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Urban Aesthetics in Modern British Fiction

One characteristic of modern British novels is a sense of aesthetic regret over the tearing down of stately mansions and old houses to be replaced by “horrible flats.” The feeling is that that rat race has swallowed everything and urban England is becoming an uglified warren.

This sense of architectural sadness appears in “Howards End” (E. M. Forster) and “A Handful of Dust” (Evelyn Waugh) where various characters comment on the uglification of the city as beautiful homes become “horrible flats”. In the movie version of “A Handful of Dust,” John Beaver (played by Rupert Graves) mentions this trend to Brenda Last (played by Kristin Scott Thomas.) Tony Last, the owner of “Hetton Abbey”, his baronial home, has nightmares about the end of his home which is for him a kind of oasis of “deep history.”

This sense of foreboding hangs over Brideshead in “Brideshead Revisited.”

Urban estates become “chintzy” flats. Country estates become convents or schools.

The demolition of stately homes is a metaphor for the demolition of tradition and old values.

A Handful of Dust (1934)

Evelyn Waugh


Containing many of the qualities typical of Waugh’s satirical novels, HANDFUL OF DUST tells the story of Tony Last, proud owner of a Victorian gothic country house, HETTON. Frustrated by his old-fashioned ways, his wife, LADY BRENDA, becomes infatuated with a young socialite, JOHN BEAVER, and deserts Tony and the family after their son, JOHN ANDREW, is killed in a hunting accident. Tony refuses to grant her a divorce, fearing the cost of alimony and the consequent loss of his beloved Hetton. He departs for an extended trip to Brazil and accompanies a casual acquaintance, DR. MESSINGER, up the Amazon. They run into trouble; Tony falls ill and Messinger is drowned. At the point of death Tony is rescued by a mad recluse, MR. TODD, who has lived in the jungle for nearly 60 years. Tony recovers but is forced to become Mr. Todd’s ‘companion’, spending the rest of his life reading aloud the works of Dickens. In England, he is reported dead and Brenda marries a politician, JOCK GRANT-MENZIES, her relationship with Beaver having faded. Hetton passes into the hands of Tony’s cousin, RICHARD LAST.

An ‘Alternative Ending’ offers a happier version of events. Tony returns to find Hetton entirely redecorated in his absence and to be met by a repentant Brenda…


In Black Mischief, implicitly Waugh says to his readers: “You liberals, colonialists, and decent agnostic pragmatists–you laugh at my jokes, and are excited like me by wealth, sex, barbarity, and power–but can you face the implications, for society and for yourselves, of identifying with Basil Seal and recognizing him as Everyman? If you cannot, then perhaps I have resources you lack. However, I leave it to you to find out what they are.”

Waugh’s next novel, A Handful of Dust, makes essentially the same points by exactly opposite means. It too mingles an English upper-class world with that of a primitive people, but in proportions that reverse those of Black Mischief. Like, Basil, its hero Tony Last, is the only character to unite the two worlds; but unlike Basil he is naive, honorable, and innocent, the creature, not the maker, of circumstance. Yet he is a universal figure, too, in his fashion. What sort of world is it, the reader asks, in which such decency can end up as wretchedly as Tony does? And the answer, of course, is, the same sort of world as that in which a man like Basil Seal can flourish a world comprehensively in need of redemption.

When the novel opens, Tony Last’s life seems perfect. He is married to Brenda; has a son, John Andrew, and an ugly neo-Gothic country house called Hetton; and loves all three. But Brenda takes a lover, a worthless young man called John Beaver. She spends an increasingly large amount of time in a flat she has rented in London, and during one of her absences her son is killed in a riding accident. A family friend, Bruce Scott-Menzies, brings her the news. Momentarily she thinks he is referring to Beaver, and when she realizes that he means John Andrew she says “Thank God” and bursts into tears. After the boy’s funereal, she leaves Tony and they agree on a divorce for which Tony is to provide the evidence. After a disastrous trip to Brighton, on which he and his supposed mistress are accompanied by her little girl, Tony learns that Brenda, at Beaver’s instigation, is demanding such heavy alimony that he will have to sell Hetton; so he calls off the divorce and sails to Latin America with an absurd explorer, Dr. Messinger, in search of a mythical lost city. He has a futile shipboard romance with a young Catholic girl, and the expedition goes fatally wrong. The final stages of the novel alternate between Tony’s fever dreams in the jungle and Brenda’s deprivations in London after Beaver deserts her. Brenda at least ends up married to Bruce Scott-Menzies, now an M.P., whereas Tony is imprisoned by a madman, Mr. Todd, who forces him to read Dickens aloud for the remainder of his days.

The novel takes its title from Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, certain features which reappear in it. Thus The Waste Land represents the decay of ancient fertility myths into such degenerate forms as telling fortunes with Tarot cards; the fortune-teller in A Handful of Dust reads the soles of her clients feet. The Waste Land looks behind the medieval Arthurian story-cycle to the Celtic rituals from which it derives.

