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Handful of Dust, A

The Waste Land

a novel by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934. The novel, whose title is from Eliot's The Waste Land and which is amongst Waugh's most savage portrayals of the idleness and decadence of the ‘Bright Young Things’, describes the deteriorating marriage of Lady Brenda Last, a beautiful but shallow young woman, and her husband Tony, who embodies the moral decency and respect for tradition the author clearly regarded as threatened by fashionable mores. Leaving Tony to pursue his duties as a local landowner, which includes the increasingly ruinous upkeep of Hetton Abbey, the Victorian Gothic mansion which is his chief preoccupation, Brenda begins an affair with a predatory younger man, John Beaver, who is attracted to her for her wealth and position. When her son, also called John, is killed in a hunting accident, Brenda at first imagines that it is her lover who is dead; her relief when it is revealed that this is not the case is one of the book's most chilling moments. The couple drift apart after the child's death and Brenda asks for a divorce in order to marry Beaver. Tony at first agrees to this, but when he realizes that the divorce settlement will mean selling his beloved Hetton he refuses to go through with it, and joins an expedition to the Amazon. Here he is saved from death and subsequently held captive by a madman, whom he is forced to entertain by reading aloud, each night, from the works of Dickens; after some time has elapsed, he is presumed dead and Brenda, abandoned by Beaver when it becomes clear that she will not inherit Tony's money, marries her former fiancé, Jock Grant-Menzies.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Bernard Gutteridge Biography to Hartshill Warwickshire