Perfecting the Victorian Construct: Tony Last’s Hetton

© 2009 Sean M. Donnell

            Often considered his finest work, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust focuses the majority of the novel’s tension on Tony Last’s mostly humorous endeavors to keep his anachronistic values in an increasingly volatile society.  Writing in 1945, Waugh recalls that “A Handful of Dust . . . began at the end.  I had written a short story about a man trapped in the jungle, ending his days reading Dickens aloud. . . . Then, after the short story was written and published, the idea kept working in my mind.  I wanted to discover how the prisoner got there” (qtd. in Cook 133).  Waugh’s quest to “discover” how Tony Last reaches his ultimate fate creates some interesting commentary on the novel’s protagonist.  Shortly after publishing A Handful of Dust in 1934, Waugh elucidates how Tony’s disposition led him to the Brazilian jungle in a letter to Henry Yorke: “The scheme was a Gothic man in the hands of savages—first Mrs. Beaver etc. then the real ones” (157).  “Gothic” in this sense refers to the Victorian architectural phenomenon known as the Neo-Gothic revival.  Hence, we see in Hetton Abbey—the ancestral home from which Tony derives great pleasure and in which he takes even greater pride—the physical manifestation of the protagonist’s Victorian constitution through the Neo-Gothic medium of Hetton.  Through the Gothic architecture of Hetton, Waugh draws some impressive conclusions about Tony’s Last’s disposition in A Handful of Dust.

            A Handful of Dust is neither the first nor the only novel in which Waugh uses a piece of architecture to inform one of his characters’ personalities.  In fact, many of his novels define characters through an architectural construct.  Waugh’s use of architecture to explain facets of personality is, as Laura Doan asserts in “Architecture and the Postwar British Novel,” not only ingenious, but also highly appropriate:

Architecture is, after all, the most visually pervasive and socially determined of the visual arts.  To quote Balzac: “The events in human life, either public or private, are so innately connected with the architecture that most observers could reconstruct nations or individuals in all the verity of their habits, basing their notions on what remains of their domestic existence.”  (19)

Reconstructing the individual “in all the verity” of his habits through an architectural medium is exactly what Waugh attempts to do with Tony Last, and we see within the first few pages of A Handful of Dust that Hetton is meant to be that architectural medium.  In fact, Waugh carefully creates the impression that Hetton is not merely a facade for Tony’s persona, but that on some intrinsic level, the Neo-Gothic manor and its lord are synonymous.  Early in the novel, Mrs. Beaver’s inquiries about her son’s plans for the upcoming weekend clearly delineate the relationship between Tony and Hetton before we encounter either in the novel:

“Where are you going for the week-end?”


Who’s that?  I forget?” 

“Tony Last.”

“Yes, of course.  She’s lovely, he’s rather a stick.”  (Waugh, Dust 6; emphasis added)1

Mrs. Beaver does not inquire “What’s Hetton?” or “To whom does Hetton belong?”  Instead, she asks “Who’s that?” emphasizing a connection between Tony and Hetton that goes beyond mere ownership.  By asking this simple question, she implies that Hetton Abbey and Tony Last are more than just closely associated with one another, that they are actually constituent elements of the same entity.  In this sense, the family estate serves not only as an architectural double for Tony, but Tony also functions as a simulacrum of the mansion’s mawkish Victorian sentimentality as it is represented through Neo-Gothic architecture.  Hence, historically locating Hetton should help us to form a more concise understanding of Tony’s sometimes baffling mannerisms in A Handful of Dust.

            Hetton’s historical moment, the Gothic Revival, underscores the fact that the abbey is, more than anything else, a Victorian construct—both literally and figuratively.  In A Handful of Dust, Waugh takes pains to inform the reader that Hetton was not merely renovated in 1864, but was completely rebuilt.  Among Tony’s belongings in Morgan le Fay we find “an aquatint of Hetton, as it had stood until his great-grandfather demolished it” (16).  And later in the novel, Waugh carefully identifies Hetton’s historical moment when he describes the abbey as “a huge building conceived in the late generation of the Gothic Revival, when the movement had lost its fantasy and become structurally logical and stodgy” (44).

            The precision with which Waugh situates Hetton within a historical framework illustrates how important it was for him to identify Tony’s family estate as a Victorian construct.  Kenneth Clark’s Gothic Revival provides some interesting insight into the importance of Hetton’s rebuilding as a Gothic mansion: “A Gothic mansion was [a] . . . country house with just enough of the scenic elements of Gothic—pointed arches, battlements and towers—to convince the owner that he lived in an ancestral home.  There were no mediaeval mansions” (132).  Because Hetton Abbey’s architecture is solely a structure of the Victorian period’s Gothic Revival, the architecture being constructed is a Victorian model, not a medieval one.

