A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust

by Evelyn Waugh


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A HANDFUL OF DUST satirizes that stratum of English life where all the characters have money, but lack practically every other credential. Murderously urbane, it depicts the breakup of a marriage in the London gentry, where the errant wife suffers from terminal boredom and becomes enamored of a social parasite and professional lunch-goer.

The depravity and polished savagery of these characters offer an opportunity for Waugh's rapier wit and subtly to "show us fear in a handful of dust."

"Waugh's technique is relentless and razor-edged...by any standard it is super satire." (Chicago Daily News)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316216265
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 12/11/2012
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 243,877
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), whom TIME called "one of the century's great masters of English prose," wrote sixteen novels. His short fiction is collected in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Date of Birth:

October 28, 1903

Date of Death:

April 10, 1966

Place of Birth:

West Hampstead, London


Hertford College, Oxford University, 1921-1924; Heatherley's Art School, 1924

Read an Excerpt

Evelyn Waugh's 1935 novel is a mordantly funny vision of aristocratic decadence and ennui in England between the wars.

It tells the story of Tony Last, an aristocrat who, to the irritation of his wife, in inordinately obsessed with his Victorian gothic country house and life. Bored with her husband's old-fashioned ways, Lady Brenda begins an affair with an ambitious social climber. Faced with the collapse of his marriage and a sudden family tragedy, Tony is driven to seek solace in a foolhardy search for the fabled El Dorado in the wilds of Brazil, where he finds himself at the mercy of a jungle that is only slightly more savage than the one he left behind in England.

Here is a sublime example of the incomparably brilliant and wicked wit of one of the 20th century's most accomplished novelists.

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A Handful of Dust 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
TheAmpersand on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's pretty brief, and its prose is pretty spare, but there's marriage, tragedy, divorce and a various kinds of finality in "A Handful of Dust," a cold-blooded, straight-faced satire of the high society types that Waugh once knew and loathed. There's humor in it, too, both of the dry, high-minded British variety and of the more accessible kind. The novel features two of the funniest, brattiest fictional children I've ever witnessed, and they do a lot to liven up a narrative that gets somewhat slow in places. My main complaint about "A Handful of Dust," though, is Waugh's own attitude toward his characters. As expected, most of them are reprehensible: shallow society types enamored of flash, flattery and everything that signifies newness. That's more or less to be expected of Waugh, but he even seems to dislike Tony Last, a character whose sentiments most closely resemble his own. To hear Waugh tell it, Tony, who does his best throughout much of the novel to keep his family's estate intact and honor the traditions of the English countryside, isn't mistaken as much as lacking in intestinal fortitude; he aspires to standards he seems congenitally incapable of meeting. Cultural conservatives might sympathize with the author's view that the present is lacking in the sort of personages that made the past so exceptional and that the current generation is unworthy of inheriting the past's traditions. Still, by the time I reached the end of the novel, I began to suspect that Waugh had created Tony specifically in order to find him wanting, and that hardly seems fair. Waugh seems to have little sympathy for anyone trying to steer a middle path between modernity and tradition, and the novel's last chapter, which sees the Last family's traditions miraculously resurrected, smacks of deus ex machina. It'd be easy to dismiss "A Handful of Dust" as the work of a bitter, culturally atavistic British curmudgeon if the novel weren't so expertly constructed in so many other respects. Unpleasant as they can be, Waugh seems to know most of his characters through and through, and he matches them with social situations and personal possessions that seem perfectly appropriate to them. In fact, at no point in this novel do any of these characters act like anyone but their truest selves, and that's a rare and wonderful attribute for a novel to have. He describes the Lasts' marriage, to cite just one example, as a union that will fall apart with the slightest shove, and when such an event occurs it seems to collapse entirely of its own accord. The aforementioned ending aside, I wasn't at all conscious of Waugh using his authorial license to consciously arrange his character's fates. Tony's own end, which I can't spoil here, is delightfully unexpected, strangely poetic, and, in its way, wholly appropriate. As the novel ends, a sort of Victorian super-order has been achieved: there's a place for everyone, and everyone's in their place, even if you didn't catch the author putting them there. This sort of subtlety suggests that Waugh may have possessed the skill that separates great writers from merely good ones, but the reason I can't bring myself to award "A Handful of Dust" more than three stars is rather personal: I just don't cotton to novels completely bereft of sympathetic characters. In the hands of another author, Tony last might qualify as sympathetic, or at least nobly conflicted, but Waugh's own contempt for him ruin him for me. Since I'm a twenty-first American of liberal sensibilities, it's possible that Evelyn and me are just poles apart and too hopelessly different to get along. Whatever the reason, and although I recognize his talent, "A Handful of Dust" left an appropriately unpleasant taste in my mouth.
RobinDawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The writing is excellent. Waugh is scathing about the world he describes, yet he does so with such light, satirical humour. However, the characters are so odious I didn¿t want to know them and don¿t want to think about them now that the book is behind me.Furthermore, I found the structure very bizarre. Two thirds of the novel is set in England and centres on the vapid life of English `society¿, then in the final third the husband sets off for the deepest, darkest Amazon jungles with a stranger he chances to meet. The stranger has some absolutely crackpot idea and the two go off very poorly prepared into the jungle where the hero and the stranger both perish. This final section is actually a short story Waugh happened to have lying around and tacked onto the end, and it reads just like that ¿ the final section is alien and unrelated to the first section of the novel. If this is his best book I'm not sure I'll be on the lookout for more Waugh.
roblong on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Probably my least favourite Waugh of those I've read (Decline & Fall, Black Mischief, Brideshead Revisited), in that I thought it merely quite good. It's really funny in places but reached a point where I felt Waugh was being cynical for its own sake (or maybe out of bitterness, as the novel mirrors the breakdown in his own marriage), rather than to satirise people who deserve it. Also in the second half Anthony goes on an adventure which, while justified within the themes of the book, breaks the plot in half and doesn't really work within the whole in my view. So a fair few negatives, but when it's funny it's really funny.
SanctiSpiritus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author paints a poignant tale of immorality, Carnality, and Sordidness. The book teaches one of the hollow and shameful lives most of the wealthy live. Caught up in selfishness and materiality; they breath only to sate themselves. The top antagonist, Brenda Lost is one of the most loathsome characters I have ever read about. This story was published in the 1930's. However, it is as elucidating about today's world as it was then.
maryanntherese on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of Lady Brenda and Mr. Tony Last in 1930's British society. A stinging satire of the upper class, where stories don't always have happy endings.
accidentally on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
waugh's finest, and most scathing. the ending clubs you from behind.
RoseCityReader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This struck me as a mix between Brideshead Revisited and Scoop. It starts off as an English country house drama, and ends up as an adventure story in the jungle. Huh? But it was entertaining through and through -- Evelyn Waugh at his snarky best.
Dr_von_K on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Waugh gives us a bleak yet blackly comic account of a failing marriage between the aristocratic Tony and Brenda Last, set in a climate of genteel social barbarism.Moving between the worlds of sham-gothic English feudalism and decadent inter-war London society, Waugh's characters act with increasing selfishness and amorality. In the aftermath of the Lasts' breakup, we are given a disturbing vision of where such behaviour leads.This is a starker book than his more exuberant, earlier novels 'Scoop' and 'Decline and Fall', though still with plenty of darkly absurdist humour.
dmzach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a discouraging book. The author was giving a slice of life of the idle rich moderns back in the early 20th century - and I ended up disliking all the characters and now even have a grudge against the author.
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"Hello." Purr back.