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A Handful of Follies, Frivolities, and Funerals: Post World Waugh I

“It is difficult not to write satiRE.”


Brimming with his unsparing English sarcasm, Waugh’s ambitious novel lampoons a dying English aristocracy through the story of the cuckolding of a chivalrous country squire by a good-for-nothing London louche. What follows is a ‘savage’ satire deriding all kinds of human vanities personified in Waugh’s shallow yet very real characters living in the frail peace of interwar years in England.

Credits: National Potrait Gallery London

Waugh wrote of a period and a social class both of which couldn’t have inspired a literature that wasn’t satire. Though Evelyn Waugh always denied this claim about himself, he was one of the pre-eminent English satirists of the Twentieth-century. Waugh’s fifth novel, A Handful of Dust, is the most autobiographical of his novels. In the following two paragraphs, I have attempted a very brief summary of the novel. I have eluded all the suspenseful plot points except for the most obvious ones, but I am obliged to put a spoiler alert.

The novel opens with the gossipy chit-chat between Mrs. Beaver, a shrewd Londoner socialite, and her bone idle son, John Beaver. It is through them we are introduced to the Lasts. Tony and Brenda Last are a perfect couple. Tony Last is a chivalrous but impassive English aristocrat, unhealthily obsessed with his pseudo-Gothic Victorian mansion, ‘Hetton Abbey‘. Brenda, on the other hand, besides being, as Jock Grant Menzies calls her, ‘a grand girl’, is…um…well…terribly bored. She is tired of a life at the Gothic monstrosity but never expresses it out of her urbane ‘ladylike’ disposition. Tony and Brenda have been happily married for seven years. They are also parents to a marvellous eight-year-old boy, John Andrew.

The cracks in the lives of this perfect couple start to appear when Tony accidentally invites John Beaver to Hetton. Brenda – being flawless, she instinctively ‘longs for mediocrity’ – starts an affair with Beaver. Through this affair, we are shown the frivolous post-World War I lives of many upper class London socialites. A fatiguing number of parties and a funeral later, the real fun begins when the narrative takes an unanticipated turn out of the blue. It would be criminal of me to spoil it further for the reader, so I must stop here with the summary.

Credits: Goodreads

A Handful of Dust is the work of a master storyteller. Waugh has a keen eye for the minutest ludicrosities of human behaviour. His range of experiences is vast. It is unlikely for a first-time reader of the novel to guess its autobiographical nature keeping in mind the surreal chain of events that are described. The dialogues of his novels are Waugh’s forté: both witty and real. He finds humour in the grimmest of times which makes the novel an extraordinarily hilarious read.

Tony Last is a relic (also, a prisoner) of the dead Victorian aristocracy. Tony desperately clings on to a dilapidating Hetton – which is, like ‘Howards’s End’ in E. M. Forster‘s novel of the same name, a symbol of pre-war, pre-modern world order when Great Britain was still ‘great’. Brenda’s boredom and her reckless escapades merely for a sense of adventure are quintessential of the ‘lost generation‘ of the interwar years. Waugh’s characters are vain. They are perpetually trying to evade reality. They are hungry for gossip about budding romances, cheap scandals, extra-marital affairs, and rancorous divorces for their amoral amusements. Waugh sees his contemporary English society as a ‘Waste Land’. (The title of the novel is derived from Eliot’s modernist epic.) Waugh, with his Catholic sensibilities, uses satire as his instrument for moralising. His novel is characterised by many traits of a comedy of manners, but, at the same time, it is grim and depressing; hence, it may more appropriately be called a ‘tragedy of manners’.

A Handful of Dust is marred by sporadic bursts of casual racism. Waugh uses the ‘n’ slur rather liberally. Native American ‘Indians’ have been called savages; their customs, mocked. Entire continents other than Europe have been called uncivilised. The ‘moors’ who never really feature in the book have been portrayed as a queer lot. Even by the standards of his times, this is unquestionably racist. Waugh uses a lexicon fraught with references to things presumably popular in 1930s’ London. The book is full of contemporary slang which is slightly difficult for the modern day reader to get.

These things might make the book less appealing to some readers, but this book is definitely worth a read. A Handful of Dust at its worst is ever so slightly politically incorrect, but at its best is Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in reading a hilariously dark satire. One may also read it solely for its mind-blowing use of Dickens’ fiction as a plot device of horror.

Umar Farooque Shaikh is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Nuzhat Khan

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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