            The Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s assertion that when “the Gothic style . . . was invented, all others became obsolete” (qtd. in Crook 180), represents the attitude of many architects from the Gothic Revival, but he essentializes the philosophies of one in particular: Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.  During the later years of the Gothic Revival, Pugin’s appeal for architecture more akin with the true spirit of the Gothic, rather than simply representative of its style, revolutionized the movement.  As Clark points out:

Gothic [architecture] was fortified with principles stricter and more comprehensive than those on which classical buildings was [sic] based; and architects had come to look on Gothic not as a style, but as a religion.  A change had taken place in the whole nature of the Revival.  The man who brought about this change was Pugin.  (164)

While Pugin is definitely not a household name, his influence on the Gothic Revival is, ironically, validated by the general disregard with which the movement has been viewed since it fell into disfavor.  In Romanticism and the Gothic Revival, Agnes Addison qualifies her declaration that Pugin was “one of the most brilliant, prolific, and influential architects of the Gothic Revival” by stating:

The last sentence may seem too enthusiastic to the people who have never heard of Pugin, and few people have heard his name, although in the past few years he is coming into his own again.  The main reason that Pugin has not been known is that he was a Roman Catholic and the Gothic Revivalists of the last century had to be very wary of any connections with the Romish church.  The second reason is that Ruskin followed hard on his heels and took over and transformed Pugin’s ideas without mentioning him.  Lastly, although Pugin designed hundreds of churches, schools and colleges, not one of his buildings is beautiful, but they are simple and in excellent taste, and most are infinitely superior to other Gothic Revival work; none are impressive or breath-taking.  (74)

In her assessment of Pugin’s architecture, Addison is exceedingly kind.  The far more popular reaction to Gothic Revival architecture tended toward abhorrence. Clark is not as kind as Addison , describing Gothic mansions as “monsters . . . unsightly wrecks stranded upon the mud of Victorian taste” (11-12).  Despite how Pugin’s works came to be viewed in later years, they form the dominant determinant of the Victorian Neo-Gothic ideology. 

            Pugin’s 1843 publication, An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England, is undoubtedly an important tract concerning the Gothic Revival.  As Waugh argues in A Handful of Dust, until this point in the Gothic Revival, architects had been interested in creating merely representations of Gothic construction.  In his Apology, Pugin suggests that the Revival must start creating architecture that not merely represents the Gothic, but actually captures the spirit of it:

[I]n the name of all common sense, whilst we profess the creed of Christians, whilst we glory in being Englishmen, let us have an architecture, the arrangement of which will alike remind us of our faith and our country—an architecture whose beauties we may claim as our own, whose symbols have originated in our religions and our customs.  (6)

Pugin readily admits that he is a fanatic for Gothic buildings, but we see here his desire for the Gothic Revival to construct something that is uniquely English and Victorian—sentiments that Ruskin will later adopt and expand upon.  Pugin concludes his Apology by reaffirming that “We do not want to revive a facsimile of the works or style of any particular individual, or even a period; but it is the devotion, majesty, and repose of Christian art, for which we are contending;—it is not a style, but a principle” (44).  This conclusion, the quintessence of the Victorian concept of the Gothic revival, perfectly recapitulates Waugh’s description of Hetton as a “building conceived in the late generation of the Gothic Revival” (44). 

            Thus through Hetton’s facade, we see manifest the physical construction of a Victorian, Neo-Gothic aesthetic in A Handful of Dust.  By similarly examining Tony’s actions in light of his association with the family estate, we shall clearly see his spiritual construction of a Victorian aesthetic.  Moreover, we will discover, as Ann Slater did in “Waugh’s A Handful of Dust: Right Things in Wrong Places,” that the novel’s central theme is “embodied in the anachronistic, misplaced values of Hetton Abbey” (53). 

            One Victorian value conspicuous in Tony’s aesthetic that, like Gothic architecture, fell into disrepute by the time Waugh wrote A Handful of Dust is his love for reclusiveness.  Waugh meditated at length on this subject in his essay, “The Philistine Age of English Decoration”:

The mid-Victorian householder . . . did not want to entertain on any spectacular scale; he had no use for the communicating suites of apartments beloved of his grandfather; he preferred a series of substantially constructed retreats. . . .  These requirements determined the plan of the house.  For elevation he cared very little.  He was not disposed to spend much on what was, after all, primarily for the enjoyment of strangers outside.  (219)

The Victorian gentleman viewed his mansion as a safe haven from life’s hardships.  He desired nothing more than to retreat into his home and immerse himself in the private facade that he had paid so handsomely to create.  Waugh furthers this idea by stating that the “Victorian home was the retreat of the business man; he wanted something snug and private” (“Philistine” 220).

            His desire for solitude as keen as any Victorian gentleman’s, Tony looks upon Hetton as the ultimate refuge of repose.  When Brenda vents her frustration at their relative isolation at Hetton, Tony finds it literally impossible to conceptualize her perspective:

            “Well it sometimes seems to me rather pointless keeping up a house of this size if we don’t now and then ask some other people to stay in it.”

