A Handful of Dust

by Evelyn Waugh

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Tony Last is married (happily, he thinks) to Brenda and living at the Last family’s ancestral home of Hetton Abbey, an estate that’s seen better days, in the English countryside. Tony has dreams of restoring the old estate to its former beauty and glory, though the Last family has much less money than it did at the height of Hetton’s success. They have a young son, John Andrew. Tony is a blissfully clueless and generous man; he does not notice his wife’s boredom, her hatred of the estate, or his son’s growing disobedience. When Tony invites John Beaver to stay at the estate, Brenda begins an affair with him despite her knowing that Beaver is merely a way for her to keep herself entertained. Brenda asks Tony to rent a flat in London, which Tony does, still unsuspecting of Brenda’s disloyalty.

Brenda is away in London and Tony is at Hetton Abbey when news arrives that “John is dead.” Brenda is relieved when, after first thinking it is Beaver who has died, she realizes it is her son instead (some women just shouldn’t be mothers!). As Tony grieves after the funeral, Brenda tells him that she wants a divorce (great timing, Brenda!). Trusting and naive Tony is completely broken when he learns of Brenda’s infidelity, but being the standup guy he is, he also wants to preserve her reputation, so he negotiates her divorce by pretending that he is the one who has been unfaithful and promising that he will pay her a yearly stipend. However, because Brenda’s greed and emotional deafness know no bounds, Brenda asks for a greater sum, an amount that would necessitate Tony’s selling of Hetton. Finally seeing Brenda for what she truly is, Tony refuses to proceed further with the divorce proceedings and decides he will leave the country. He tells Brenda he will legally divorce her when he returns from his travels, but he will not provide her with a financial allowance.

Tony joins up with Dr. Messinger, an explorer who is going to the Amazon to find a lost civilization. When they arrive in South America, Tony realizes that Dr. Messinger is inept and clueless, and the native guides abandon Dr. Messinger and Tony in the rainforest. When Tony gets sick, Dr. Messinger takes their canoe to seek help but ultimately plummets down a waterfall to his death, leaving Tony alone and weak.

As Tony wanders through the rainforest, all seems hopeless until he is rescued by Mr. Todd, an Englishman who claims to be illiterate but owns the complete works of Charles Dickens and who is the leader of a small indigenous tribe in the Amazon. Mr. Todd takes care of Tony, restoring his health, but when Tony is recovered and asks to leave, Mr. Todd repeatedly refuses, instead making Tony read Dickens aloud for Todd’s enjoyment. Eventually, Tony realizes that Mr. Todd is his kidnapper. When a search party finds Mr. Todd’s village, Mr. Todd drugs and conceals Tony and tells the searchers that Tony is dead. When Tony awakens from his drugged state, he realizes that he will spend the rest of his days reading Dickens to his insane imprisoner.

Back in England, Tony’s official death causes Hetton Abbey to pass into the ownership of Tony’s cousins. Brenda, whom Beaver abandoned when he realized Tony wouldn’t provide money with the divorce settlement, marries one of Tony’s friends, Jock Grant-Menzies. The novel ends with the remaining members of the Last family gathering at Hetton. They have erected a memorial for Tony on the estate, and Teddy, one of the relatives,

surveyed his charges with pride and affection. It was by means of them that he hoped one day to restore Hetton to the glory that it had enjoyed in the days of his Cousin Tony.

Thus, we end up rooting for Teddy to succeed at the task Tony was unable to complete.

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