Written in 1934, A Handful of Dust follows Tony and Brenda Last, as they live out their happy, but mundane life at Hetton Abbey, Tony's beloved estateWritten in 1934, A Handful of Dust follows Tony and Brenda Last, as they live out their happy, but mundane life at Hetton Abbey, Tony's beloved estate in the English countryside. The couple has one son, and lives very comfortably on their inherited wealth, sticking to old fashioned, aristocratic social norms.
Soon, life becomes too routine for Brenda and while at a party she becomes interested in John Beaver, a rather common man, who finds himself at these parties more as a novelty than a guest. Brenda is pulled toward him, finding him exciting and different, when in reality he is merely ordinary, if not mediocre. But she continues a relationship with him, even going so far as to rent a flat in London, for weekday rendezvous.
When Tony eventually learns of the affair, he isn't interested in ending the marriage because he feels a need to keep up appearances. It isn't until their son dies in a riding accident, that Brenda forces the issue, and demands a divorce. Tony finally relents, while seemingly bearing no ill will toward her at all.
But when Brenda's lawyers insist on a much larger alimony than Tony had expected, an amount that would force him to give up his beloved estate, he refuses the divorce. Frustrated at how his world seems to be crumbling, both his personal life and British aristocratic society in general, he departs for South America on an adventure he hopes will give him some breathing room, and perhaps allow things to return to normal.
All I can say is this was a great book. It was funny, engaging, interesting, and insightful. Like in Brideshead, Waugh explores the change British society experienced in the 1920's and 30's, as aristocratic wealth made way for industrial wealth. Like in Brideshead, his characters seem to live in a world that Waugh both longs for, but mocks at the same time (knowing what I do of Waugh, this can only be a cover, as I believe he desperately wanted to be a part of the British nobility).
The satirical approach Waugh takes toward Tony and Brenda's life works so well. Their reactions to different situations would border on ridiculous in modern society, but seem to be right at home in 1934 London. When Tony first learns of Brenda's infidelities, what others think is his chief concern; not that his wife is cheating on him, but because her affair is with a working class man.
When he finally does agree to a divorce, Tony arranges for a waitress to accompany him to the seaside for a weekend, to stage him having an affair. The idea is that it is more proper for a man to have an affair, and it would simply look better whilst their divorce is in court. So, he has his solicitors arrange for investigators to "follow" him to the seaside hotel, and catch him having said affair. The whole weekend is fabricated from beginning to end; being served breakfast while lying in bed together being their only betrayal (the delivery man thus becomes a witness to their affair).
It is almost unfathomable today, that such people would do such things, only in an effort to keep up appearances. And apparently it was quite ridiculous to Waugh, over 80 years ago, as well.
But Waugh is able to create sympathy for both characters, and despite their silly predicaments I found myself understanding both Tony and Brenda's concerns. When Tony reneges on his agreed upon divorce, I couldn't help pity him a little. After all, he hadn't done anything wrong, other than being a boring upper class Brit, yet Brenda was attempting to extort money from him. Then, when things go horribly wrong for Tony on his trip to South America, I found I could really feel the helplessness of the situation.
One curiosity of this book is that includes an alternate ending, a first for the 79 books from the list thus far. How it came about was that the final chapter had originally been published as a short story entitled "The Man Who Liked Dickens." When an American magazine wanted to publish A Handful of Dust as a serial, they couldn't use the final chapter for copyright reasons, so Waugh wrote the alternate ending to be included in the magazine.
It must be said that the alternate ending is completely different, and really does change the feel of the book; and not for the better. The alternate ending has much more of a happy ending, and they never seem to work as well.
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Written in 1966, the book is billed as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. And I'd guess it is the first ever prequel, coming out over 30 yearsWritten in 1966, the book is billed as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. And I'd guess it is the first ever prequel, coming out over 30 years before "Star Wars Episode 1" created one of my least favorite cinematic terms/trends. For me though, it was just a book, as I haven't read Jane Eyre, nor do I know anything about the plot or characters. Now I just have to determine who in Wide Sargasso Sea is the equivalent of Jar Jar Binks.
The story is about a young white women, Antoinette, in post-slavery Jamaica. After suffering a couple of traumatic events in her adolescence, she grows up rather fragile, and unsure of her place in the world.
Before long she is wed to an unnamed Englishman, who is kind of a bastard, and treats her quite poorly; flaunting extra-marital affairs in front of her, and eventually keeping her confined to their bedroom. In true Victorian style, she slowly descends into madness before the couple leaves the Caribbean for England. As her descent continues, and her husband's cruelties are augmented, she decides to take her own life (although the book concludes before she goes through with it.)
On it's own, I would describe it as a rather haunting story of two people, circumstances of their time and place in the world, who are railroaded into a relationship neither desires. Neither one seems capable of even pretending to be happy, and they live out their depressing lives. Like their lives, the book is depressing right from the get go, and there isn't a bight spot in sight.
The writing is effective, and I felt pity for both of them, especially Antoinette, as they descended deeper and deeper into such a dark and gloomy place. And unlike many "descents into madness," this one did seem gradual and realistic.
But having not read the "sequel," none of it really held any context for me. After doing a little bit of reading on the plot of Jane Eyre, I find it quite an intriguing idea for a book, but one I wasn't aware of at all. To go back to Star Wars, it would be like watching Episode 1, and having no idea who Anikan Skywalker was, or Yoda, or Ben Kenobi.
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