Evelyn Waugh's view of England in A Handful of Dust
By juxtaposing the pastoral words of Hetton and later the Brazilian jungle against the counterfeit world of London, Evelyn Waugh exposes the degenerating values and encroaching corruption of contemporary English society. A failing marriage and collapsing Gothic home become symbols of a value system threated with extinction by a mechanical, dehumanized society in A Handful of Dust (1934). Waugh’s tragic story is secondary to the way in which is is presented and farce, fantasy and caricature are the means of exposing the follies, evils and instabilities of human nature to present the author’s ideas about the condition of England.
Evelyn Waugh treats his characters less as individuals than as symbols of societal forces. Tony Last, like his house, represents values that are both impractical and outdated. Hetton is the symbol of all that modern life lacks and is a source of ‘constant delight and exultation’ ([p.15] for Tony, who is rooted in the idealized world of childhood and the past and displays no curiosity or desire to grow and change. He continues to sleep in his childhood bedroom where he had been put ‘so he would be in calling distance from his parents, inseparable in Guinevere; for until late in his life, he was subject to nightmare’ [p.15]. As well as suggesting his immaturity, this observation also reveals a fundamental fear of the reality of things. It also anticipates the nightmare ending of the novel.
Unlike his parents, Tony and his wife keep separate bedrooms, with Brenda sleeping in a room named after an unfaithful woman and in which she had ‘insisted on a modern bed’ [p.16], which implies a modern attitude and anticipates what is, in Waugh’s eyes, her typically modern sexual infidelity. Brenda devises strange diets to alleviate the boredom of mealtimes at Hetton, and soon confesses to Beaver than she detests the house.
To Tony, this pastoral idyll stands for the important values of life: order, stability, decency and continuity with the past. Such values have no meaning for Brenda, as becomes clear when she embarks on an affair with Beaver without thought or care. Brenda is misplaced in the simple, old-fashioned world of Hetton, whose way of life and values she betrays in her role as a modern Guinevere. She clearly belongs to the antithetical world of Beaver and his opportunistic mother, among the savage and morally blank society of London. The collapse of Tony and Brenda’s marriage merely provides the framework for Waugh’s satiric vision of the degenerating condition of England – the victory of modern barbarism over humanism and the civilized values of the past.
Waugh takes the title for his novel from T. S. Eliot’s harrowing poem The Waste Land, and he portrays a similarly bleak view of modern society with its spiritual or moral barrenness. Cynicism, ennui and dullness are seen by Waugh as the corrosive forces of society, and the first summation of Brenda provided by Mrs Beaver includes the prediction that, after five or six years of marriage ‘it was time she began to be bored’ [p.9]. Brenda’s choice of a man about whom she harbours no romantic illusions for her adventure, and her extreme, if casual, cruelty to Tony, is testimony to her lack of taste, principles and feelings. London society is similarly devoid of values as attitudes towards Brenda’s affair reveal. In that Waste Land, nothing is sacred, least of all the institution of marriage, so that no one feels any sympathy for the humiliated husband who is typically the only person in ignorance of the affair, and dismissively referred to as ‘the old boy’ by all Brenda’s friends.
Brenda’s affair is not merely condoned, but warmly welcomed as ‘filling a want long felt’ and offering ‘vicarious pleasure’ [p.57] to the bored masses. Appropriate to his name, Tony Last, despite his obvious weaknesses and illusions, manifests the last traces of human decency in this corrupt and savage world.
A frequent device employed by Waugh is to trace the decline of noble country houses to show how traditional values are being destroyed and replaced by the savage mechanism of modern society. Tony Last’s house, at one time an abbey and later ‘one of the most notable houses of the country’ [p.14], was torn down by Tony’s Victorian ancestors and rebuilt in sham Gothic style. For its present owner, it possesses enormous sentimental value and still manages to preserve a certain quaint character. It may stand as a monument to Victorian bad taste, but this is mild in comparison to the atrocious taste of Brenda and Mrs Beaver, at whose hands it suffers the indignity of an assault with chromium plating and sheepskin.
At the end of the novel, the house suffers ultimate defeat by being turned into a farm for the breeding of the savage and voracious silver-fox. Houses, therefore, cannot be impervious to the onslaught of barbarism and even begin to share the qualities of the attacker. Mrs Beaver’s utilitarian conversions with their ‘transatlantic refinements’ [p.42] are devoid of sentimental value, but not quite of character, as suggested by Brenda’s description of her London flat, with its raw smells, odd noises, hostile plumbing that causes the hot tap to gush air and the cold to perpetually drip brown water, and unyielding cupboards and curtains. Indeed, the London flat possesses all the hostile and savage qualities that Waugh attributes to modern society, whose arch-representative is Mrs Beaver.
