Book Group: A Handful of Dust

On Saturday morning, Manaus was the name on everybody’s lips. Not only was some football apparently going to be played there that evening, but this particular part of the Amazonian rainforest is also the last known whereabouts of Tony Last, hero of Waugh’s masterpiece A Handful of Dust. 

Magazine illustration of Tony Last reading

A Handful of Dust started life as the illustrated short story ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’, which appeared in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine in November 1933

This 1934 novel marks a real shift in Waugh’s work and the latent darkness of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies bubbles up to the service in adultery, child death and a nightmare fate for the lead character that sees Tony Last incarcerated in a remote corner of Brazil reading Charles Dickens to his captor for, we must assume, the rest of his days. The basic storyline is this: Tony and Brenda Last are happy enough, on the surface at least, until Brenda falls for the worthless social hanger-on and sponger John Beaver. When the Lasts’ six-year-old son John Andrew is killed on the way back from hunting, Brenda leaves Tony for John. Tony then embarks on an uncharacteristic expedition to the Amazonian rainforest, where he catches fever and taken in by the sinister Mr Todd who, as we soon learn, is reluctant to let him go.

While on Saturday morning we were, as yet, blissfully unaware of the final England V. Italy scoreline, Tony’s eventual fate is subject to rather more foreshadowing. The indigenous people employed as his escort disappear in the night, and his rescuer-turned captor’s name is the German for death. And as for poor John Andrew, Tony’s son: well, we counted at least four hints in the text that his first hunting trip (‘I hope he won’t break his neck’…’Are you sure it’s safe’… ‘You  won’t see any death’… ‘The world might come to an end…’) would also be his only one. Just don’t get on Thunderclap, John Andrew (even the boy’s pony is named after a steed which killed to riders before mortally wounding itself on a hunt) .

Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda Last

Brenda Last: worst mother in literature?

And what if John Andrew had not been killed? Then literature would have been robbed of some of its most infamous lines of dialogue. When John Andrew’s mother, Brenda, is first told of her son’s death she mistakenly believes that it is her lover who has come to grief. These lines follow her process of realisation:

She frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying.

“John…John Andrew…I….Oh thank God…’ Then she burst into tears.

This reaction has earned Brenda a place in countless lists of “worst mothers in literature”. Is this fair? On Saturday, we mounted a partial defence of her:

  1. People often react very oddly when given bad news. This is in fact the explanation later Brenda gives to Jock for her outburst (Jock goes on to marry Brenda, so could not have been irrevocably disturbed by her behaviour).
  2. Elsewhere we are told that Brenda really did care for John Andrew: for example, she and Tony never holidayed abroad because ‘Brenda never wanted to leave John Andrew’.

So shocking as her words are, they probably underscore what is suggested elsewhere in the novel; Brenda is not calculating or heartless, just profoundly thoughtless and easily led.

A lovely contrast to Brenda is provided by one of our favourite female Waugh characters to date: Mrs Rattery, aka the ‘Shameless Blonde’. Mrs Rattery, blissfully unaware of social convention arrives at the Lasts’ home in an aeroplane she pilots herself and joins in with the workmen as they strip the morning room ceiling. As we’ve come to expect from Waugh, it’s this incidental character who is blessed with greater powers of perception than any of the main cast. Mrs Rattery is about to go to London with Jock to tell Brenda of her son’s death when she realises she is needed where she is:

Members of the Evelyn Waugh Book Group

Rebecca, Geoffrey and Harriet discuss A Handful of Dust

There was something in Tony’s voice as he said this which made Mrs Rattery ask, ‘What are you going to do while you’re waiting?’

‘I don’t know. I suppose there will be things to see to.’

‘Look here’, said Mrs Rattery, ‘Jock had better go up by car. I’ll stay here until Lady Brenda comes’

‘It would be awful for you.’

‘No, I’ll stay’.

Such is the kindness of this near-stranger to Tony that she sits with him all day, keeping him occupied in card games and trying to stop him thinking.

Can this work beat Brideshead Revisited to the title of Waugh’s best novel? We certainly admired it, and the general feeling in the group was that it is in another class compared to the rest of the ‘social comedy’ run – for there is humour here, although it’s pitch black in places. Gone, for the most part, are Waugh’s earlier charicatures; the horror here, despite the inspired absurdity of Tony’s final fate, is all too believable.

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Barbara Cooke

About Barbara Cooke

Research Associate for the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project.

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3 responses to “Book Group: A Handful of Dust”

  1. Elizabeth-Anne

    Winnie and her knickers! I remember the first time I was fascinated by the idea of having to fake adultery. Score one for the modern legal system there.

    Both the scene where Brenda hears the news of John Andrew’s death and Mrs Rattery helping even though she seems at first not to be suited to it are really accurate depictions of what happens in a crisis, I always think. They’re more likely to be odd and banal and horrid. And yes, while there’s an argument for thoughtless neglect being just as bad as active cruely from a parent, I don’t think Brenda is up there with the worst. In fact everyone in the book seems to treat John Andrew rather irresponsibly.

  2. July Book Group: Early Short Stories

    […] us considered ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’, which was revised to create the ending for A Handful of Dust, to be more successful as a stand-alone work than as a surreal departure from the much more realist […]

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