A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

Brenda and Tony

Five or six years ago Brenda Rex married Tony Last. She is Lord St Cloud’s daughter, ‘very fair, [with an] underwater look’. They lived in a flat in London till Tony’s father died two years later, and left him an impressive Victorian country house, Hetton, loving described in a page of purple prose. But what with the upkeep of the big draughty place and wages for the fifteen or so servants (including the butler, Ambrose), they don’t have much disposable income and can’t afford to go up to London very often.

They have a simply adorable little boy, John Andrew, who has a tut-tutting nanny. One of the other servants is a riding master, Ben Hacket, who’s teaching the boy how ride and jump fences on his pony, Thunderclap (and in a comic recurring theme, also exposing the boy to rather fruity phrases which nanny considers wholly inappropriate).

Enter John Beaver

One weekend, John Beaver, a non-descript young man comes to stay. He has no money and no title and no relatives. One night when Tony was up in town he found himself in the bar of his club, Bratts, almost alone except for this Beaver fellah, and they had a few drinks and then dinner and Tony, out of politeness, asked him to come down to stay at the country place. Never dreamed he would. But here he was, having caught the train down.

There are no other guests so he and Brenda put a brave face on entertaining the young man, carefully assigning him the coldest spare bedroom (Sir Galahad; with Victorian heaviness, all the bedrooms are named after characters from the King Arthur stories) with the most uncomfortable bed, in a bid to get rid of him asap.

During the day Tony makes excuses to go out on estate business, see to his tenants, pop into the local town, go to church on Sunday morning and generally avoid young Beaver. So it falls to Brenda to engage him in conversation and try to keep him entertained.

At first, when Beaver has gone to dress for dinner or whatever, when she is alone with Tony, she complains about how tiresome he is. But Beaver is used to staying at country places, he’s the non-descript, unimportant chaps who makes up the numbers at countless society parties and weekends, and so he puts on a good display of conversation and pretends to be interested in the house and ends up staying an extra night. By the time he leaves on Monday morning Brenda is describing him as quite tolerable, you know.

Their affair begins

Thus begins the slow slide by which Brenda Last commences an adulterous affair with bland John Beaver, to her own surprise, the amazement of her sister, Marjorie, and the delight of gossip-starved wider society.

(Brenda’s sister, Marjorie is married to Allan, ‘the prospective Conservative candidate for a South London constituency of strong Labour sympathies’. They are hard up, too hard up to afford a baby, but popular. They live in a little house in the neighbourhood of Portman Square, very convenient for Paddington Station and they own a Pekingese dog named Djinn, who various other characters find objectionable.)

John’s backstory

John’s backstory is that his father is dead and he was laid off from the one job he’s ever had, in an advertising company, during the Slump. Now he lives with his mother, Mrs Beaver, in her small house in Sussex Gardens. He calls her ‘mumsy’. She runs a small business providing furnishings for the London homes of the rich. He has the dark little sitting-room (on the ground floor, behind the dining-room) and his own telephone. His clothes are looked after by an elderly parlourmaid.

Beaver has one distinction – he is a universal backstop guest for posh parties. If a society hostess is arranging a smart dinner party and a male guest lets her down at the last minute, John is the man she calls. Thus John spends the early part of every evening sitting beside his phone, waiting for a call, and is rarely disappointed. Someone, somewhere, needs a presentable man at short notice and, from his base in Sussex Gardens, he can walk or catch a cab to be with his hostess in as little as fifteen minutes, sometimes arriving just as the guests are going in to dine, sometimes after they’ve completed their first course.

Tony the model squire

Tony Last’s distinguishing feature is his immense love for his rambling old house, Hetton, and the plans continually revolving round his head of how to renovate and improve it. He attends church every Sunday (sitting in the family box pew his father had specially built, which is big enough to hold an armchair!), chats with the rather gaga vicar (‘the Reverend Tendril’) after the service, makes friendly conversation with the villagers, many of whom are his tenants. He is a sentimentalised vision of the modern squire, hard up in the modern way, forced to scrimp and save, but benevolently patriarchal and well meaning. His quiet, rural integrity stands in time-honoured opposition to the shallow, immoral infidelities represented by the big bad city.

Familiar plot

In fact the outline of the plot is time-honoured and traditional. Young society girl marries nice chap with house in country, moves to country, produces son and heir, becomes bored, then very bored, then has fling with first halfway eligible man who crosses her path.

Obviously there’s lots of precisely imagined and described detail, both of the affair and the London high society it takes place amongst. One of the striking things for a modern reader is how Brenda and Beaver make no attempt to hide their affair. They attend the usual round of high society parties so that within days their names are being bandied about over dinner party tables and morning phone calls. Very quickly everyone knows they’re having an affair, everyone except poor Tony.

