A Handful of Dust on BBC Radio 4

The BBC will rebroadcast a 1996 two-hour adaptation of Waugh’s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust. According to the Daily Mail Weekend Magazine radio listings:

The critics gave the thumbs down to this Evelyn Waugh novel when it was published in 1934. The book-buying public, however, knew a good thing when they read it, and Waugh’s tragicomic tale of a ghastly country house, a fortune-seeking cad and a bored socialite has never gone out of print. Tara Fitzgerald stars as Lady Brenda Last in a story that will whisk you away to another age, as well as making you laugh. Just the ticket in these troubled times.

The role of Tony Last is played by Jonathan Cullen. The adaptation is by Bill Matthews and the director is Sally Avens. The first of two one-hour episodes will broadcast at 1000a next Thursday, 9 April on BBC Radio 4 Extra, with the second to follow at the same time on the next day, Friday, 10 April. After the broadcast, the play will be available on BBC iPlayer worldwide. The adaptation was originally broadcast on 26 May 1996.

One wonders about the Daily Mail’s claim that the book never went out of print. Chapman & Hall issued a reset edition in 1937 and a “uniform” edition in 1948, but the first Penguin edition was not issued until 1951, well after the war. There is no record in the Waugh bibliography (p. 8) of a UK reprint between 1937 and 1948. Nor is there any record of a US reprint between 1938 and 1944.

Waugh’s novel recently featured in a Forbes Magazine article that collected recommendations from travel writers of “10 books for the trip of a lifetime–at home”. In Hilary Bradt’s selection, A Handful of Dust is described as:

…a fiction title which makes one travel to all kinds of corners of high society travel and shipboard romance, [by] wicked-witted Evelyn Waugh.

“I have just finished reading A Handful of Dust. Waugh is one of those writers that one ought to read in a lifetime and I happened to pick this up when I had nothing to read on a train. About a quarter of the book is about travel, but classic travel–exploration–described in great detail and as far as I can tell, totally accurate. Tony, who has never been outside London or his friend’s mansions, travels through the jungles of Guiana to seek a lost city. The ending is a classic, oft quoted. And, yes, it’s fiction.”

Well that gets me in, and you? … The book’s dark ending with “room for a faint hope” is a little bit analogous with our times.

She also chose two books by Peter Fleming, one of which, Brazilian Adventure, describes a trip by Fleming which may have contributed to Waugh’s decision to make his own trek into the Brazilian outback. Waugh’s trip is more fully depicted in his 1934 travel book Ninety-Two Days.

The origin of the title of Waugh’s book is discussed in a recent National Review column “The Corner” by Madeleine Kearns:

“April is the cruelest month” in T.S. Eliot’s 1921 poem The Waste Land because, as spring brought signs of new life and renewal, Europe was in a crumbling, dying mess in the wake of World War I. Eliot wrote his most famous work while recovering from a nervous breakdown, in the peak of marital distress, and six years prior to his conversion to Anglicanism.

Eliot said that his intention was to express the same kind of suffering in The Waste Land that Beethoven had in his final string quartets. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” Eliot pens in his first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” referring to the post-war generation’s reckoning with death and spiritual irrelevance, a theme later explored in Evelyn Waugh’s first seriously Catholic novel, A Handful of Dust (1934)…

Waugh’s originally-proposed titles for the book were “A Handful of Ashes” and “The Fourth Decade.” A serialized and shortened version appeared in Harper’s Bazaar as “A Flat in London.” It is missing the final chapters of the book based on the short story “The Man Who Liked Dickens.”



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