I finished Evelyn Waugh's second book from the list, A Handful of Dust about two weeks ago, while still in Thailand. It was one I had been looking forward to for quite some time, having enjoyed his other list book, Brideshead Revisited, when I read it five years ago, at #2.
Written in 1934, A Handful of Dust follows Tony and Brenda Last, as they live out their happy, but mundane life at Hetton Abbey, Tony's beloved estate in the English countryside. The couple has one son, and lives very comfortably on their inherited wealth, sticking to old fashioned, aristocratic social norms.
Soon, life becomes too routine for Brenda and while at a party she becomes interested in John Beaver, a rather common man, who finds himself at these parties more as a novelty than a guest. Brenda is pulled toward him, finding him exciting and different, when in reality he is merely ordinary, if not mediocre. But she continues a relationship with him, even going so far as to rent a flat in London, for weekday rendezvous.
When Tony eventually learns of the affair, he isn't interested in ending the marriage because he feels a need to keep up appearances. It isn't until their son dies in a riding accident, that Brenda forces the issue, and demands a divorce. Tony finally relents, while seemingly bearing no ill will toward her at all.
But when Brenda's lawyers insist on a much larger alimony than Tony had expected, an amount that would force him to give up his beloved estate, he refuses the divorce. Frustrated at how his world seems to be crumbling, both his personal life and British aristocratic society in general, he departs for South America on an adventure he hopes will give him some breathing room, and perhaps allow things to return to normal.
All I can say is this was a great book. It was funny, engaging, interesting, and insightful. Like in Brideshead, Waugh explores the change British society experienced in the 1920's and 30's, as aristocratic wealth made way for industrial wealth. Like in Brideshead, his characters seem to live in a world that Waugh both longs for, but mocks at the same time (knowing what I do of Waugh, this can only be a cover, as I believe he desperately wanted to be a part of the British nobility).
The satirical approach Waugh takes toward Tony and Brenda's life works so well. Their reactions to different situations would border on ridiculous in modern society, but seem to be right at home in 1934 London. When Tony first learns of Brenda's infidelities, what others think is his chief concern; not that his wife is cheating on him, but because her affair is with a working class man.
When he finally does agree to a divorce, Tony arranges for a waitress to accompany him to the seaside for a weekend, to stage him having an affair. The idea is that it is more proper for a man to have an affair, and it would simply look better whilst their divorce is in court. So, he has his solicitors arrange for investigators to "follow" him to the seaside hotel, and catch him having said affair. The whole weekend is fabricated from beginning to end; being served breakfast while lying in bed together being their only betrayal (the delivery man thus becomes a witness to their affair).
It is almost unfathomable today, that such people would do such things, only in an effort to keep up appearances. And apparently it was quite ridiculous to Waugh, over 80 years ago, as well.
But Waugh is able to create sympathy for both characters, and despite their silly predicaments I found myself understanding both Tony and Brenda's concerns. When Tony reneges on his agreed upon divorce, I couldn't help pity him a little. After all, he hadn't done anything wrong, other than being a boring upper class Brit, yet Brenda was attempting to extort money from him. Then, when things go horribly wrong for Tony on his trip to South America, I found I could really feel the helplessness of the situation.
Having enjoyed both of Waugh's list books, he's an author I would like to read more of when I've read the remaining titles.
One curiosity of this book is that includes an alternate ending, a first for the 79 books from the list thus far. How it came about was that the final chapter had originally been published as a short story entitled "The Man Who Liked Dickens." When an American magazine wanted to publish A Handful of Dust as a serial, they couldn't use the final chapter for copyright reasons, so Waugh wrote the alternate ending to be included in the magazine.
It must be said that the alternate ending is completely different, and really does change the feel of the book; and not for the better. The alternate ending has much more of a happy ending, and in reality probably is more fitting for an American audience.