            “Pointless?  I can’t think what you mean.  I don’t keep up this house to be a hostel for a lot of bores to come and gossip in.  We’ve always lived here and I hope John will be able to keep it on after me. . . .  It’s a definite part of English life. . . .” (19)

Tony is so immersed in his Victorian aesthetic that he fails to connect with Brenda’s position.  Like the “mid-Victorian householder,” Tony Last can only conceptualize his mansion as a retreat, not a focal point for entertainment. For Brenda, on the other hand, Hetton’s sole purpose is to serve as a forum for merriment.  The tension of this scene, like so many others between Brenda and Tony, arises from the couple’s failure to understand the other’s viewpoint.  Tony cannot abandon his fixation for the Gothic aesthetic, and Brenda cannot adopt it.  The couple’s failure to understand one another in the novel is also conspicuous in their views of Hetton itself.  For Tony, Hetton is the idealized environment: “There was not a glazed brick or encaustic tile that was not dear to Tony’s Heart” (13).  While for Brenda, little else could be more repugnant: Tony is “madly feudal” (49), and the house is ghastly.  As she reveals to Beaver, “I detest it [Hetton]. . . .  I do wish that it wasn’t all, every bit of it, so appallingly ugly” (45).        In this scene we see Tony’s Gothic aesthetic challenged by Brenda.  This becomes a recurrent theme throughout A Handful of Dust.  Just like Pugin and the Gothic Revival, Tony’s views are—for the particular historical moment in which Waugh’s novel is set—repudiated as anachronistic.  Both Clark, writing in 1928, and Addison, writing in 1938, exhibit to varying degrees the same distaste for the aesthetics of the Gothic Revival that Brenda and her coterie do.  Throughout A Handful of Dust, Tony’s construction of a Victorian aesthetic is constantly challenged by intrusions from the Modern era, and as the novel progresses, we shall see Tony retreat further from the Modern era as he attempts to keep his Victorian aesthetic viable.

            Another of Tony’s Victorian ideals is his adoption of the mannerisms of the landed gentry.  Waugh indicates that the Victorian gentleman “liked to overlook the most extensive possible landscape, much of which he owned, most of which he ruled, and all of which he regarded himself and his house as the principal ornaments.  He liked to see and be seen” (“Philistine” 219-20).  Like his Victorian predecessors, Tony also enjoyed playing the part of sovereign with his people.  After Tony attends church, he meanders about his estate as if he were surveying his chattel:

When the service was over he stood for a few minutes at the porch chatting affably with the vicar’s sister and the people from the village.  Then he returned home by a path across the fields which led to a side door in the walls garden; he visited the hot houses and picked himself a button-hole, stopped by the gardeners’ cottages for a few words (the smell of Sunday dinners rising warm and overpowering from the little doorways) and then, rather solemnly, drank a glass of sherry in the library.  That was the simple, mildly ceremonious order of his Sunday morning . . .  he adhered to it with great satisfaction.  Brenda teased him whenever she caught him posing as an upright, God-fearing gentleman of the old school and Tony saw the joke, but this did not at all diminish the pleasure he derived from his weekly routine, or his annoyance when the presence of guests suspended it.  (35-36)

Just like the Victorian gentleman’s impersonation of the country lord, Tony likes “to see and be seen.”  His visit to the gardeners’ homes affords Tony the opportunity to become the object of the gaze while simultaneously aspiring toward it.

            One of the most important Victorian motifs in A Handful of Dust is Tony’s relationship with the Anglican Church.  This theme takes on added significance when we remember that Waugh was a Catholic and that he privileged Catholicism over the Anglicism.  Waugh’s preference for the Catholic Church comes to the forefront in his essay, “Come Inside”: “ England was Catholic for nine hundred years, then Protestant for three hundred years, then agnostic for a century.  Catholic structure still lies buried beneath every phase of English life; history, topography, law, archeology everywhere reveal Catholic origins” (qtd. in Wasson 134).  And as Michael Gorra points out in “Through Comedy Toward Catholicism,” it was more than simply a religion for Waugh:

Catholicism became a refuge into which he [Waugh] could flee from the spectacle of the present.  For Waugh did not love the doctrines of the Church so much as he did its historical continuity, which seemed to assuage his “‘hunger for permanence.’”  To Waugh that very continuity seemed to guarantee the truth of Church doctrine.  Its ability to withstand the ridicule of nineteen hundred years seemed a test of its truth; having stood so long it could, presumably, stand against both his own laughter and the forces that were making the other official beliefs of his society dissolve.  (213).

