Places: A Handful of Dust

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedHetton

Hetton. Handful of Dust, AEstate of the Last family, located between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last in the English countryside. Although the novel begins at a house in Sussex Gardens in London, where the man who will cuckold the central character lives, its most important place is Hetton. In this story of the disintegration of a marriage, Waugh uses Hetton, whose owner, Tony Last, is trying to rehabilitate and renovate it, to symbolize Last’s anachronism, since he, like his beloved estate, fits neither in medieval nor in modern England. In the Middle Ages the estate had been an abbey, where monks prayed, practiced penance, and sought God, but with England’s abandonment of Roman Catholicism Hetton’s religious character withered, and in the nineteenth century, during a revival of Gothic architecture, the ancient buildings were demolished and replaced by a Victorian edifice with battlements and towers, stained-glass windows, a massive clock with booming chimes, and bedrooms named after characters from Arthurian myth. In the twentieth century Hetton had become uncomfortable and unfashionable, somewhat like its proprietor, a naif who values his inheritance and wants to pass it on to his son but whose ignorance of the evil forces in both modern and savage societies leads to his and his estate’s horrendous fate.

From the perspective of Brenda, Tony Last’s wife, Hetton is big, ugly, and expensive. Brenda wants to refurbish its rooms with chromium plating and sheepskin, following the suggestion of Mrs. Beaver, with whose son John she is having an affair. At Hetton, Brenda and Tony sleep in separate bedrooms, and Brenda’s room is named Guinevere after a woman in Arthurian legend notorious for her infidelity. Brenda begins to spend more and more time away from Hetton, whereas Tony, who spent time in France and Italy when he was a young man, now finds that he is never happy away from Hetton.

*London

*London. Brenda’s London, which, in the 1930’s, was suffering from the Great Depression, is populated with dismal flats, stores filled with trivialities, and private clubs that, despite their Georgian facades and paneled rooms, have neither the tradition nor the character of Hetton. Brenda’s flat is in Belgravia, a fashionable residential district of southwest London centered on Belgrave Square. Tony has sacrificed some of the funds needed to improve Hetton in order to provide his wife with a place to stay while she pursues her studies in economics. In reality the flat becomes the location of her infidelities. Unlike Hetton, her flat has no individuality, and its vulgar furniture and slapdash bathroom convey the thoughtlessness of her sordid love of John Beaver.

Waugh depicts the sophisticated London of Brenda’s affair as a world of sham. The antiquity of the clubs, restaurants, and residences frequented by Brenda is counterfeit, as are the people with whom she associates. Brenda’s charmless flat is also where she learns of the death of her son in an accident at Hetton. This tragedy eventually reveals to Tony his wife’s duplicities, since she asks for a divorce to marry John. Consequently Tony feels that Hetton no longer serves as his impregnable citadel in a heartless world. Nevertheless, when Brenda expects him to sell Hetton to provide an income for her and her lover, Tony refuses to part with his inherited home. Instead, he forsakes it and England, which have become poisoned for him because of the death of his son and his marriage.

*Amazon Basin

*Amazon Basin. His illusions destroyed, Tony is forced to seek a new place of sanctuary and stability in a world grown unpredictable and chaotic. Hearing from an explorer of a lost city in the Brazilian jungle, Tony travels to South America. He envisions this lost city as an idealized Hetton–a multitowered castle on a green hill where evils can be locked out and happiness pursued. As he and his guide journey south from Georgetown, in British Guiana, they fail to find the lost city; instead, they become trapped in the green hell of the Amazon Basin. Waugh juxtaposes scenes of savagery in the jungle, as Tony wanders, sick with malaria and abandoned by his guide, with scenes in London, where Brenda, now abandoned by her lover, who has gone to the United States, and excluded from Hetton, now in the hands of Tony’s relatives, is trapped in the “jungle” of an avaricious London. “Civilized” London is as savage as the primitive world of the South American cannibals.

Tony is rescued by James Todd, the illiterate son of a Barbadian missionary. Todd nurses Tony to health in his house, which has a mud floor, wattle walls, and palm-thatched roof. During the hallucinations brought on by his fever Tony envisions a transformed Hetton in the jungle, but with his recovery he has to recognize that the fabled city, founded by the Incas at the height of their wealth and power, is a legend. Instead, he is now a prisoner of a community of savages controlled by the cunning crazy man Todd, who expects Tony to read Charles Dickens’s complete works to him over and over again. The Hetton Tony lived in and loved had been built in the Victorian period, and now he is forced to revisit those places through the imagination of Dickens, who was highly critical of the greed that corrupted London and from which Tony was trying to escape by creating an ideal world at Hetton.

When a rescue party from England fails to find Tony, who has been drugged by Todd, Tony finally realizes that he has been cut off from his Hetton in England and his lost city in Brazil. Meanwhile, in England, Hetton has been taken over by Richard Last, one of Tony’s cousins, since Tony has been declared dead. The new owners have closed many of the rooms and have turned the estate into a silver-fox farm. Waugh, a Roman Catholic convert, believed in Saint Augustine’s City of God, but in this novel he shows that neither the Hetton of Tony and his cousin nor the London of Brenda and her friends nor the lost city of Brazil represent the City of God. Instead, they represent the triumph of barbarism and the powers of darkness over a vanishing Christian civilization of grace and light.

BibliographyGreenblatt, Stephen J. Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Includes an extended discussion of A Handful of Dust in the Waugh section of the book. Greenblatt declares the novel to be “the culmination of [Waugh’s] art.”Nardin, Jane. “The Myth of Decline in A Handful of Dust.” Midwest Quarterly 18 (1977): 119-130. Offers an interpretation that runs counter to most other criticism, in which the author sympathizes with the adulterous wife and casts most of the blame on the victim-hero. One of the few examples of feminist criticism applied to Waugh’s fiction.Phillips, Gene D. Evelyn Waugh’s Officers, Gentlemen, and Rogues: The Fact Behind His Fiction. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975. Documents some of the sources for much of Waugh’s fictional worlds. Chapter 3, “Change and Decay: Further Satires,” discusses A Handful of Dust, Scoop (1938), and Put Out More Flags (1942). Reveals that the faithless wife and tawdry divorce proceedings of the novel mirror details of Waugh’s own painful first marriage.Sykes, Christopher. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. This critical study by a personal friend and the official biographer of Waugh includes a discussion of A Handful of Dust.Wasson, Richard. “A Handful of Dust: Critique of Victorianism.” Modern Fiction Studies 7 (1961-1962): 327-337. Emphasizes Waugh’s use of Victorian art and artifacts in the novel and discusses his critical stand toward many aspects of the era.
Categories: Places