Waugh indulges in a little editorialising, repeating the idea floated in Vile Bodies that people read gossip columns, and gossip generally, in order live fuller lives via other people. The key word is ‘vicariously’, which occurs here and in the similar passage in Bodies:

The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at a restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. (p.57)

Gossip is a key part of Waugh’s fiction. Waugh is the poet laureate of gossip.

A love nest in London

The affair takes a step up when Brenda persuades Tony that she needs a little flat in town, a pied a terre, an idea suggested by Mrs Beaver who is converting a Victorian house into stylish bedsits containing a bedroom and ensuite bathroom. Tony reluctantly lets Brenda rent one and then accedes to her sudden desire to spend rather a lot of time at it. For a front she claims to want to take an adult degree in economics, it will help her manage accounts at Hetton. Tony innocently believes this obvious lie.

For his part, John is chuffed to be treated with new respect by the polite society which he has previously only been on the fringes of.

And Beaver, for the first time in his life, found himself a person of interest and, almost, of consequence. Women studied him with a new scrutiny, wondering what they had missed in him; men treated him as an equal, even as a successful fellow competitor. ‘How on earth has he got away with it?’ they may have asked themselves, but now, when he came into Bratt’s, they made room for him at the bar and said, ‘Well, old boy, how about one?’ (p.58)

So the plot – bored married woman has affair – may be pretty run of the mill, the pleasure comes from: Waugh’s beautiful style; a thousand and one acute observations about the people and posh lifestyles he’s describing; and, more subtly, the precise way Waugh conceives and records the slow change in Brenda’s attitude and in the climate of her marriage. If you want to drag ‘morality’ into literature, then it is a moral decline, but recorded, annotated, measured, in psychological details.

‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar

Brenda stays away from Hetton more and more. When she comes back to Hetton Tony is pitifully glad to see her. Our sympathies harden against Brenda when she conspires to palm off a free single woman on Tony. With atrocious misunderstanding of her husband, she thinks if she can push him into having an affair, then they’ll be morally equal.

So Brenda comes down to Hetton with two posh society friends and Mrs Beaver, who is now offering to do up the main rooms in the house (to Tony’s dismay). But the point of the visit is an extended comic passage about a ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar (real name Jenny), a heavily made-up and over-scented vamp who Brenda and the other women take every opportunity to leave alone with Tony, as she flirts with him, gives him a silly nickname, hints at her tragic past, declares she simply loves the house and in every way tries to tempt him into an affair which will then justify Brenda’s brazen, heartless adultery. But it is a comic fail. They’ve all underestimated Tony’s good, true, faithful heart.

The Shameless Blonde

Tony’s best friend, Jock Grant-Menzies, comes for the weekend bringing his latest girlfriend, a thoroughly modern divorcée who the two men have nicknamed ‘the shameless blonde’. Her actual name is Mrs Rattery and she was American by origin but is now thoroughly internationalised, having lived for years in the best hotels in capital cities around the world. She turns out to be supremely capable and flies in her own plane to Hetton, which she lands in the park, climbing out, tall and limber in her flying outfit, the model of a 1930s, Art Deco, über-woman.

Next day is the big fox hunt which young John Andrew has been excitedly looking forward to for months. Waugh describes the buildup and hunt with the same thoroughness and accuracy that he brings to any subject if he sets his mind to it (compare the numerous factual descriptions in his travel books). For me, fox hunting doesn’t become any the less ludicrous the more the traditions and rituals surrounding it, are described. Most Londoners get more foxes in their gardens than the Pigstanton Hunt gets in this novel. But it is an important symbol of the life of the country squire, that sense of deep English heritage which also informs, say, the novels of Saki or Siegfried Sassoon.

Death of John Andrew

Half way through the book comes its devastating shock. Little John Andrew is really enjoying the hunt but his father made Ben promise to bring him back before 1pm and as 1 approaches, despite John’s whines to be allowed to ride some more, Ben tells him they must return.

All morning there have, of course, been numerous other riders and horses. The most notable was Miss Ripon riding a very difficult, temperamental bay horse her father has been trying to get rid of for years. She’s packed in following the hunt and joins them on the ride along the road back to the stables, with John to her right and Ben on the outside. At a bend in the lane one of the country buses unexpectedly appears coming the other way but slows right down and pulls over. Bit nerve-making but OK. But, alas, Miss Tendril, the vicar’s niece, has come up behind the horses on her fashionable motor bike and at that precise moment it backfires with a terrific, loud report.