It seems no small wonder, therefore, that Waugh should hold considerable animosity for the Church of England.  After all, since the time of Henry VIII, Catholics in England have withered under the shadow of the Anglican Church.  While the Anglicans have the “medieval cathedrals, and churches, . . . the historic titles of Canterbury and York, . . . the traditional culture of Oxford and Cambridge,” Waugh contends that the Catholic church must endure with “modern buildings, often of deplorable design . . . served by simple Irish missionaries” (qtd. in Wasson 135).  Hence, it seems at least plausible that Waugh could be using Hetton Abbey to comment on the Anglican Church.  Donald Greene’s verdict in his “Note on Hetton and Some Other Abbeys” provides an interesting insight into Waugh’s conceptualization of an abbey as Tony Last’s ancestral abode:

Like other secularly owned British residences called “Abbey” or “Priory,” its [Hetton’s] name goes back to before what Waugh, as a staunch Catholic, would have regarded as one of the great disasters in English history—the “dissolution of the monasteries,” when Henry VIII broke the bond between the English Church and Rome.  The property of these institutions, often richly endowed through bequests by devout individuals over the centuries, was confiscated and either devoted to the uses of the Crown or donated to loyal supporters of Henry and his policies.  (1)

By juxtaposing Tony’s Victorian aesthetic with Hetton’s historic usurpation of the Catholic abbey, Waugh aligns Tony with the Church of England.  Consequently, we see in Tony’s relationship with his provincial church and the vicar, Mr. Tendril, Waugh’s tacit commentary on the Anglican Church as a function of the state.  With but a few bloody exceptions, since Henry VIII established it, the Church of England has suffered the vagaries of, and occupied a position secondary to, the crown.  In A Handful of Dust, we see this in Mr. Tendril’s appointment to the local church: “Tony’s father had given him [the vicar] the living at the instance [sic] of his dentist” (38).  Ostensibly, the vicar still owes his livelihood to the Last family, and his parish’s attitude toward Tony reflects this:

He [Tony] went to church, where he sat in a large pitch pine pew, put in by his great-grandfather at the time of rebuilding the house, furnished with very high crimson hassocks and a fireplace, complete with iron grate and a little poker which his father used to rattle when any point in the sermon attracted his disapproval.  Since his father’s day a fire had not been laid there; Tony had it in mind to revive the practice next winter.  (35)

Tony’s father rattling the grate whenever he disapproved of the sermon reinforces the image that the church is functioning in the service of the state, or in this case, the aristocracy.  Tony’s wish to revive the “practice” of lighting the fire in his church pew indicates his desire to assume his father’s role as the countryside sovereign.  It is not a huge leap to imagine Tony rekindling more than just his father’s fireplace.  Already the countryside church occupies a subordinate position to Tony by not beginning until he arrives:

The bell had stopped and the organist was watching from behind his curtain for Tony’s arrival.  He walked ahead up the aisle . . . [and] occupied one of the armchairs. . . .  He leant forward for half a minute with his forehead on his hand, and as he sat back, the organist played the first bars of the hymn.  (38)

By waiting until he arrives and prepares himself, the church preferences Tony’s agenda over its own.  In mock-allegory of Henry VIII’s own power over the Church of England, Tony governs his local parish completely.  In a final allusion, Waugh conjures a stark image of the ubiquitous Victoria presiding over the small country church.  As the congregation prepares to leave, the vicar delivers one of his “tried-and-true” endings to the sermon:

“. . . And so we stand here bareheaded at this solemn hour of the week,” he read, his powerful old voice swelling up for the peroration, “let us remember our Gracious Queen Empress in whose services we are here and pray that she may long be spared to send us at her bidding to do our duty in the uttermost parts of the earth; and let us think of our dear ones far away and the homes we have left in her name, and remember that though miles of barren continent and leagues of ocean divide us, we are never so near to them as on these Sunday mornings, united with them across dune and mountain in our loyalty to our sovereign and thanksgiving for her welfare; one with them as proud subjects of her sceptre and crown.”  (39; emphasis added)

While at once comic for its obvious displacement, the “Gracious Queen Empress” reinforces the idea that Tony is constructing a Victorian aesthetic, for Tony is unequivocally a proud subject “of her sceptre and crown.”

            Another function that Hetton serves as a former abbey is to fortify the anti-Catholic sentiments that were so prevalent from the beginning of the Gothic Revival.  As was stated earlier, Ruskin adopted many of Pugin’s positions but failed to acknowledge his indebtedness to Pugin.  One of the main reasons for this is that Pugin was a Roman Catholic.  Partly as an apology for writing The Stones of Venice, Ruskin effectively repudiates Pugin’s appeal for a Catholic as well as Gothic Revival in England by seasoning “his description of Italian Gothic with attacks on Rome ” ( Clark 270).  As Clark indicates:

Ruskin succeeded in disinfecting Gothic architecture [of its Catholic influence]; and it is because he was the first person consciously to attempt this, because his work could be read without fear of [popish] pollution, that he is remembered as the originator of Gothic Revival doctrines.  The dissociation of Gothic architecture and Rome was, perhaps, Ruskin’s most complete success.  (270)

Through works like The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin reaffirmed Pugin’s entreaty for a Gothic Revival that captured the essence of the original, while at the same time he rejected any claims that Pugin might have made for a Catholic Revival.  While helping to explain Pugin’s demotion in the Gothic Revival, this passage more importantly illustrates the desire of Ruskin and the Ecclesiological Society to create a uniquely “English” revival of the Gothic.  

