Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Hetton. Estate 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. 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...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Greenblatt, 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.