Thursday, 4 May 2000

Evelyn Waugh: A Handful of Dust (1934)

Edition: Chapman & Hall, 1964
Review number: 490

While most of Evelyn Waugh's novels - at least the ones I have read - are humorous with a melancholy side, A Handful of Dust is melancholy with some humour. It is expanded from a short story, The Man Who Liked Dickens, set in the jungle on the borders of British Guiana and Brazil, and is an explanation of what has driven Tony Last to that jungle.

The beginning of this is when boredom drives Tony's wife, tired of country living in the austerity of the early thirties, to have an affair. Tony has no idea what is happening until the death of their only child, in a hunting accident, leads Brenda to announce that she is leaving him. Much of the comedy in the novel occurs here, at its blackest point, when Tony tries to do the honourable thing and give grounds for divorce to protect Brenda from having her affair dragged through the courts.

I prefer Waugh in less sombre mood, and found most of the characters in this novel insufficiently likeable to have really enjoyed it.

Waugh was unable to reprint the short story in the United States, presumably for copyright reasons, and so wrote a new ending, which meant that the American edition bore no trace of the original starting point of the novel. It is reprinted here as an alternative ending, an interesting curiosity.

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