            Hetton’s final role in defining Tony’s relationship with the Anglican Church in A Handful of Dust is that the abbey emphasizes the lack of religion prevalent at the inception of the Gothic Revival.  In fact, the beginning of the Neo-Gothic period is characterized as one of Britain ’s greatest ages of religious cynicism and faithlessness.  Addison underscores the disregard that people had for religion by demonstrating the state of disrepair into which the Anglican Church had fallen at the beginning of the Gothic Revival:

We can barely realize what a state of perfunctoriness the Church of England was in at the beginning of the [nineteenth] century.  The services were performed with apathy and the buildings were neglected.  Cathedrals were turned into museums or shut up completely. . . . In 1832, Arnold wrote, “The Church as it now stands, no human power can save.”  (66)

Tony’s lack of “serious” religion in the novel mirrors that which was present at the beginning of the Gothic Revival.  According to Martin Stannard in his introduction to Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage, “his [Waugh’s] early novels,” of which A Handful of Dust is usually considered the best, “represent a ‘serious’ Catholic apologetic by negative suggestion.  The world depicted is the humanist reductio ad absurdum, life without (or, at least, in ignorance of) God” (5).  Returning to Tony’s earlier attendance in church, we find that while Tony goes through the motions, he is not really performing the religious ceremony seriously:

The service followed its course.  As Tony inhaled the agreeable, slightly musty atmosphere and performed the familiar motions of sitting, standing, and leaning forward, his thoughts drifted from subject to subject, among the events of the past week and his plans for the future.  Occasionally some arresting phrase in the liturgy would recall him to his surroundings, but for the most part that morning he occupied himself with the question of bathrooms and lavatories, and how more of them could best be introduced without disturbing the character of his house.  (38)

Instead of turning his thoughts heavenward in church, Tony concerns himself with installing new bathrooms into Hetton in such a way that they will not disturb the Gothic “character of the house.”  Tony’s fascination with toilets underscores a scatological preoccupation with the basest of bodily functions: the excretion of human waste.  The sheer incredulity of Tony’s thoughts in church delineates his lack of faith in the established church. 

            Tony poignantly reflects his irreligious sentiments to Mrs. Rattery after the vicar has paid him a visit on the occasion of John Andrew’s death: “I only wanted to see him [Mr. Tendril, the vicar] about arrangements.  He tried to be comforting.  It was very painful . . . after all the last thing one wants to talk about at a time like this is religion” (158).  Tony’s ritualistic life revolving around Hetton abbey has the trappings of religion, but in a moment of true crisis—when one usually looks toward a higher power—Tony finds the notion of religion distasteful.  Hence, Tony’s lack of true religious faith is, perhaps, symptomatic of his Victorianism. 

            Another facet of Tony’s Victorian aesthetic is evident in his outdated treatment of women.  While it would be problematic to conceptualize men as “enlightened” in the 1930s, they were certainly bound—legally, if not morally—to treat women differently than they did during the Victorian age.  Tony often behaves toward Brenda as if he were actually living in Victorian times.  In short, he places her in the role of the privileged object.  As Susan Kingsley Kent posits in Sex and Suffrage in Britain , 1860-1910:

Nineteenth-century ideology eliminated the economic function of middle-class women and created the notion of the perfect wife and mother, or “the angel in the house,” as she was described by Coventry Patmore.  In the competitive, unsettling, and sometimes brutal world of nineteenth-century industrial society, it fell to women to provide a haven of peace and security, a repository of moral values.  (33)

            Saying that “the angel in the house” model was popular during this time period would definitely be an understatement.  According to J. Mordaunt Crook, Coventry Patmore’s Angel in the House sold more than 250,000 copies during the author’s lifetime (172).  When writing about the sanctity of the home and the woman’s privileged position within this sanctuary, Ruskin held that this was of paramount concern to the Victorian man:

[The] man . . . must encounter all peril and trial; to him, therefore, must be the failure, the offence, the inevitable error; often he must be wounded or subdued; often misled, and always hardened.  But he guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her, unless she herself has sought it, need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offense.  This is the true nature of the home—it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division.  (qtd. in Kent 34)

Part of Tony’s problems with Brenda stem from his adoption of this Victorian model for female behavior.  Left to his own devices, Tony would never leave the grounds of Hetton.  Throughout A Handful of Dust (at least in the parts where Tony and Brenda are still a couple), whenever Brenda suggests that she and Tony go on a trip, Tony almost always either completely disregards her entreaty or simply tells her to go alone.  Yet he cannot fathom the depth of Brenda’s boredom except in a drunken stupor: “I believe she got a bit bored there [at Hetton] sometimes.  I’ve been thinking it over and that’s the conclusion I came to” (86).              When Brenda later begins cheating on Tony, he is totally oblivious; it is practically impossible for Tony to conceive that his “angel in the house” would do such a thing.  When Tony examined how he had been so fooled by Brenda, he came to the conclusion that he “had got into the habit of loving and trusting Brenda” (172).  Tony’s attitude toward Brenda’s infidelity seems at first glance perplexing, but his incomprehension makes perfect sense if we consider that Tony’s ideals of womanhood and matrimony are based on Victorian models.  For instance, before the passage of the Married Women’s Properties Acts in 1870 and 1882 (Hetton was rebuilt in 1864), any property that a woman brought to a marriage—including herself—became the property of the woman’s husband (Kent 28).  If this is the model from which Tony is operating, and such would be the case if he is indeed occupying Hetton’s historical moment, no wonder he cannot fathom Brenda’s infidelity.  From his viewpoint, Brenda is his chattel.  This is definitely the perspective that Tony adopts when Brenda leaves Tony for Beaver.  Everyone keeps telling Tony that Brenda will return, but he keeps insisting that he no longer wants her:

