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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh
(1934)

The release of the film version of Brideshead Revisited a decade or so ago makes that novel the most popular, as well as the best-known, of Evelyn Waugh's books. The fact remains that Brideshead is not vintage Waugh, largely by reason of a plummy quality amounting almost to sentimentality that is uncharacteristic of the author working at the top of his form.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-66), the son of a London publisher and brother of a bestselling novelist whose own books failed to survive the lilies of the field, came down from Oxford with a vague ambition to become a cabinet-maker and woodworker. He published a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite, before discovering his vocation in the writing of his first novel, Decline and Fall; a madcap story inspired by his experience teaching at a boys' school in North Wales. The book, which received small attention from the reviewers, was followed by a succession of wildly wicked comic masterpieces: Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, Scoop, and Put Out More Flags. Between the second and third of these comes a contextually anomalous novel that in retrospect can be seen to anticipate the "serious" fiction to which Waugh turned in the second half of his career, while retaining the mordantly satirical humor and nearly surrealistic storyline and atmosphere of the early period. A Handful of Dust is a fulcrum novel, on which the author's art can be seen to balance. Also it is Waugh's masterpiece, a distillation of his finest qualities as a literary artist, social observer, and prophet.

Evelyn Waugh in his choice of subject and in his modernist technique was a writer for his time; in intellect and sensibility, however, he was a total misfit, at sword's-point with the modern world. It was his good fortune to be not so much misunderstood by the Bright Young Things of the Twenties and Thirties who bought his (socially as well as intellectually) sophisticated books, as not to be understood at all. Waugh is so skillful and amusing a writer that it is very easy to satisfy oneself with the icing, while ignoring the cake altogether. It is true also that Waugh was highly reticent about what he was really up to in his fiction, never deigning to "explain" his work to his public or to the critics-as, of course, it is always a mistake for an artist to do. For Waugh, to write novels was to create "small systems of independent order" as a means of holding chaos at bay. A monarchist who disdained to vote on the ground that no candidate for Parliament was sufficiently reactionary to suit his principles, a convert to Catholicism whose ideal century was the thirteenth, and a defiant social snob who hobnobbed with, and married into, the English aristocracy, though of bourgeois origins himself, Evelyn Waugh became something of a figure of condescending amusement in England, following the end of World War Two and the beginning of the "Century of the Common Man." None of this gainsays the truth: Waugh, who saw the world and saw it plainly, put his comic genius in service to the most serious purpose, which was is no less than a metaphysical, political, and social critique of the modern world. Appropriately, the title of his finest book is taken from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which also supplies the epigraph:

.I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

A Handful of Dust is the story of Tony Last (Waugh is always wonderfully apt in naming his characters), a wellbred Englishman who lives with his beautiful aristocratic wife and their young son John Andrew on Hetton estate at an easy distance from London. Tony, who is of independent means, devotes his life to the estate and to the neighboring village where he acts the part of squire, involving himself in local affairs and serving as vestryman at the Anglican church. He has, as he thinks, a developed sense of place and of history, of family and country. Waugh deftly leads us to perceive, though, that Tony's sense of the past is nostalgic and sentimental rather than living and realistic. (He has naively and even tastelessly named the bedrooms in his house after the Arthurian legend: "Guinevere," "Lancelot," and so forth.) Tony Last, we understand, despite his breeding and cultivation is the modern Everyman who has lost contact with the tradition he venerates and believes he is upholding, without ever grasping its meaning and essence.

