Posted by: chartroose | August 7, 2008

A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh, 1934, 300 p.

After finishing A Handful of Dust, I held it up and told my daughter that I thought I was in love with the author.  She retorted that it’s stupid to be in love with a man who has been dead for fifty years and who has a woman’s name to boot.  I told her his name was pronounced Evil-in, and she just gave me that peculiar look she wears when she’s thinking I’m retarded, and replied that he said it was Evil-in so that people wouldn’t make fun of his girly name.  The wierd thing is, she could be right.  I’ve always heard that it was Evil-in, but the info is secondhand, so who can really tell?  I’ve read some background material on Evelyn Waugh, and he claimed to have been bullied in primary school.  Perhaps his name played a major role in his victimization, so he tweaked it a little bit.  I tweaked my name when I was a kid, and now, nobody makes fun of the great chartroose!

Next to Never Let Me Go, this is the best novel I’ve read all year.  Mr. Waugh’s writing flows along beautifully and smoothly.  I don’t think I’ve ever read any writing that seems as much at ease with itself as Mr. Waugh’s (if this makes any sense).  It’s like all the words got together and held a conference and said, “let’s let old Evelyn take a nap while we arrange ourselves in perfect order on the pages here.  When he wakes up, the novel will be finished!”  This effortlessness translates into a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.  It didn’t hurt that A Handful of Dust is a satire, either.  Give me a good satire, and I’m as happy as a puppy snacking out of a litterbox!

The novel is about a British upper-crusty couple named Tony and Brenda Last.  They live in Tony’s family estate (Hetton), within easy distance of London.  Tony is totally into his family home to the detriment of practically everything else.  He is so immersed in fantasy about Hetton’s grandeur that he has even named some of the bedrooms after Arthurian characters (Guinevere, Lancelot, etc.).  Brenda, bored with the whole “country squire and wife” existence, takes a lover in London.  His name is John Beaver, and he’s an unattractive social climber, which is exactly why Brenda falls for him.  A tragedy occurs that changes their lives forever, and I couldn’t help feeling that they got what they deserved, although I did feel very bad for Tony at the end.  I think Tony was so blinded by his social class and what he perceived to be the correct way to behave as a “man of means” that he was truly handicapped, and he became an object of pity for me.  Brenda, on the other hand, got exactly what she deserved, the stupid twit!  She became an object of scorn.

What made A Handful of Dust better than practically anything else I’ve read this year is the underlying theme.  We are all greedy and selfish.  Appearances mean nothing; the outer shell of a person means nothing, because inside each of us is a grasping narcissist just waiting to emerge and become the center of the universe.  It’s all about me, me, ME, and it always will be.

As mentioned above, I did a little background research on Evelyn Waugh.  After a fairly conventional childhood, he was accepted to Oxford, where he was popular because of his astounding drinking abilities, nasty sarcasm and haughty disdain of school tradition.  Due to a total lack of motivation as a student, he was expelled from Oxford and decided to commit suicide by swimming himself to death.  Shortly after beginning his death swim, he ran into a school of stinging jellyfish and raced back to shore in agony.  He wrote his first novel in his mid-twenties and died in 1966 at the age of 62.  It has been said that he was insane at the time of his death, and it has also been said that he was a latent homosexual, even though he was married twice and fathered half-a-dozen children.  Some people claim that his name was Evelyn, and not Evil-in.  If his name really was Evelyn, I can see why he may have been gay.  No matter what the truth is, I do know one thing for sure.  I’m a little in love with Evelyn Waugh.



  1. What kind of sick parent names a boy Evelyn? Maybe poor old Evelyn was teased to death. My husband grew up with a girl named Mary Cowell who the kids all called Mary COW because she was very fat. Sadly she killed herself as a young adult.

    Do puppies really snack out of a litterbox? Happily? That’s disgusting!

    The book sounds great. I love how you pluck books out of obscurity and highlight them here!

  2. Great review. I’ve been contemplating reading Brideshead Revisited, but I think I’ll read this one first. I loved the background information and the pronounciation guide. The something I saw on TV the other day pronounced it evil-in. Thanks for pointing out this book to me!

