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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Getting by with help from a friend named …Backstory


If you don't have time or the inclination to read A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh, a novel often called his masterpiece, you might order and watch the 1988 movie. A fine review of the film is one by Sheila Benson in the L.A. Times: Finding a Gem: A Handful of Dust.

And a little backstory enriches both the novel and movie.

First, at the core of Waugh's life was his older brother, Alec, "the sweetest apple of his father's eye." Arthur Waugh, the publisher and reviewer, wrote the following words to his grandson: "The three great things in my life have been my Mother, my Wife & my Son, your father." The favored son Alec unkindly addressed his younger brother, Evelyn, as "Dear It." Alec was beloved by Father Arthur, despite being expelled from his prestigious public (think private) school. In other words, paternal rejection characterized Evelyn's life. His father revered Charles Dickens above all writers and spent endless hours reading sentimental Victorian prose to his assembled family. This "fact" is important for the novel and film.

The other salient fact in Evelyn Waugh's life occurred at age 26. After a year of marriage, his wife (also named Evelyn) left him for another man, a "lightweight," as Waugh and others called him. Waugh wrote of his divorce that he did not know how it was possible to be so miserable and live. This experience becomes the basis of his novel, which is horrifying and comic, with laughter "of a peculiarly uncomfortable kind." As was true in Waugh's life, he and his character Tony left for the wilds following their failed marriages.

What a cast in the movie! James Wilby as Tony, Kristen Scott Thomas as Lady Brenda, Rupert Graves (Mr. Beaver), who frays the marriage, and Judi Dench as Beaver's 'treacherous' mother. Waugh was a genius at writing dialogue and Benson notes that whole pages of Waugh's "stinging dialogue" are used in the film. Most of all she praises Wilby's acting performance, as Tony must "grow enormously during the story's wild turnings." Who else is in the film? Alec Guinness in a cameo appearance as Mr. Todd.

Sheila Benson, the film reviewer, wishes the film's title had been cited. It is from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." Benson writes, "Without this we lose a crucial insight," and she goes on to say: "Watching A Handful of Dust on the screen with Eliot in mind, you may remember The Cocktail Party, with Eliot's parallel character (like Tony Last) who finds peace in distant jungles."

What did I do last night after reading this line? I retrieved a stepstool and went to the highest ledge of my wall of books and pulled out The Cocktail Party, which I’d read for a course at USC in 1964. The play is called a "comedy." I reread it last night and laughed seldom, unlike in Waugh's satiric fiction. But a conjunction delighted me. There is an unidentified guest in the cast. And who was the unidentified guest in the First Production at the Edinburgh Festival, August 22-27, in 1949. Alec Guinness.! That bit of backstory makes Alec's cameo appearance as Mr. Todd in the movie all the sweeter!

My copy of The Cocktail Party was marked. Always insightful to return to what struck me in earlier times, though I might have reread the play in later years. This marked passage is when the unidentified guest tells host Edward:

"It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.

Resign yourself to be the fool you are.

That's the best advice I can give you."


Next Time: Waugh's The Loved One. Another film to consider ordering!

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