A Different View of A Handful of Dust

The Italian online religious newspaper Radio Spada has posted an article reviewing Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust. This is by Luca Fumagalli who has previously written about Waugh’s work. See previous posts. He begins his article with this:

Released in 1934, A Handful of Dust is often considered Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece. If, on such a judgment, it is legitimate to have some reservations – in this case personal taste has a not insignificant weight – certainly the book marked a turning point in the career of the English writer, acting as a watershed among his early works, characterized by satire to the limit of the surreal, and the novels of the following years, religiously more mature (above all Brideshead Revisited and the war trilogy Sword of Honor). In A Handful of Dust, in fact, ridiculous and grotesque passages alternate with singularly gloomy pages which, in addition to preparing the ground for the final tragedy, show that there is nothing behind modern secularized society, dominated by a secular humanism that, paradoxically, is in all respects inhuman [Italian: mostrano quel nulla che si cela dietro la moderna società secolarizzata, dominata da un umanitarismo laico che, paradossalmente, è in tutto e per tutto disumano]: that is why A Handful of Dust can be, quite rightly, called the first Catholic novel written by Waugh.

The article then discusses critically several features of the novel, including what is a misunderstanding relating Waugh’s decision to write a different ending for the serialized version that appeared in the magazine Harper’s Bazaar. The article assumes that the ending used for the book was written after the one that appeared in the magazine and was “even more scathing [Italianancora più graffiante], drawing fully from his previous story ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens'”. It should be pointed out that the different ending for the magazine version was not Waugh’s decision. He could not use the original ending as written for the book version in the US magazine edition because the exclusive US magazine right to publish that (effectively, the previously published text of the short story “The Man Who Liked Dickens”) was held by another magazine. Moreover, the editors of Harper’s Bazaar did not like the book’s version of the ending and may, in addition, have wanted to shorten the serial version. The last part of the quote assumes that Waugh, after the serial appeared, wrote a new ending that was based on “The Man Who Liked Dickens”, but that is not the case. In the the 1964 revised edition of the novel, Waugh included the alternative ending separately as an appendix, describing it as a “curiosity”. Waugh never intended the book version to reflect that shortened ending but does not explain that fully in his introduction to the 1964 edition.

After an interesting discussion of several other points, the article concludes with this:

Hetton Abbey, although it is a former monastery converted into a dwelling at the time of the Reformation – and in this respect it echoes something of the social and moral degeneration of England in the 1930s – still remains the symbol of a desirable society, based on tradition and a healthy desire for eternity that has its roots in the world, but not its end. So quite the opposite of that present that finally comes to disturb even the naive Tony, meanwhile committed to pretending an extramarital affair only to be able to grant a divorce to a wife to whom he still feels an obtuse devotion. […]

Despite A Handful of Dust […] boasting one of the darkest endings of all Waugh’s production, there is still room for a faint hope, that is, quoting Teddy,”one day to restore Hetton to the splendor that it had enjoyed in the days of his cousin Tony” or, metaphorically, to backtrack, to regain possession of the glorious chivalrous values of the past and thus to return to man his lost dignity.

The translation is by Google with some edits. It is in some places unclear, as indicated, and would benefit from some linguistic expertise if any of our readers would like to offer suggestions in a comment below. The original from the English edition has been substituted for the quote from the Italian translation of the novel (Una manciata di polvere).

UPDATE (10 February 2020): Some improved translations were kindly provided by a reader (see comment) and have been substituted.

With respect to the tortured history of the alternative endings of the novel and its relationship to the short story “The Man Who Liked Dickens”, it might be helpful to have this chronology. The short story was written and published in late 1933 in both the USA (Hearst’s International/Cosmopolitan) and UK (Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine). After it had been finished, Waugh decided he would write a novel explaining how and why the events in the story occurred. He wrote the novel in late 1933-early 1934. Serialization rights were to sold to Harper’s Bazaar, but they wanted it shortened and with a different ending. Waugh simply deleted the original ending and substituted a shorter one, making a few minor changes in the remaining original text to accommodate this. That serialized version was published under the title A Flat in London in both the USA and UK editions of the magazine in five installments between June-October 1934. The book was published in September 1934 to coincide with the final serial installment. To confuse things still further, Waugh’s alternative ending was later published as a stand-alone short story entitled “By Special Request” in the collection Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (1936) and has subsequently been reprinted with that title. It also bore a subtitle taken from the magazine version:  “Chapter Five, The Next Winter”.

In the 1964 revised edition of the novel, Waugh included the alternative ending in an appendix entitled, simply and helpfully, “Alternative Ending”. He provided this somewhat cryptic explanation of its provenance:

“An American magazine wanted to serialize it [the novel] (under the title of their choosing, A Flat in London) but could not do so while it incorporated The man who liked Dickens. I accordingly provided the alternative ending which is here included as a curiosity.”

Waugh’s explanation seems to assume that that Harper’s Bazaar “could not” republish the text of “The man who liked Dickens” because of its previous publication in a different magazine which had exclusive rights.  Some commentators suggest that this may be a red herring dragged out by Waugh to provide a convenient excuse for making substantive changes demanded by commecial publishers, something he usually resisted. In the USA, they note that both magazines were under common ownership of the same Hearst Magazine group. It is not clear, however, whether that was the case in England.


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