I’ve just finished re-reading Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. It concerns the private lives of a group of privileged English people between the two wars living in London and in country houses. It tells the story of the breakdown of a marriage and of the husband’s subsequent fate on an expedition to South America. It’s a comfortable world of coteries, night clubs and dressing for dinner, which Waugh effortlessly tears apart.
The book captures the ethos of the time, and many of its assumptions seem alien to us now. But some, at least, of the characters are universal, particularly the tactless brother-in-law, Reggie St Cloud, who meets the husband, Tony Last, to discuss the divorce terms. He begins with the kind of understatement for which the British are well known:
‘This whole business of Brenda is very unfortunate,’ said Reggie St Cloud.
The views of the wronged husband on the matter are laconically expressed with:
When Tony says
‘No, I just couldn’t feel the same about her again’
Reggie, an archaeologist, crassly replies:
‘Well, why feel the same? One has to change as one gets older. Why, ten years ago I couldn’t be interested in anything later than the Sumerian age and I assure you that now I find even the Christian era full of significance.’
The book deftly satirises the way in which evidence was then produced for a divorce. It is Tony who has been betrayed, yet he nobly volunteers to be ‘the guilty party’. The normal procedure, described here in some detail, even though it goes wrong, was for the defendant (that is, the party being sued for divorce) to arrange to be caught in a compromising situation. This was achieved by the husband going to a hotel in Brighton (well, it seems always to have been Brighton) with a compliant, and no doubt well paid, lady with whom he was caught in bed by the hotel staff, also, no doubt, well paid, when they came to serve breakfast in the room. The entire escapade was monitored by private detectives (yes, well paid) ostensibly hired by the plaintiff (that is, the supposedly injured wife). In some cases, the court no doubt heard the words, favoured, I believe, by the now defunct Sunday newspaper ‘The News of the World’, ‘They then proceeded upstairs, m’lud, where intimacy took place.’
A final comment, not on the novel, but on this particular edition (Penguin, 2000, edited by Robert Murray Davis). It is perhaps a sign of the times, or of my advancing years, that, to take just three footnotes to the first chapter, the editor thinks that those likely to read it need to be told that the slump was the 1930s depression, or that Bond Street is in central London or that demobilized means discharged from the army.