Hetton Abbey Revisited

An article in The American Conservative magazine takes a new look at Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust. This is by Peter Tonguette who explains his motivation in the opening paragraph:

During the last 12 months, countless old movies, books, and plays have been remembered or reinterpreted to help us make sense of the pandemic and its miseries. Few works from the past evoke the cognitive dissonance of our moment, the sense that we are watching society go to pieces from the comfort of a picture window, better than Evelyn Waugh’s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust, a masterpiece that was judged one of the last century’s 100 best books by the Modern Library.

He sees in Tony Last a hero whose “character […] mirrors our own […] a life in retreat from a hostile, declining society.” What follows is an interesting and entertaining review of the story, updated as needed to show its relevance to the world created by the coronavirus pandemic. When he arrives at the ending, Tonguette is reminded of the conclusions of an earlier reader:

…In a 1977 piece in The New York Times, the critic Anatole Broyard suggested that Tony’s fate was not one worse than death. “I wonder, as we leave Tony there, whether he will not eventually be happier with Mr. Todd and Dickens than if he were to make his way back to England,” wrote Broyard, whose favorite Waugh novel this was. “With American life going on as it has been, I sometimes feel like holing up with the complete works of Evelyn Waugh.”

The impulse to hole up, to withdraw, to retire to a grand country estate, to lose oneself in the literature of long ago: are these not widely shared as we look around us today? As with the French revolutionaries and Marie Antoinette, the vanguard—even if only in the form of alimony-seeking unfaithful spouses—did come for Tony Last, but he found, in his role as a literary vassal to Mr. Todd, a new warren to burrow into.

What, finally, makes A Handful of Dust so sad? Maybe it’s not that Tony Last is lost in the jungle, but because, this year, it sometimes feels as though we are right there with him.

The article is entitled “Watching the World from Hetton” and can be read in its entirety at this link. Tonguette doesn’t mention the alternate ending to the novel in which Tony does not travel to South America but appears to emerge a bit from the hole into which he has dug himself at Hetton. Perhaps it is just as well to ignore that alternative since it was written not because Waugh thought it an improvement but because it avoided a copyright conflict in connection with the American serial version of the story.


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