If Tony Last has remained rooted in the habits of the past, so too have religious values and practices. Comedy and satire are cleverly combined by Waugh in the absurd sermons which the Reverend Tendril habitually delivers to his uncomplaining congregation. ‘The simple, mildly ceremonious order’ [p.30] of Tony’s Sunday morning ritual provides an important sense of continuity with the past and affords him great pleasure as he dons his customary dark suit and stiff collar to sit in his great-grandfather’s pitch-pine pew in the village church, and enjoy, in common with the rest of the congregation, the vicars hopelessly inappropriate sermons.
Composed years earlier for an entirely different set of circumstances and people, these sermons lack an particular reference to the lives of anyone present, but the vicar has never considered it necessary to adapt or update his homilies and nor is there a single dissentient voice among the present flock. Religious practice is therefore reduced to a comfortable habit, a mildly entertaining ritual that is devoid of any real significance, except to the satirist. The benighted vicar’s traditional Christmas message therefore becomes pregnant with symbolic truths, rendered all the more comic by being mechanical in delivery and completely unconsciously apposite:
‘How difficult it is for us,’ he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under there woollen gloves, ‘to realise that this is indeed Christmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of an alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stare of the subjugated, though no doubt grateful heathen. Instead of the placid ox and ass of Bethlehem,’ said the vicar, slightly losing the thread of his comparisons, ‘we have for companions the ravening tiger and the exotic camel, the furtive jackal and the ponderous elephant…’ [p.60].
Waugh has allowed the Reverend Tendril to inadvertently summarise the condition of England, as he intends it to be viewed. Tony Last is, indeed, isolated and blind in his jungle of illusions, surrounded by heathen predators in human form, who are all motivated by avarice. Mrs Beaver is the ‘ravening tiger’, Jenny Abdul Akbar the ‘exotic camel’, and John Beaver the ‘furtive jackal’, and against such predators, the naïve Tony must be as defenceless as he ultimately becomes in the real jungle of Brazil.
In this Godless world, Waugh posits no solutions but merely catalogues instances of man’s inhumanity. The march of ‘progress’ is inexorable and viciously destructive, so Tony Last’s simple humanism and faith in traditional values must be systematically annihilated. With John Andrew’s untimely death, the last fragile link between Tony and Brenda has been irreversibly severed. Without this tragedy, the marriage might have limped on because of Tony’s naïve illusions about perpetuating the line through primogeniture, and Brenda’s deceptive role as fond mother, superficially keeping up appearances. Brenda’s selfish priorities, however, are almost unspeakably evident in her reaction to the news of her son’s death.
The character of Brenda has become so thoroughly assimilated with the perversion of values associated with contemporary society as to render it hollow and meaningless. Because of his ‘habit of loving and trusting Brenda’ [p.129], and his belief in outdated conventions, tony is prepared to suffer the indignity of a farcical, compromising weekend in Brighton with a prostitute and her dreadful child to provide Brenda with the grounds for her petition for divorce. As Tony’s lawyer gloomily informs him: ‘divorce is a serious matter’ [p.137] – the trouble is that no one realizes this nowadays, because marriage, like religion, has lost its integral value and become a meaningless, and therefore disposable convention. The ensuing divorce proceedings and Brenda’s avaricious demands, which meet with the approbation of her family and friends, verify this.
In the jungle, to which Tony is conducted by Dr Messinger – a modern-day Hermes – the distinction between nightmare and reality is blurred. Nature itself is viciously parasitical and the inhabitants are ignorant, greedy and superstitious, thus disproving the pastoral concept of primitive societies being uncorrupt. Waugh’s brilliant device of juxtaposing scenes in Brazil with similar scenes in London lays naked his central message: that civilization is merely a façade to conceal the ugly and savage nature of modern society. London is nothing more than a treacherous, inhuman jungle in which the more barbaric one is, the better the chance of survival. In the penultimate chapter, with its ironic, Proustian title, the two worlds are combined. The aptly-named Mr Todd is a cunning lunatic playing the simultaneous role of civilized host and despotic jailer. Even in the heart of the Brazilian jungle, there is no escape from the rottenness inherent in human nature.
Evelyn Waugh filters his presentation of the wider society through the microscope of domestic life, seeing the family as a microcosm of society and the disintegration of the family unit as representative of the condition of society as a whole. His message is that through self-serving individualism, societal values have been perverted. Modern man, in succumbing to the selfish demands of his ego, puts the good of society in second place and this manifests in widespread disharmony and discontent. Waugh takes this premise to its extreme consequences in order to validate his projection of the jaundiced condition of England, which he sees as the inevitable result of such corruption of values.
(Page numbers cited relate to the Penguin Edition of A Handful of Dust)