A Handful of Dust gives us a degraded modern version of the same material: Tony is King Arthur, Brenda Guinevere, and Beaver her lover, Lancelot. (The rooms in Hetton are named after the characters in Tennyson’s heavily Victorian version of the same story). And just as Eliot’s poem contrasts the “Unreal City” of London with the great cities of legend–Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna: all “fallen,” all finally unreal–so Waugh’s novel ends with Tony, like a knight searching from the Holy Grail, vainly seeking his mythical city and finding nothing but his own special hell on earth.

This sustained body of literary allusion gives A Handful of Dust greater range of ironic implication than Waugh was ever again to attempt. It is in parts exceptionally funny. The vicar of Tony’s church had originally written his sermons while serving in India, and he mindlessly repeats them each Sunday at Hetton to hilarious effect; but his wordy fatuities about the unity of the servants of a far-flung empire have a cruel bearing on the appalling isolation that is Tony’s ultimate fate. At least as funny are the absurdities of Tony’s supposedly adulterous weekend with Milly and her horrid daughter. The final section is brilliantly edited. The text cuts between Tony’s sufferings in the jungle and the loneliness of Brenda in London (or alternatively between Bruce Scott-Menzies asking fatuous questions in the Commons about Japanese pork pies and the explorers’ Indian guides gorging themselves on pig meat after a hunt).

Finally, in a phantasmagoric fever-dream Tony blends the worlds of London, the jungle, and his dream city (a fantastically elaborated Hetton) only to wake in the hands of Mr. Todd, and to the knowledge he has gained “in the forest where time is different. There is no City” (ch. 6).

Two points remain. Clearly this story of marital betrayal bears closely on Waugh’s personal experience. Putting it on public record, however indirectly, was a new instance of his willingness to outface the public. It is remarkable for its generosity toward Brenda. The moment when she discovers that Beaver is alive and John Andrew is dead is handled with great delicacy. Once she has made her terrible remark, she weeps helplessly, pressing her forehead against the gilt back of a hard little empire chair. Her behavior is clearly compulsive. Later she is for a time impoverished and demoralized, but her real punishment has been to see her situation for what it is from the beginning. Nor is this handled with any vindictiveness. Waugh gives Brenda the dignity of self-knowledge. “I was never one for making myself expensive,” she says in chapter 3 when Beaver lets her see herself home. Wit of this kind is a sign of grace in Waugh, though not quite the grace that sanctifies. In all his later writings (with one exception in Brideshead Revisited) he remained uncensoriously compassionate in his attitude to faithless women. For a humiliated cuckold, the stance was a fundamentally honorable one.

Far more problematical is the treatment of Tony. The Mr. Todd sequence was originally published in the United States as a short story before the work of the novel began. Consequently an American serialization of A Handful of Dust has a different ending, in which Tony returns to London, is reunited with Brenda, and cynically takes over her flat in London in order to prosecute his own infidelities. The novelist Henry Yorke felt the English version too “fantastic . . . . The first part is . . . a real picture of people one has met and may at any moment meet again.” With his own recent travels in South America in mind (he actually met the original Mr. Todd in 1933), Waugh replied that for him savages were just such a people: “the Amazon stuff had to be there” (Letters, p. 88). The American version is certainly more urbane, but its effect is cynically to restore, not subvert, civilization. Waugh’s scheme, however, was to show “Gothic man in the hands of savages–first Mrs Beaver [John’s mother] etc. then the real ones.” Even when Tony’s happy cousins inherit Hetton, the vixens on their silver-fox farm keep having their brushes bitten off; barbarism can never really be kept at bay.

What Tony learns but fails to understand is that, in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “we have not here a permanent city but we seek that which is to come” (13: 14). Waugh’s strength as a novelist is that, precisely as a sophisticated inhabitant of the city of man, he was prepared to face all the consequences of its being, in the end, an illusion.

In A Handful of Dust Waugh satirises the British landed gentry and mercantile class. The novel is set in the 1930s, and focuses on the breakdown of the marriage of Tony and Brenda Last. Tony is preoccupied with the maintenance of Hetton Abbey, an example of unfashionable Victorian Gothic architecture. John Beaver, a self-interested and impoverished social climber, invites himself to Hetton for the weekend, and soon after begins an affair with Brenda.

After the Lasts’ son, also called John, dies in 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 insist on a monetary settlement so large as to require Tony to sell Hetton; Tony 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 captive 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. 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 an alternative ending for the novel, required by Waugh’s American publishers who did not approve of the bleakness of the original, Tony returns from Brazil and to his relationship with Brenda.

Waugh wrote of the novel’s development:

“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”.


The novel was adapted as a film by the same name, released in 1988 and directed by Charles Sturridge. It starred James Wilby as Tony Last, Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda Last, Judi Dench as Mrs. Beaver, and Rupert Graves as John Beaver. It also featured Alec Guinness as Mr. Todd, and Anjelica Huston as Mrs. Rattery. Carlton Towers was used as the location of Hetton.


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

1. The Modern Library | 100 Best | Novels

2. Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, “ALL TIME 100 Best Novels”, TIME, accessed 21 Oct 2010

Urban Aesthetics in Modern British Fiction


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