Usually described as a satire of the British landed gentry, A Handful of Dust is a poignant reminder that satires can be heart-breaking.
The aptly named Tony Last is clinging to his family estate, Hetton Abbey. His wife Brenda, however, is less enamoured of life in the countryside than he is, and her chronic boredom leads her into a lackadaisical affair with a young nobody and social hanger-on, John Beaver. What ensues is the sort of marital farce that could only happen in England.
Brenda takes an apartment in London to carry on her absurd dalliance (she tells Tony she's studying economics), and Tony flounders about Hetton as best he can, pleading with her to come home more often. A friend, Jock, suggests that Tony also come up to London for a night, reasoning that a change of scenery would do him some good. They proceed to get drunk at one of the proper clubs and then make their way to a seedier place to carry on. Throughout the evening, Tony makes increasingly slurred telephone calls to Brenda's apartment on the assumption that she would most certainly expect him to drop in for a visit. Her torpid and unenthusiastic responses convince him that he and Jock should instead carry on tippling at the Sixty-four.
...the Sixty-four has maintained a solid front against all adversity. It has not been immune from persecution; far from it. Times out of number, magistrates have struck it off, cancelled its licence, condemned its premises; the staff and until her death, the proprietress, have been constantly in and out of prison; there have been questions in the House and committees of enquiry, but whatever Home Secretaries and Commissioners of Police have risen into eminence and retired discredited, the doors of the Sixty-four have always been open from nine in the evening until four at night, and inside there has been an unimpeded flow of dubious, alcoholic preparations. A kindly young lady admitted Tony and Jock to the ramshackle building. "D'you mind signing in?" Tony and Jock inscribed fictitious names at the foot of a form which stated, I have been invited to a Bottle Party at 64 Sink Street given by Mr. Charles Weybridge. "That's five bob each please." It is not an expensive club to run, because none of the staff, except the band, receive any wages; they make what they can by going through the overcoat pockets and giving the wrong change to drunks...
"I like this, joint," said Jock. "What'll we drink?" "Brandy." They had to buy a whole bottle. They filled in an order form to the Montmorency Wine Company and paid two pounds. When it came it had a label saying Very Old Liquor Fine Champagne.Meanwhile, Brenda admits to a friend that she's a bit worried about Tony's state of mind. They prattle on about finding a woman to interest him in the same vein they might discuss lawn tennis or lepidoptery as potential distractions.
"You know," Brenda confided next day, "I'm not absolutely happy about Tony."When Brenda asks Tony for a divorce so she can marry the penniless Mr. Beaver, Tony graciously agrees to stage an adulterous liaison of his own, arranging for investigators to uncover it, so that Brenda will be the aggrieved party in the proceedings. Alas, the bar-maid from the Sixty-four, who agrees to play the role of Tony's strumpet, brings her small daughter along on the trip. As it happens, this works out to be a blessing in disguise, because when Brenda demands the sale of Hetton to finance her life with Beaver, Tony calls the whole divorce off and relies upon the investigators to testify that his trip to Brighton was a perfectly chaste charade, citing the presence of the little girl.
"What's the old boy been up to?" asked Polly.
"Nothing much yet, but I do see it's pretty boring for him at Hetton all this time."
"I shouldn't worry."
"Oh, I'm not worrying. It's only, supposing he took to drink or something. It would make everything very difficult."
"I shouldn't have said that was his thing... We must get him interested in a girl."
"If only we could... Who is there?"
"There's always old Sybil."
"Darling, he's known her all his life."
"Or Souki de Foucauld-Esterhazy."
"He isn't his best with Americans."
"Well we'll find him someone."
"The trouble is that I've become such a habit with him-he won't take easily to a new one... ought she to be like me, or quite different?"
"I'd say, different, but it's hard to tell." They discussed this problem in all its aspects.
Tony decides that absence may be the better part of valour, and he leaves the whole unpleasant mess behind. He goes off to Brazil "in search of a city", tagging along to assist Mr. Messinger, who is determined to find the ruins of an ancient fabled city in the thick of the jungle. Messinger seems even less suited for such an expedition than Scott was for his Antarctic folly, and Tony is far from an intrepid explorer. Delirious with fever, he eventually falls into the hands of a Mr. Todd, a mixed-race Anglophile who has established his own small kingdom in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Todd has a loyal community (many of whom are related to him by blood), an excellent knowledge of herbal medicine, and a complete collection of Dickens' novels, which he is unable to read. When Tony recovers from his fever, he discovers the depth of his host's passion for Dickens. Todd is happy to listen to Tony reading those novels aloud for... well, for the rest of his days. Or Tony's days, whichever might end first.
Poor Tony. When their young son dies in a fox-hunting accident -- a young lady loses all control of her excitable horse, which kicks the boy in the head -- Tony repeats like a mantra, "It's no one's fault... No, it's really no one's fault." Placing blame is simply not something one does in the Lasts' society, and finding fault with Brenda or Beaver would be most unsporting. A Handful of Dust marks not only the end of a marriage but also the end of a more private and circumspect era. I expect watching Princess Diana discussing her husband's infidelity on the telly would have put Evelyn Waugh into his grave if he hadn't already got there in 1966.