            “You just wait a few weeks,” he [Tony’s brother-in-law, Allan] had said.  “Brenda will come back.  She’ll soon get sick of Beaver.”

            “But I don’t want her back.”

            “I know just how you feel, but it doesn’t do to be so medieval about it.”  (174)

What is “so medieval” about Tony’s attitude is that he is acting as if she were his property, and that she is damaged goods.  Naturally, Tony no longer wants his “angel in the house” if she can no longer function in this capacity for him; one no longer keeps a watch dog that has fallen out of the practice of guarding the valuables.

            The way that Tony treats the whole divorce is another interesting example of how his Victorian construct colors his views.  If we assume that the time frame for A Handful of Dust corresponds roughly with 1934, the year in which the novel was published, then Brenda had as much legal recourse to sue for divorce as Tony did:

Women obtained some amelioration even from the law that most symbolized their status as property of men—that of divorce.  Until 1857, divorce could be obtained only by Act of Parliament and was available only to the wealthy elite.  The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 created a court for divorce and established the grounds for this procedure.  Men could divorce their wives, as before, on the basis of adultery alone; women, however, had to prove their husbands’ adultery in addition to cruelty, desertion, incest, rape, sodomy, or bestiality.  The Royal Commission in Divorce, reporting in 1850, had recommended that adultery was much more serious on the part of the wife than on the part of the husband. . . .  The Matrimonial Causes Act, however inequitable, did allow divorce for women, and women continued to challenge the double standard until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 established a single standard for divorce for both sexes.  ( Kent 29)

Tony allows Brenda to play the victim because it “was thought convenient that Brenda should appear as the plaintiff” (176).  The only way that Tony’s actions can be viewed as remotely sane in this circumstance is if Tony is acting from the viewpoint of a Victorian model.  Since Tony has not cheated on Brenda, she has no grounds for divorce in this situation; only he can sue for divorce in this instance.  This divorce is only “convenient” for Brenda, yet Tony still operates in the role of the magnanimous Victorian lord of the manor, going so far as to construct a sordid “affair” so that Brenda will be able to bring her suit.  By sheer luck his tryst is botched and he is able to keep Brenda from forcing him to sell Hetton.  Still, only when his Victorian ideal becomes threatened does Tony break from his character.  As Jacqueline McDonnell asserts in Waugh on Women, “Tony is completely passive about losing Brenda.  He only becomes active when her actions threaten him with the loss of Hetton” (112).

            When Brenda’s brother, Reggie St. Cloud, comes to discuss with Tony the terms of her divorce, he mentions that Brenda will be suing for two thousand pounds a year instead of the five hundred that she and Tony had agreed upon before proceeding with the divorce (206).   Despite Tony’s pleas that “It would mean giving up Hetton” (206), Reggie’s assurances of Brenda’s earnestness coupled with a phone call to Brenda force Tony to realize that they propose he “give up Hetton in order to buy Beaver for Brenda” (207).  It is only at the point when Tony realizes that his Victorian aesthetic is seriously in danger of collapsing that he breaks character: “A whole gothic world had come to grief . . . there was now no armour, glittering in the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the greensward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled” (209).

            Faced with the prospect of losing the physical trappings of his Victorian ideology, Tony drops the persona of the Victorian gentleman and launches a counterattack on Brenda as vicious as any he had received from either her or her circle:

Brenda is not going to get her divorce.  The evidence I provided at Brighton isn’t worth anything.  There happens to have been a child there all the time.  She slept both nights in the room I am supposed to have occupied.  If you care to bring the case I shall defend it and win, but I think when you have seen my evidence you will drop it.  I am going away for six months or so.  When I come back, if she wishes it, I shall divorce Brenda without settlements of any kind.  (209-10)

In stunned disbelief, Brenda and her coterie are forced to accept Tony’s decision to fight the divorce.  Veronica’s comment, “Now I understand why they keep going on in the papers about divorce law reform” (210), humorously summarizes Tony’s one instance of rebellion while underscoring Waugh’s awareness of current events in A Handful of Dust.  Gorra finds Tony’s break with his character “an appropriate irony [since] Tony can keep Hetton only by sacrificing his idealized concept of it, [he] can preserve either the house or the refuge but not both” (216).