  3. I love that idea of the words arranging themselves perfectly on the page while the author naps. Brilliant! Makes me want to open this book. Although the idea of a puppy eating litterbox fare is not appealing at all. I echo Lisamm: do they really do that? Yuck!

  4. Yes, Lisa and Jeane, puppies really do snack out of the litterbox until you teach them that they will die the next time they touch it. Or at least mine did, and they still do if they think they can away with it. My dogs are so disgusting! Oh, and thanks for the compliments!

    Jessica–I’m glad you’re thinking of reading this. I’ve heard that it’s the most serious of all his novels, so maybe we won’t like “Brideshead…” as well. I’m going to read the book first and wait to see the movie.

  5. I’ve never read anything by Waugh, although I’ve wanted to & didn’t know where to start. And I always wondered about that first name as well…but I have known for a whole that it’s Evil-in. Thanks for the review.

  6. I really liked the book although it was a wee bit harsh on old Tony at the end not that it didn’t seem perfectly reasonable. I’ve always wanted to catch the movie w/Rupert Everett as……hmm. I’m presuming Tony.

    Oh, Evelyn. Wasn’t that a man’s name until the girls co-opted it? Leslie Howard was a movie star, he played Ashley Wilkes for heaven’s sake. John Wayne was Marion Morrison. Evidently HE was worried about his manly image.

  7. I have vague recollections of reading a book by this author back in high school and really enjoying it. I can’t remember what book it was, but I am now off to find out!

  8. LOL-We are kitty sitting, and our Basset hound occasionally sneaks into the house (he used to live indoors, but circumstances have conspired to make him an outdoor dog. He hasn’t totally come to terms with this yet). I was just telling my husband today that if he makes it into the house, you know where we’ll find him: sitting on the floor in front of the litter box, snuffling around for kitty crunchies!

    Also, I feel like such a literary dolt. I had no idea Evelyn Waugh was a man! I think Carrie K is right though; now that I think about it, I think Evelyn did used to be a pretty common man’s name.

  9. I’m also quite the fan Evil-lin! I think my favourite would be ‘Black Mischief’, blackest of black satire, absolutely brilliant! 😀

  10. I wish my words would arrange themselves for me while I sleep – what a lovely thought. I’ve got a copy of this novel downstairs in a collection of Evelyn Waugh and might just pull it out for a summer read. Thanks!

  11. If I may stick my British oar in, Evelyn can be either a girl’s or a boy’s name. Generally speaking it is accepted that “Evil-in” is the girl’s pronunciation, while “Evv-lin” is the boy’s. Poor old Waugh got stuck with the wrong pronunciation.

    But anyway, I ADORE this book. It is quite marvellous and by far his best, IMHO. The title came from a TS Eliot line, from The Waste Land: “I shall show you fear in a handful of dust”. Flippin’ good line, that.

  12. I have a book by him on my shelves right now. Maybe I should try a little harder to get to it. . .

    Have a great weekend!

  13. What a great review!
    I read this several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. The ending is interesting and I found it hard not to think that Tony’s punishment didn’t outweigh his sins.
    But even more than the facts of the ending I was struck by how Waugh started off with a light-hearted funny book and wound up with such a dark ending! And made it all seem a very natural progression of events.

  14. Thanks to all of you for your great responses!

    Bybee, I think this will be a good starting point for Waugh. It’s easy and deep at the same time. I really don’t know how he did it!

    Carrie, I agree that it was harsh on Tony at the end, although Waugh had to do it for the irony of it all. Tony refused to give up the past, and then ended up living in the past, if you know what I mean. And Rupert Everett as Tony? Oooh, I can totally see him in that role! I’m going to have to look it up.

    Marg, it sounds like it’s time for a reread!

    Dreamybee, dogs are so gross! Mine do something disgusting nearly every day. Sometimes I have fantasies of taking them to the forest and leaving them there like in Hansel & Gretel, but, knowing my luck, they’d drag their sorry asses back home and be plagued with all kinds of debilitating injuries and I’d end up feeling guilty for the rest of my life! Sigh… It’s okay that you didn’t know Evelyn Waugh was a man. I don’t particularly think George W. Bush is a man even though he has a manly name.