Miss Ripon’s horse starts and panics, rearing sideways and knocking John Andrew off his mount and onto the tarmac road. Ben yells at Miss Ripon to whip her horse, which she does and it regains focus and shoots off down the road. But not before it lashes out with a powerful rear hoof which connects with John Andrew’s head and sends him flying into the ditch where he lies perfectly still. He is killed instantly.

The impact of John’s death

In his previous novels Waugh had deliberately underplayed the deaths of various characters, they happened peripherally, that was a deliberate tactic in creating the sense of the brittle, heartless high society he wanted to portray.

Here, it is the opposite. We arrive back at Hetton to find Tony has been informed of his son’s abrupt, tragic and quite meaningless death. Like the stiff upper lip English gent he is (or fancies he is, or Waugh fancies he is) he is dealing capably with all the social obligations and arrangements which a death in the family entails. The workmen redecorating the drawing room have been sent home. Mr Tendril the vicar pays a sombre visit. With typical empath and selflessness, Tony is most concerned about Miss Ripon who was in a terribly emotional state and kept blaming herself. Ben arrives and gives his side of the story. Jock arrives and is with Tony alone.

Everybody agrees it was nobody’s fault, no one is to blame. This phrase is echoed again and again by various characters and with each iteration becomes more meaningless. It is a cruel, shocking insight into a universe with absolutely no purpose or concern for anybody.

Tony is most worried who will tell Brenda. He’s phoned her at her London flat umpteen times but no reply. Jock, who, like everyone else, knows about Brenda’s affair with Beaver, volunteers to go to London and tell her. Initially Mrs Rattan, the  brisk, effective American divorcée, offers to fly them both up to London but something in Tony’s tone makes her change her mind. It is notable that, out of all the characters, it is the only non-English person, the American divorcée, who grasps just how deeply Tony is in shock, that he is on the verge of going completely to pieces. So she says she will stay with him, overriding all his objections, meaning Jock will take the train up to London. And stay she does during the long empty afternoon of his newly desolate life, trying to distract him with numerous different card games. The understated power of this passage brought tears to my eyes.

Brenda’s reaction

Meanwhile, there is another scene designed to shock. Jock makes it to London, knocks on the door of Brenda’s flat, only for her neighbour to open, none other than the vampish, self-dramatising ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar’. She knows where Brenda is, at Polly Cockpurse’s place where a gaggle of posh ladies are having their fortunes read by the latest fashionable fortune reader. When Brenda emerges from her session she sees from her friends’ faces that something bad has happened and she rushes downstairs to see Jock. He tells her to prepare herself and then tells her that John is dead.

Brenda goes white and has to sit down. But as Jock begins to tell the details of the death, about the hunt and the horse, Brenda becomes confused, perplexed – and then realises Jock isn’t talking about John Beaver, he is referring to her son, John Andrew. At which point the novel screeches off its hinges into a terrible moment of moral indictment. In that split second of realisation, Brenda is relieved that it was only her son who was killed, not her adulterous lover.

[Jock] ‘I’ve been down at Hetton since the week-end.’
[Brenda] ‘Hetton?’
‘Don’t you remember? John was going hunting to-day.’
She frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying. ‘John… John Andrew… I… oh, thank God…’ Then she burst into tears.
She wept helplessly, turning round in the chair and pressing her forehead against its gilt back. (p.118)

God. Has any fictional character ever been so totally skewered? She is relieved to learn that it’s only her son who’s died. And realises it in the same moment, realises what a terrible terrible thing that is to have thought and felt.

Jock drives Brenda back to her flat, sits while she packs her things in shock, drives her to the station to catch the train down to Hetton. She makes a feeble attempt to excuse herself, saying she didn’t know what she was saying. Jock says bluntly: ‘You know what you said.’ He drives to his club. He stands at the bar saying nothing to anyone.

A few days later, when Jock goes down to Hetton to keep Tony company, he listens as Tony explains why Brenda told him she had to get away from the house, how deeply upset she must be, how he wishes he could help her. Jock says nothing. He doesn’t tell anyone what she said. God, the buttoned-up, repressed, tight-lippedness of these people.

Brenda and Tony attend the inquest. Afterwards she moves slowly, mechanically. Sits in a daze. Stares out the window. This is really beautifully conveyed, her sleep-walking dazedness. She tells Tony it’s all over, she must get away. He doesn’t understand. Not till she writes him a letter from back in London saying she is in love with John Beaver and wants a divorce. Tony is incredulous. He… he trusted her.

