A Handful of Dust

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For the New Zealand band, see A Handful of Dust (band).
A Handful of Dust
First UK edition
Author Evelyn Waugh
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Chapman and Hall (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 308 pp (1st edition hardcover)

A Handful of Dust is a novel by English author Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934. It is included in the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels,[1] and was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present.[2]

The title is a reference to a line from the poem The Waste Land (1922), by T. S. Eliot:

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Waugh originally titled the novel A Handful of Ashes, but after a dispute with his American publishers, he chose the quotation from The Waste Land.[3]


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 John Beaver's affair with Tony's wife Brenda, who yearns for urban excitement.

After the Lasts' son, John Andrew, 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 (at Beaver's urging) will insist on a monetary settlement so large that it would 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 find help. Tony wanders, delirious, until he stumbles into an isolated tribal village. Once there, he is nursed back to health, and subsequently held captive, by a Mr. Todd, who insists that Tony remain forever, reading the works of Charles Dickens to him. Meanwhile, Brenda's relationship with John Beaver has fallen apart after it became apparent that she would not become a rich divorcée. Shortly after Tony is declared dead, Brenda marries the couple's mutual friend, Jock Grant-Menzies. The novel ends with obscure relatives of Tony taking over Hetton, dedicating a memorial stone to him, and setting on to restoring "Hetton to the glory that it had enjoyed in the days of" Tony Last.

Waugh used as the second-last chapter of the novel a slightly adapted version of a pre-existing short story, "The Man Who Liked Dickens". When the novel was serialized in the American magazine Harper's Bazaar, Waugh had to supply a new ending because the short story, which had been published in the US earlier, could not for copyright reasons appear in the magazine. In the alternative ending, included as an appendix in some editions of the book, Tony returns from Brazil and to his relationship with Brenda.[4]

Waugh wrote of the novel's development:

"I had just written a short story ["The Man Who Liked Dickens"] 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).

Critical reaction[edit]

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked A Handful of Dust 34th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It also made a similar list created by Time Magazine in 2005.

Christopher Sykes, Waugh's biographer, thinks that "the title was not apposite".[3]


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.[5]

The novel was adapted for the General Electric theater with the title " The High Green Wall "


  • 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
  3. ^ a b Sykes, Christopher (1977). Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. Penguin. p. 196. Retrieved 31 December 2012. 
  4. ^ Boyd, William (2007). "Evelyn Waugh (2): (Introduction to A Handful of Dust)". Bamboo: Essays and Criticism. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. pp. 182–183. ISBN 9781596914414. Retrieved 31 December 2012. 
  5. ^ "The Duke of Norfolk". The Telegraph. 26 June 2002. Retrieved 31 December 2012. 

External links[edit]