Tony's comfortable, complacent life is wrecked when Brenda Last begins an affair with John Beaver, a feckless and unattractive young man (his unlikeliness as a lover is precisely what causes Brenda to take him for one) who spends his days sitting at home by the telephone waiting for some society hostess to invite him to make up a couple at a luncheon or supper party. (John's mother, Mrs. Beaver, is a busy interior decorator who specializes in rennovating fine old London townhouses in chrome and sheepskin. "'.[N]o one [was hurt] I am thankful to say,' said Mrs. Beaver, 'except two housemaids who lost their heads and jumped through a glass roof into the paved court. They were in no danger. The fire never properly reached the bedrooms I am afraid. Still they are bound to need doing up, everything black with smoke and drenched with water and luckily they had that old-fashioned sort of extinguisher that ruins everything. One really cannot complain.'") When the news is broken to her that "John" has been killed in a riding accident, Brenda inadvertently expresses the relief she feels that the victim is her son, not her paramour. She leaves her husband for John Beaver after the funeral and demands a divorce from him. In order to protect Lady Brenda's good name, her family's solicitor prevails upon Tony to let himself be taken in an "infidelity" in a Brighton hotel. Shadowed by "detectives," he arrives in the company of an employee of London's most elegant and unobtrusive brothel and her eight-year-old daughter, who share the "adulterer's" bed between them. Later, when Lady Brenda's brother demands a divorce settlement that would require the sale of Hetton to make up the amount, Tony at last puts his foot down politely and joins Dr. Messinger, a new acquaintance, on an archaeological expedition to Brazil in search of a "City," fabled among the natives, which Tony imagines as "Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton.." On the voyage out, he strikes up a shipboard friendship with a charming and wistful Creole girl returning from her convent school in Paris to Trinidad to be suitably married. Tony and Dr. Messinger debark at Georgetown, British Guiana, and head at once for the interior, where they are abandoned by their native guides and proceed alone on their journey down a tributary of the Amazon. Tony is stricken with a tropical fever; delerious, he imagines Brenda is in the boat with them. (From interspersed flashbacks to London, we learn that she and John Beaver have tired of one another, and Brenda has paid a visit to Tony's solicitor to inquire if she is made a beneficiary in his will.) Dr. Messinger leaves Tony stretched in his hammock to search out help downstream, and is drowned in a falls. Tony, delerious again with fever, is discovered and rescued by the eccentric Mr. Todd.. (Waugh gave his novel two endings: this one-left deliberately incomplete for the putative reader's benefit-and a "realistic" but also less striking and effective alternative, supplied to please the more prosaic-minded among the critics.)

A Handful of Dust is a powerful restatement of Waugh's overriding concern as a novelist: to demonstrate the vulnerability of civilization to a resurgence of the barbarism from which it developed slowly over the ages at the cost of immeasurable travail. Twentieth century intellectual fashion held that the two deserve to be viewed as equal alternative "preferences." In fact, the relativistic spirit which regards them as such is rebarbarizing civilization to produce a culture that will make precivilization seem innocent by comparison. Barbarism versus civilization was not, for Waugh, a racial issue--he wrote a short story about black explorers a millenium hence landing in Darkest Britain to convert the repaganized Britons, painted blue with wode--but a matter of faith, will, and fortitude. (Not even Evelyn Waugh could most likely have imagined that, less than forty years after his death, human flesh would be sold in the Africanized streets of London, along with chimpanzee and bushrat meat.) The satire cuts most deeply, the prophetic vision sees furthest, perhaps, in "English Gothic--II," where Waugh deftly renders a social world in which maintaining appearances is everything-and appearances count for nothing, because everyone sees the moral reality of adultery, divorce, and thievery plainly, accepts it unquestioningly, and expects Tony to accept it also by selling Hetton in order to allow Beaver to marry Brenda and maintain her in accustomed luxury. The dramatic power and poignancy of the chapter are surely owing to the trauma Waugh experienced in his first marriage, which ended in divorce after his wife cuckolded him with a mutual friend, and left a lifelong impression on him. The black savages in Brazil, Waugh is saying, are not-any longer-morally or even culturally superior to the white heathens and neo-pagans in England.

Artistically, Evelyn Waugh has affinities with the reactionary literary pessimists of his time, though not necessarily those of his own generation (Eliot and Pound and their circle); also with what Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation (Hemingway, Fitzgerald), old enough to have experienced the horrors of the Great War that effectively wrecked Western civilization. In other respects, however, he stands apart from these writers by virtue of his religious faith (excepting Eliot) and his social sophistication (excepting Fitzgerald). Waugh was a deeply unhappy man: an alcoholic, glutton, and insomniac whose detestable behavior was deliberately incorporated into a personal as well as a professional identity. Like many artists, he loathed in others and in the world around him what he identified and despised in himself, and made his art from the tension between opposing tendencies. (The problem with Brideshead Revisited is really that, in writing the book, Waugh felt too comfortable and at home with his material.) For Evelyn Waugh, these were civilization versus barbarism, order versus chaos, God's Church versus the Devil.

In response to a friend who had temeritously inquired how he could reconcile notorious personal conduct with pious Christian belief, Waugh replied that, without his faith, he would scarcely be human at all. His tone was airy, as if his answer were the most obvious thing in the world.

 

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