            Instead of becoming more aligned with the Modern era after Tony’s one break from his Victorian aesthetic, he retreats further from it.  Good to his word, Tony goes on the trip abroad that he has told Reggie about.  Tony’s reasons for going abroad, however, exemplify his retreat into the Victorian aesthetic he has constructed.  It is almost as if Tony, frightened by the brief glimpse of what he could become, if given more time around Brenda’s crowd, beats a hasty retreat—both literally and figuratively.  He physically leaves on his expedition to Brazil with Dr. Messinger; but he also retreats into his model of Victorian aestheticism.  When Tony first leaves on his trip, Waugh simply states that Tony “was going away because it seemed to be the conduct of a husband in his circumstances” (216).  A similar passage from the alternate ending that Waugh wrote for the serialized American release of A Handful of Dust paints a similar picture of Tony, but it clarifies his motives for going abroad:

It had been an uneventful excursion.  Not for Tony were the ardours of serious travel, desert or jungle, mountains or pampas; he had no inclination to kill big game or survey unmapped tributaries.  He had left England because, in the circumstances, it seemed the correct procedure, a convention hallowed in fiction and history by generations of disillusioned husbands.  (qtd. in Bergonzi 159)

One of the reasons that Tony leaves his beloved Hetton—something that he was loath to do throughout the entire novel—is that he sees it as obligatory if he is going to maintain his Victorian construct.  The Victorian man went abroad when spurned in love. 

            Perhaps more telling, however, is that for Tony, his overseas trip to find a fabled Brazilian city becomes a symbolic quest to find a “transfigured Hetton.”  Like the Fisher King, Tony is wounded, and only the quest can heal his wounded Victorian ideology.  As Richard Wasson asserts in “A Handful of Dust: Critique of Victorianism”:

The Victorians and Tony Last . . . mistook picturesque settings for monuments of the living past.  Tony, who accepts the mask and can draw sustenance only from Hetton and what it represents, has no forces to pit against the mechanical and materialistic faithlessness of modern society except those transmitted to him by the Victorian imagination.  Betrayed by his time, he goes on a quest for salvation, but so conditioned is he by Victorian Gothic forms that his imagination can conceive only of a romantic quest, not a truly religious one.  “The City” he seeks is not the Holy City , the City of God , but rather a transfigured Hetton.  (137). 

Since it was first through Hetton’s Gothic structure that Tony constructed his Victorian aesthetic, it seems only logical that he must find a new Hetton, one even more withdrawn, even more impregnable, more inscrutable than his original Hetton.  Dr. Messinger’s legendary city serves as the perfect model for this:

            “But what do you suppose the city will be like?”

            “Impossible to say.  Every tribe has a different word for it.  The Pie-wie’s call it the ‘Shining’ or ‘Glittering,’ the Arekuna the ‘Many Watered,’ the Patamonas the ‘Bright Feathered,’ the Warau oddly enough, use the same word for it that they use for a kind of aromatic jam they make.  (220-21)

Since first hearing about the legendary city, Tony has allowed its potential for the construction of a new Victorian aesthetic to dominate his thoughts so entirely that he forgets the recent events of his past.  Tony uses the conspicuous lack of description associated with the fabled city to create his own city, the one he has been searching for since leaving Hetton:

For some days now Tony had been thoughtless about the events of the immediate past.  His thoughts were occupied with the City, the Shining, the Many Watered, the Bright Feathered, the Aromatic Jam.  He had a clear picture of it in his mind.  It is Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton, pennons and banners floating on the sweet breeze, everything luminous and translucent; a coral citadel crowning a green hill top sewn with daisies, among groves and streams; a tapestry landscape filled with heraldic and fabulous animals and symmetrical, disproportionate blossom.  (221-22)

It is indeed small wonder that Tony’s imaginary city becomes a “transfigured Hetton.”  His quest for a new ideal with which he can reconstruct his Victorian aesthetic would demand no less. 

            Throughout the ending of A Handful of Dust, Tony exhibits an obsessive fear that he will fail in his quest, that he will completely lose his Victorian ideology.  In the delusional visions that Tony suffers before encountering Mr. Todd, this fear manifests itself in the form of Mrs. Beaver and her chromium plating.  Before Brenda left Tony, she contracts Mrs. Beaver to redo Hetton’s morning room, and almost as a matter of course, Mrs. Beaver suggests that chromium plating would add the perfect touch to the morning room.  Tony reviles the idea:

                                    “Do you really want Mrs. Beaver to do up the morning room?”

                                    “Not if you don’t sweet.”

                                    “But can you imagine it—white chromium plating?”  (106)

The chromium plating on the walls of Hetton became for Tony a physical manifestation of the Modern era’s encroachment into his Gothic domain.  Later, when Tony is in the jungle and delusional, Mrs. Beaver and her chromium plating exhibit her symbolic infestation into Tony’s Victorian ideal: “I will tell you what I have learned in the forest, where time is different.  There is no City.  Mrs. Beaver has covered it with chromium plating and converted it into flats” (288).  Tony’s disillusionment with his Victorian construct becomes Mrs. Beaver, plating his interior aesthetic with the trappings of Modernism. 

