A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust is a novel by Evelyn Waugh published in 1934. It is included in Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels, and Time Magazine's 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.. The title is an allusion to T. S. Eliot's 1922 poem The Waste Land:

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.

The novel was originally called A Handful of Ashes, but, after a dispute with his American publishers, the quotation from The Waste Land was chosen. Christopher Sykes, Waugh's biographer, notes, "the title was not apposite."

The novel is set in the 1930s, and focuses on the breakdown of the marriage of Tony and Lady Brenda Last. Tony is preoccupied with the maintenance of Hetton Abbey, a masterpiece of unfashionable Victorian Gothic architecture. "Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last lies the extensive park of Hetton Abbey", proclaims a period guidebook to country homes in the novel's opening pages. "This, formerly one of the notable houses of the county, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest." John Beaver, a self-interested and impoverished social climber, is invited to Hetton, and begins an affair with Brenda.

After the Lasts' son, also called John, died by a riding accident, Brenda decides that she wants a divorce. In order to avoid any scandal for his wife, Tony agrees to go through the sham of creating appropriate grounds for divorce. Their agreement on the divorce falls apart when Brenda's brother reveals that Brenda's family will not adhere to her initial agreement on a monetary settlement, but instead will insist on a sum so large as to require Tony to sell Hetton; Tony then refuses to grant or file for a divorce. Instead, he participates in an expedition to Brazil. Stranded in the jungle, Tony falls ill, and his expedition companion, Dr. Messinger, dies while attempting to retrieve help. Tony wanders, delirious, until he stumbles into an isolated tribal village. Once there, he is held hostage by a Mr. Todd, who insists that Tony remain forever, reading the works of Charles Dickens to him. Brenda's relationship with John Beaver has fallen apart, and shortly after Tony is assumed dead she marries the couple's mutual friend, Jock Grant-Menzies. The novel ends with obscure relatives of Tony taking over Hetton.

In a different ending for the novel, required for an American audience who did not approve of the bleakness of the original, Tony returns from Brazil and to his relationship with Brenda.

Waugh wrote of how the novel came to be written:

"I had just written a short story about a man trapped in the jungle, ending his days reading Dickens aloud. The idea came quite naturally from the experience of visiting a lonely settler of that kind and reflecting how easily he could hold me prisoner [...] eventually the thing grew into a study of other sorts of savages at home and the civilized man's helpless plight among them." (Gallagher, 303).

The short story referred to is "The Man Who Liked Dickens."

Film or television adaptations

The novel was filmed in 1988 by Charles Sturridge, and starring James Wilby as Tony Last, Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda Last, Judi Dench as Mrs Beaver, and Rupert Graves as John Beaver. It also starred Alec Guinness as Mr Todd. Carlton Towers was used as the location of Hetton.


  • Gallagher, Donat, editor. The Essays, Articles, and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. London: Methuen, 1983.

External links

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