A Handful of Dust is the most wretched and sterile of Waugh’s books, telling of the breakdown of Tony and Brenda Last’s marriage when Brenda starts an affair with John Beaver. Tony Last is a weak quasi-hero who cannot act for himself, falling victim to society-wide gossip about Brenda’s flaunted romance, while all their friends bitchily observe.
But although this does have comic potential – unfaithful husbands and wives have been comedy gold since Menander – Waugh took a very different road. His own wife was having an affair as he was writing A Handful of Dust, so he made her the cuckolding Brenda, which is – admittedly – not a new trick. But as if this were not humiliation enough, he then made her as the least maternal mother since Medea.
Brenda’s son with Tony is called John – as is her lover – and when young John is killed in a riding accident and Brenda is simply told that ‘John’ has died, she worries that it is her lover, not her son. Waugh, driven to hurt his wife in the most public and permanent way possible, took revenge on his wife by painting her as a woman so selfish and uncaring that she thinks not of her child but of her lover.
This sits uneasily against Waugh’s comic triumphs. I’ve been reading Decline and Fall, his first novel, and have managed to attract many disapproving coughs on the tube for laughing too loudly, too often. Waugh can skewer society perfectly, and he does it much more effectively with humour as here than with the bitterness of A Handful of Dust.
From the names – the innocent-sounding hero-victim Paul Pennyfeather, the aristocratic Lord Tangent and Lady Circumference – to the beauty of the situations he devises, Waugh does not put a foot wrong. His technique is impeccable: when a master shoots a boy in the foot at a school sports day, it is dealt with in hilarious asides, every so often impinging on the narrative and setting you laughing again. The African scrapes of Scoop and the bed-hopping, party-stopping behaviour of Vile Bodies are just as brilliant.
No-one can fully leave their private life behind them as they work, but it just happens that Waugh’s work was the perfect medium for playing out his private life in. It was a very human act, then, of Waugh to use his writing for revenge – but it was also a very cruel one