            Finally, in a delusional stupor, Tony comes to Mr. Todd’s house.  Ailing both spiritually and physically, Tony has now reached his destination.  Waugh satisfies his curiosity about how a “Gothic” man came to be with the “savage” Mr. Todd by depicting Tony as a person who relies upon a Victorian construct based on the aesthetics of the period’s Gothic Revival to function in society.  Yet now that Tony has reached his ultimate destination, Mr. Todd’s house, we must determine whether Tony’s final fate is a just end for the protagonist of A Handful of Dust.  After dispatching Tony’s would-be rescuers, Mr. Todd makes no qualms about what the future will hold for Tony:

I have been quite gay while you were asleep.  Three men from outside.  Englishmen.  It is a pity you missed them. . . .  They had come all the way to find you. . . .  I gave them a little souvenir, your watch.  They wanted something to take back to England where a reward is being offered for news of you.   They were very pleased with it.  And they took some photographs of the little cross I put up to commemorate your coming.  They were pleased with that, too.  They were very easily pleased.  But I do not suppose they will visit us again, our life here is so retired. . . .  I do not suppose we shall ever have visitors again . . . well, well, I will get you some medicine to make you feel better.  Your head aches, does it not? . . . We will not have any Dickens today . . . but tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.  (302)

Tony shall read Dickens to Mr. Todd indefinitely.   A Handful of Dust ends with Tony stranded in the center of an interminable Victorian limbo.  He is Mr. Todd’s prisoner and has no hope of reprieve. 

            Yet must we necessarily view this as a sad ending?  Tony, it could be argued, has been imprisoned in an interminable Victorian limbo since the beginning of the novel.  Is not Mr. Todd’s house the fabled city, an impregnable fortress withdrawn from all the threats of the Modern age?  Tony can now live out his life not only immersing himself in a Victorian aesthetic, but also being encouraged daily to do so.  Essentially, Tony no longer has anything to anchor him in England : his son is dead; his wife is unfaithful.  Even Hetton has become irrevocably transformed both physically by the Richard Lasts and spiritually by his own wounded Victorian sensibilities.  Returning to England offers Tony nothing but an increasing awareness of his own obsolescence in the face of an increasingly savage Modernism.  Mr. Todd affords Tony the only opportunity to heal his wounded psyche.  Tony must stay with Mr. Todd in order to preserve and perfect his construction of a Victorian aesthetic.  Viewed in this light, we must admit that Mr. Todd’s house has always been—both literally and symbolically—Tony’s foreordained destination since the beginning of A Handful of Dust.  


1 Page numbers only shall be cited for all future references to A Handful of Dust.

Works Cited

Addison, Agnes.  Romanticism and the Gothic Revival.  New York : Gordian, 1938. 

Bergonzi, Bernard.  “Rev. of A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh.”  Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage.  ed. Martin Stannard.  London : Routledge, 1984.  159-60.

Clark, Kenneth.  The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste.  London : Constable, 1928.

Cook, William J., Jr.  Masks, Modes, and Morals: The Art of Evelyn Waugh.  Rutherford : Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1971.

Crook, J. Mordaunt.  Coventry Patmore and the Aesthetics of Architecture.”  Proceedings of the British Academy .  76 (1990): 171-201.

Doan, Laura L.  “Architecture and the Postwar British Novel: Resistance to Social Change.”  Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature.  21.4 (1988): 19-26.

Gorra, Michael.  “Through Comedy Toward Catholicism: A Reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Early Novels.”  Contemporary Literature.  29.2 (1988): 201-220.

Greene, Donald.  “A Note on Hetton and Some Other Abbeys.”  Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies.  26.3 (1992): 1-2.

Kent, Susan Kingsley.  Sex and Suffrage in Britain , 1860-1914.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

McDonnell, Jacqueline.  Waugh on Women.  London : Duckworth, 1986.

Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore.  An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England .  Oxford : St. Barnabas, 1969.

Slater, Ann Pasternak.  “Waugh’s A Handful of Dust: Right Things in Wrong Places.”  Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism. 32.1 (1982): 48-68.

Stannard, Martin.  “Introduction.”  Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage.  London : Routledge, 1984. 1-61.

Waugh, Evelyn.  A Handful of Dust.  Boston : Little, 1934.

---.  Letter to Henry Yorke (Green).  September 1934.  Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage.  ed. Martin Stannard.  London : Routledge, 1984.  157-58.

---.  “The Philistine Age of English Decoration.”  Evelyn Waugh: The Essays, Articles and Reviews.  ed. Donat Gallagher.  Boston : Little, 1984.  218-        222.

Wasson, Richard.  A Handful of Dust: Critique of Victorianism.”  Critical Essays on Evelyn Waugh.  ed. James F. Carens.  Boston : Hall, 1987.  133-43.


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