver fox farm.
Most see Tony’s South American captivity as a kind of final banishment from Hetton, a cruel, Waughian coup de grace. Waugh certainly saw things this way, writing in a letter to fellow author Henry Green, “The scheme was a Gothic man in the hands of savages—first Mrs Beaver etc. then the real ones finally the silver foxes at Hetton.” Yet the most perceptive essay ever written on A Handful of Dust argues otherwise. In a 1977 piece in The New York Times, the critic Anatole Broyard suggested that Tony’s fate was not one worse than death. “I wonder, as we leave Tony there, whether he will not eventually be happier with Mr. Todd and Dickens than if he were to make his way back to England,” wrote Broyard, whose favorite Waugh novel this was. “With American life going on as it has been, I sometimes feel like holing up with the complete works of Evelyn Waugh.”
The impulse to hole up, to withdraw, to retire to a grand country estate, to lose oneself in the literature of long ago: are these not widely shared as we look around us today? As with the French revolutionaries and Marie Antoinette, the vanguard—even if only in the form of alimony-seeking unfaithful spouses—did come for Tony Last, but he found, in his role as a literary vassal to Mr. Todd, a new warren to burrow into.
What, finally, makes A Handful of Dust so sad? Maybe it’s not that Tony Last is lost in the jungle, but because, this year, it sometimes feels as though we are right there with him.
Peter Tonguette writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review.