"All over England people were waking up, queasy and despondent."
Few writers have walked the line between farce and tragedy as nimbly as Evelyn Waugh, who employed the conventions of the comic novel to chip away at the already crumbling English class system. His 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust, is a sublime example of his bleak satirical style: a mordantly funny exposé of aristocratic decadence and ennui in England between the wars.
Tony Last is an aristocrat whose attachment to an ideal feudal past is so profound that he is blind to his wife Brenda's boredom with the stately rhythms of country life. While he earnestly plays the lord of the manor in his ghastly Victorian Gothic pile, she sets herself up in a London flat and pursues an affair with the social-climbing idler John Beaver. In the first half of the novel Waugh fearlessly anatomizes the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Everyone moves through an endless cycle of parties and country-house weekends, being scrupulously polite in public and utterly horrid in private. Sex is something one does to relieve the boredom, and Brenda's affair provides a welcome subject for conversation:
It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone.
Tony's indifference and Brenda's selfishness give their relationship a sort of equilibrium until tragedy forces them to face facts. The collapse of their relationship accelerates, and in the famous final section of the book Tony seeks solace in a foolhardy search for El Dorado, throwing himself on the mercy of a jungle only slightly more savage than the one he leaves behind in England. For all its biting wit, A Handful of Dust
paints a bleak picture of the English upper classes, reaching beyond satire toward a very modern sense of despair. In Waugh's world, culture, breeding, and the trappings of civilization only provide more subtle means of destruction. --Simon Leake
Satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934. The novel, which is often considered Waugh's best, examines the themes of contemporary amorality and the death of spiritual values. Precipitated by the failure of Waugh's marriage and by his conversion to Roman Catholicism, the novel points up the similarities between the savagery of so-called civilized London society and the barbarity encountered by the hero in the South American jungle. The novel's protagonist, Tony Last, is bewildered and devastated when, out of boredom, his beloved wife Brenda has an affair and sues Tony for divorce. Tony flees to South America, where he is captured by a demented, illiterate English squatter who keeps Tony a prisoner, forcing him to read aloud continuously from the works of Charles Dickens. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature