A Handful of Dust
by Evelyn Waugh
“It would be a dull world if we all thought alike.”
― Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust
Waugh's protagonist, Tony Last, is an ossified country squire. One of that system’s most doomed representatives. When we first meet him, Last is living in blinkered bliss at Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style. He is blithely unaware of his wife's peccadilloes. Overall, it is a quirky tale that finds Tony in Africa under the spell of a madman named Todd. Mr. Todd has a beloved set of Dickens novels; it is his passion to hear them read aloud, and his decree that Last will do so until he is told to stop.
This is Waugh at his satirical best and I can forgive his use of Dickens as torture (which reading him may be to some people anyway) for I so enjoy his brilliant satire and witty prose.
Mad World: Evelyn Waugh
and the Secrets of Brideshead
by Paula Byrne
"'I am not I': yet Charles Ryder manifestly is Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited contains as large a dose of autobiography as Charles Dicken's David Copperfield or Marcel Proust's A la recherch du temps perdue. So who, then, was the 'thou' who was and was not 'he or she'? The 'they' who were and were not 'they'? What was the 'household of the faith' that was not Brideshead? What were the events that inspired the novel?" (p 3)
I love the early novels of Evelyn Waugh simply because they are so funny, filled with epigrammatic sentences and a humor that verges on the fantastic and surreal. "Decline and Fall" is as sparkling as Voltaire's "Candide," and in some ways funnier for the twentieth-century reader, while "Vile Bodies" is a masterly period piece, the definitive satirical portrait of the 1920s "bright young things." Waugh can shock, too: Near the climax of "Black Mischief" (1932), the hero actually finds himself at a cannibal feast where he ends up eating his girlfriend.
In Mad World, Paula Byrne spends much of the book showing just how deeply the novelist drew on real people, places and events to produce his best known and most controversial novel, "Brideshead Revisited". Despite being exceptionally funny in places, "Brideshead Revisited" focuses, slowly but inexorably, on a religious theme: the working out of God's grace in human lives. In its pages Charles Ryder gradually progresses up a kind of ladder of love. Byrne pursues the autobiographical connections between Waugh, Tony Last of A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited’s Charles Ryder. One link, says Byrne, is Madresfield Court, much of its architecture used as model for both Hetton Abbey and Brideshead Castle, many of its inhabitants used as model for his characters — notably, the gay Lord Beauchamp, squire of Madresfield, inspired Tony Last, and Beauchamp’s gay son Hugh Lygon, one of those with whom Waugh had an affair while at Oxford, inspired Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte. Byrne’s title plays off Madresfield’s informal name of Mad Court or “Madders”; her title is also inspired by the nervous breakdown of Waugh’s later years:
He went mad, began hearing voices in his head. One of them kept telling him that he was homosexual. He wasn’t — he loved women too much for that — but there is no question that the creator of Sebastian Flyte and admirer of Lord Beauchamp had one of the great bisexual imaginations of the English literary tradition.
Byrne's biography is somewhat narrow in focus, concentrating on just the first 40 years of the writer's life, and with this focus she is able to maintain a fast pace and mirror the fun of his novels. Only in her last section does the story slow, becoming somewhat academic in needlessly highlighting all the correspondences between the world of Madresfield and the world of Brideshead. But she makes her case.
As she says in her prologue, "Mad World" illuminates the obsessions that shaped Waugh's life: "the search for an ideal family and the quest for a secure faith." Her book also reminds us just how much our lives are enriched and sustained by friendships.
Mad World by Paula Byrne. HarperCollins, 2010 (2009)
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Back Bay Books, 1977 (1934)