    Owl, yes, I definitely want to read “Black Mischief!” I hear it’s fantastic, even though it has been said it’s racist. This doesn’t worry me–it has to be looked at in context.

    Verbivore, I was just visiting your site again! In a couple of years, I want to reread “A Handful of Dust” because I think there was a lot of irony I missed. If you read it, please let me know what you think of it.

    Kirsty, I stand corrected! Why are Americans so dumb about the English language? So Waugh’s name was pronounced the girly way, huh? Well, then this totally means he WAS gay = ). Yeah, it is a very good book, and one of these days I’m going to have to do a tribute to T. S. Eliot, who, as you know, denounced the U. S. and became a British citizen. I read your interview. What heavy metal bands are your favorites?

    Lezlie, you have a great weekend as well!

    Karen, yes, exactly! I felt the same way. It started out as a “fluffy” novel and then became dark and depressing and really heavy-duty. I think only the best writers can pull this off.

  15. Fascinating. From boys vs girls names and pronunciation and, of course, the review, and yes – your idea of the words rearranging – very good! I, too, think I will catch the movie Brideshead Revisited before reading.

  16. I think that if you fail to fully come to grips with the satire in ‘Black Mischief’ than it could be viewed as racist. Which would be shame as it is really such a masterful critique of Empire and moral corruption.

  17. Waugh is on my list of to-read authors for the upcoming year and maybe even for the upcoming month, because I’d really like to see Brideshead Revisited and I’m not sure I can do that without reading the book first. I have seen other movies based on his work and have quite enjoyed them, so I’m hopeful for his writing.

  18. I was a sucker for mid-90s metal like Korn and the Deftones. I also have a place in my heart for classic rock like ACDC and – er – Def Leppard. I never was cool. 🙂

  19. one-sie: Evelyn!?!?! That’s just mean. Then again nowadays there is far worse
    two-sie: thanks for this review! Sounds like something I would love to read 🙂 I actually just finished ‘ never let me go’ and I’m having some trouble feeling excited about starting anything else because ‘never let me go’ was so damn goooodddd

  20. Thanks, Care–Actually, I just broke down and bought a used hardback of “Brideshead…” I just couldn’t wait!

    Owl–I will read “Black Mischief” after “Brideshead…” I’m excited! This will be my Waugh year.

    sprite–Someone was telling me about a really good movie version of “…Dust” starring Kristen Scott Thomas. I’m going to have to find it. Also, if you don’t mind waiting awhile, I can send you the little “Brideshead…” hardback I bought after I’m finished.

    Kirsty–Yay! A gal after my own heart! What happened to Korn???? I loved their first album, especially the song “Faggot” because it was so raw and angry. They just kind of got boring after that, don’t you think? Angus makes me laugh every time I see him, and I won’t tell anyone about Def Leppard, I promise = )

    Steph–It’s a toss-up now between “Never Let Me Go” and “A Handful of Dust” for my favorites this year. Speaking of rock-n-roll, in your picture you look kind of like Joan Jett to me. You’re probably too young to even know who she is…it’s very sad…

  21. Oh yeah, I lost patience with them when Issues came out. But the first two albums retain a special place in my heart! I looked them up recently actually, after catching an old video on MTV2, and apparently Head left to become a Christian and David left for some other reason I couldn’t find. It seems he now runs a sushi restaurant. Weird.

  22. Your’re dear daughter is wrong. I fall in love with authors all the time! Characters too even! It’s ok!

  23. What a great review! I must admit I have yet to read an Evelyn Waugh novel but your account of him really makes me think I should. I think his name was far more common amongst his class during the 40s and 50s than it is now. Along with names like Aubrey and Jocelyn. Ah… that era seems so long ago and yet it’s only half a century – scary!

  24. The movie is good, but the ending didn’t make sense until I read the book. Carrie K – you’re mixing up your pretty British male actors. James Wilby is Tony and Rupert Graves is John Beaver. And yes, Kristin Scott Thomas is Brenda. Angelica Huston (did I spell that right) is completely wonderful as an American lady pilot. Rupert Everett isn’t in this one.

  25. I’m going to have to watch the movie for sure! I wonder if it’s available on DVD.

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