34. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Year Published: 1934
Pages: 265
First Sentence: 'Was anyone hurt?'
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh | Two Hectobooks

I have procrastinated for so long with getting started writing this review that I've nearly finished reading the Random novel that follows it and also my computer refuses to start, so God only knows what will happen next on that front.

In any case, I very much enjoyed A Handful of Dust. This is Evelyn Waugh writing in the same mode as Scoop, except that the end veers from the farcical into the horrific.

The book is about Tony Last and his wife of several years, Brenda. The two of them live at his family seat, Hetton Abbey, which is some hours' train ride outside of London and the upkeep of which uses up the majority of their income. They have a young son named John Andrew. Tony loves the old house and life in the country, but Brenda could do with a bit more excitement. Enter John Beaver; young useless social parasite who takes advantage of the barest hint of an invitation to visit Hetton Abbey, draws Brenda's attention simply by being a bit of a novelty, and cuckolds Tony.

So that's all fun and funny. The book is satire of course and it's good satire. Things take the occasional very dark and affecting turn, such as the very sudden character death that happens halfway through the novel, Tony's eventual fate, and even the tossed off statement about child sexual abuse that I've quoted in the section below (it really startled me when I read it initially, so be warned).

One thing I should mention at this point is that even though I very much enjoyed this novel (and Scoop), Waugh is a racist, classist jerk. It's very odd to read E.M. Forster, 24 years Waugh's senior but yet somehow about a thousand times more progressive than the younger man. (This may have something to do with the fact that Forster was also gayer than Waugh, but who knows.) Anyway, there are things in this book that could've come out of the same period as Kim or Joseph Conrad, not the mid-1930s.*

Anyway, the themes here are a little beyond me. Of course it's about poking fun at the British upper classes who were undergoing a bit of a transition into the modern era at this point. But also I guess Waugh, Catholic convert in 1930, was trying to demonstrate that secular life was bad. He would be more successful with this if his characters were less cartoonish (I say, having enjoyed said cartoons very much).

The edition of the book I read featured two different endings. Waugh had to extract a part of the book that had been published already as a short story in the US in order to publish the book as a serial in an American magazine. The full novel, with short story left in and original ending, is much better, but it was interesting to get a peek behind the curtain.

* If you are confused as to why this might even come up in a satirical novel about disinterested rich British people in 1930s London, suffice it to say that the novel takes a very surprising turn partway through.

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'Tell me more about your terrible life,' said Tony, leading her back to the central hall.
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'You wouldn't mind if I brought my little girl with us? She won't be any trouble.'
     'You mean you wouldn't mind?'
     'I mean I should mind.'
     'Oh... You wouldn't think I had a little girl of eight, would you?'
     'She's called Winnie. I was only sixteen when I had her. I was the youngest of the family and our stepfather wouldn't leave any of us girls alone. That's why I have to work. She lives with a lady at Finchley. Twenty-eight bob a week it costs me, not counting her clothes. She does like the seaside.'
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NB: This book is one of the entries on my Classics Club list! -M.R.

Five Years Ago This Month: March 2014

Five years ago this month...

...I reviewed The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. I think this was the first time I reviewed a book out of the sequence of the actually Top 100/Random/Romance reviews. It was fun! I've done it many times since! Holly Black is great if you want to get back in touch with your sense of teen angst, which I think is good every now and then.

...I was distracted. I have paused my reading of Les Misérables after realizing that it's 365 chapters long. I've also paused learning Italian on Duolingo. Someday I'd like to get back to both of those things!

Door schedules!

R66. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Year Published: 1847
Pages: 406

Pairing: Rich girl and foundling/eventual blackguard
First Sentence: -1801- I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.
Climax: "I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I've no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn't have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire."

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë | Two Hectobooks

If you remember way back as far as my Jane Eyre review, I was exposed to Emily Brontë and her sister Charlotte at a very young age. Although both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights feature young characters, Jane captured my heart by being a character I could relate to. If I had to guess, I'd say that my first time through Wuthering Heights I had very little idea of what was going on besides the fact that a man's housekeeper was telling him an extremely long and detailed story. I did try to read the book again probably a dozen years ago at least, and didn't make it to the end. Recently it'd been calling to me from its place on my bookshelf, though.

