Meet the Lasts, Downton Abbey’s future

Evelyn Waugh’s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust satirizes Britain’s landed gentry, whose power and influence diminished between the World Wars. It’s a book that gets called out on “best” lists, such as Time magazine’s All-TIME Best Novels and Modern Library’s Top 100. Last July, John Self in The Guardian tagged it as Waugh’s greatest achievement in an article about writers being famous for the wrong book. I get that now, being a big fan of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and presently a bigger fan of A Handful of Dust.

This greatest achievement became a beach read for me during a recent Florida visit. It came along in the suitcase as a book I’d intended to read before the close of 2011 and missed the deadline by a week. I didn’t think of it as beach material but wanted to meet my goal. Classics and bests carry a hovering stigma of something to be trudged through. That aforementioned Modern Library list also includes Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury, hardly sun, sand and surf material. Nevertheless, I sat in the beach chair – actually, a balcony chair overlooking the beach – and there read Waugh’s masterpiece for long hours of escape, completely surprised and delighted by this classic’s engaging force. This is one wickedly funny novel. 

The book focuses on Tony and Brenda Last, who live on Tony’s inherited country estate, Hetton Abbey. It requires every penny they have to keep it going. Weekend visits by the London social set fill the Gothic structure’s cold, uncomfortable rooms. And while Brenda’s bored with the old house and its requirements, Tony lives for it. Not surprising, then, that Brenda escapes to London, where she engages in an affair with John Beaver, the novel’s moneyless social climber.

Waugh’s ingenious send-up includes many lively characters whose affiliation with the Lasts helps exaggerate their arrogant blindness. One most enjoyable is their literal-minded son, a young boy who, when told the London socialite Lady Cockpurse looks like a monkey, imagines her to be a “hairy, mischievous Countess:”

“When kindly people spoke to him in the village he would tell them aboutt her and how she swung head down from a tree throwing nutshells at passers-by.

‘You mustn’t say things like that about real people,’ said nanny. ‘Whatever would Lady Cockpurse do if she heard about it.’

‘She’d gibber and chatter and lash round with her tail, and then I expect she’d catch some nice, big, juicy fleas and forget all about it.'”

 Even though we realize Waugh is on a mission to ridicule country estate heirs and their privileged friends, he creates these characters without the drag of giving a lesson. It’s his witty, acerbic digs and savage humor that do the educational work and make A Handful of Dust so much fun.

A tragic accident on a fox hunt at Hetton Abbey hurdles the Lasts toward their downfall, with Brenda making a very telling and shocking remark. It’s an unforgettable moment in reading history, a blurted “Oh thank God” positioned with enormous implication. Despite the dark turn of events, Waugh skillfully controls the experience so we stay within bounds of the book’s irony and satire. He shocks us, and then lifts us right back up into the amusing divorce proceedings and a threat to Hetton Abbey, such as, in this scene, when Brenda’s brother negotiates with Tony:

“The truth is that Beaver is cutting up nasty. He says he can’t marry Brenda unless she’s properly provided for. Not fair on her, he says. I quite see his point on [sic] a way.”

“Yes, I see his point,” said Tony. “So what your proposal really amounts to is that I should give up Hetton in order to buy Beaver for Brenda.”

“It’s not how I should’ve put it,” said Reggie.

My reference to Downtown Abbey in this post’s title is a bit cheeky, considering I’ve not seen the popular PBS show, what with no TV in the house; however, from all I’ve read about it, I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition, for a Last perspective, so to speak. Because Waugh would’ve had a field day with this show about an English country estate and its inhabitants. But then, maybe he already has had that day in A Handful of Dust, which ends with Tony lost in a South American jungle and to Hetton Abbey. Indeed, Waugh’s greatest achievement.