I'm being facetious calling Wuthering Heights a romance novel. At the polite end of the descriptive spectrum, it's a novel about codependence. Less politely: it's a novel about all-consuming obsession and cruelty. Here's the usual spoiler-filled romance novel plot summary:

A man named Lockwood rents a house, Thrushcross Grange, in a remote part of England as a means of escape from society. His landlord is named Heathcliff, and when Lockwood goes to Heathcliff's residence, Wuthering Heights, to pay his respects, he encounters a very bizarre situation. Fortunately for him, his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, is a longtime servant from the Heights, and can tell Lockwood the whole sordid story.

Wuthering Heights belonged to the Earnshaw family, Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw and their two children, Hindley and Catherine. One day, Mr. Earnshaw brought a child home with him from a trip to Liverpool. This child would be called only "Heathcliff," and became a favourite, causing Hindley to hate him. No such issues with Catherine: she and Heathcliff were always together. (Note: we are not going to talk at all about race in Wuthering Heights because I am not at all equipped for that conversation.)

Eventually, Mr. Earnshaw dies, and with Hindley in charge, Heathcliff doesn't fare well. Catherine also meets Edgar and Isabella Linton, neighbours who live at Thrushcross Grange in a much more typical situation. She doesn't exactly fall in love with Edgar Linton, but does grow to like him well enough and after a particularly bad case of crossed wires, marries him, while Heathcliff leaves to do God knows what for a period of several years. Also, Hindley gets married and then his wife dies of consumption after giving birth to a son, Hareton, who Nelly Dean cares for before going to live with Catherine and Edgar at Thrushcross Grange. The young couple is happy enough and things proceed calmly for a short while.

Heathcliff returns and over the course of several scenes of escalating wildness associated with his reunion with Catherine, she dies—after giving birth to a daughter who is also named Catherine but who I'll call Cathy for the purposes of a clarity I may not actually be able to achieve. Another result of the escalating wildness is that Isabella Linton falls in love with Heathcliff, elopes with him, and then suffers some pretty serious misery at Wuthering Heights before fleeing her horrible husband and giving birth to a sickly child named Linton. (Yes, there really aren't enough names to go around in this book. Also yes, the heroine dies halfway through.)

Hindley dies at some point but not before Heathcliff has taken everything that belongs to him. Hareton goes a bit feral with no civilizing influence around the place.

The next stage of the story is several years later, when Cathy is a young girl who has basically been raised entirely within the walls of Thrushcross Grange. Isabella dies, and Linton goes to live with his Uncle Edgar and Cathy, or he would if Heathcliff didn't decide to have the boy under his roof instead. Via a whole series of machinations designed to result in Heathcliff getting everyone's property, Cathy is coaxed to Wuthering Heights to marry her weak and whiny cousin Linton. Linton and Edgar both die right around the same time, which leads right about up to Lockwood's arrival on the scene.

After hearing this story, Lockwood decides he would rather not spend more time in the neighbourhood, and vacates his rental.

Several months later, he returns to the area on a hunting trip, and gets the rest of the story from Nelly: Heathcliff was basically haunted to death by Catherine, and Hareton and Cathy have fallen in love.

And they all lived happily ever after. One hopes.

I had a great time reading Wuthering Heights this time around. It is deliciously bleak. The body count surpasses some serial killer novels. It also has a perfect title.

Besides the perfection of the title and the name of the house, the strongest aspect of this book is its setting. The moor is a constant presence at the edges of the human drama. Without the remote location, one imagines that this story would, quite simply, be impossible. One has the impression of these two families being stranded in remoteness and desolation, with no hope of help. It's great.

The characters are the most interesting thing about the book. They are all so bizarre, and more than that, they are all so awful. Literally the only character who I think might be considered a truly good person is Hareton Earnshaw, of all people. He's rough around the edges but generally well-meaning. Virtually every other character is either cruel, cut-throat, dishonest, hypocritical, selfish, or five or six additional negative adjectives you can think of. Heathcliff is vengeful and violent. Catherine is vain. Lockwood is classist and snobbish. Nelly, whose ability to relate the events of twenty plus years before with such exacting detail still makes me laugh, plays a much more active role in the story than I remembered, and not always to benefit the other characters. She certainly wants to make her role seem to be that of a simple observer, but there's much going on there. She's an unreliable narrator and active participant.

If you start reading Wuthering Heights expecting a romance novel, you will have a bad time. If instead you go in knowing that it's more of a psychological thriller, I don't think you can fail to be entertained.

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"I'll go with him as far as the park," he said.
     "You'll go with him to hell!" exclaimed his master, or whatever relation he bore.
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"Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of these two, as an evening's amusement."
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