The divorce

An entire chapter is devoted to a detailed description of the absurd lengths one had to go to in the 1930s to gain a divorce. Because Tony is a gentleman he ‘does the right thing’ which is arrange to be the guilty party. He contacts a divorce solicitors who organise the usual procedure, which is that he goes to a hotel somewhere (he chooses Brighton) with a woman of his choice (Jock and Tony give this a lot of thought and then go visit a dingy ‘nightclub’ they’d visited one very drunk night earlier in the story, and alight on the blowsy prostitute, Milly). They explain the deal to Milly, explaining it will be purely a business transaction, no sex required. When Milly asks if she can bring her 8-year-old daughter, Winnie, Tony briskly refuses. Nonetheless, when Milly arrives at the station to meet Tony for the train to Brighton a few days later, she has brought Winnie who proves to be a world class pain in the butt during the following tortuous weekend.

So they catch a train together to Brighton, accompanied at a distance by the two private detectives hired by the divorce solicitors who will testify to Tony’s adultery in court and so win the divorce. Winnie keeps whining, wanting ‘ices’ and insists on being taken to see the sea despite there being a howling rainstorm. Tony outrages his detectives’ sense of professional propriety by socialising with them, buying them drinks and then cocking up the all-important ‘morning after’ scene by having such an early breakfast in the hotel restaurant with whining Winnie that it is an effort to then put a dressing gown on (over his other clothes) and clamber into a big double bed with Milly (who’s tired and grumpy) so they can be served by hotel staff who will later testify to finding them in bed together etc.

An unpleasant obligation, required by his impeccable good manners and sense of responsibility, is finally completed.

Payback

Back in London Tony is visited by Brenda’s elder brother, Reggie, an obese archaeologist. At this point it gets nasty.

It should probably be pointed out that Waugh himself was betrayed by his first wife and went through a very painful divorce. They were married for precisely one year before she revealed she was having an affair with a good friend of both of theirs. It is not difficult to see the passage that follows, this scene with Brenda’s adipose brother Reggie, as cold-blooded revenge. Waugh shows very clearly how Tony’s honesty and fidelity and good manners are systematically traduced by every member of her family and all her friends.

The humiliating ordeal he put himself through in Brighton and his offer of £500 a year settlement are thrown back in his face as bullyingly insufficient. The brother, Reggie, tells Tony that Brenda wants at least £2,000 a year. Lots of relatives think Tony is behaving badly by refusing to take Brenda back. Give it a year, suggests Marjorie, and she’ll get over Beaver and be ready to come back. Tony should wait. He should be forgiving.

In a cold fury at Reggie’s demands Tony phones Brenda and asks if this is really what she wants. £2,000 a year. She admits that John Beaver put her up to it. Beaver’s pointed out they’ll both be quite hard up so will need Tony’s money to live on. Tony asks her if she understands that this will mean he’ll have to sell Hetton. She stumbles and hesitates and starts crying and tells him to stop bullying her, but then admits, yes, she knew.

That’s all he needed to know. He puts the phone down and strides back into the restaurant where Reggie is waiting. And tells him he can fuck off. He’s cancelling the divorce, the whole trip to Brighton was a sham and he has witnesses to prove it. He’s not going to divorce Brenda or give her a penny. Tough. He gets up and walks out. The reader is meant to be on their feet, cheering. The worm has finally turned. After a long narrative of being betrayed, lied to and laughed at behind his back, Tony rejects the whole stinking lot of them.

On a journey

The final quarter of the novel presents another surprise. The scene has moved utterly from England. We find Tony aboard a ship heading for South America (!). Why? How?

Avoiding his former clubs, Bratts and Brown’s, for fear of running into Beaver or indeed anyone he knows, Tony had taken to frequenting the third club he’s a member of, the Greville Club. This is a more highbrow, donnish place, and it is here that he meets the short, brown figure of Dr Messinger. Tony had been leafing through travel brochures toying with going on a long journey with no particular idea where. Over lunch Dr Messinger tells him about his ongoing quest for a lost Shining City in the Amazon, which he has various maps and native accounts of. By the end of lunch Tony has agreed to accompany him. Why not?

And so there follows a long beautifully described sea voyage from the cold grey English Channel through the big waves of the Atlantic and on to the azure seas of the Caribbean. Descriptions of fellow passengers and a brief flirtation with the 18-year-old daughter of an eminent Trinidadian family.

Then he arrives at a port on the coast of South America, rendezvous with Messinger and they set off upriver into Amazonia with a team of eight blacks, chugging upstream in a shallow boat for ten days. At this point they leave the boat and make a stash of supplies – base camp – before walking to a nearby Indian village. Here they recruit a dozen or so men and women to carry their supplies for a week or more further into the interior. These people are from the Macushi tribe. They go so far but , after a week’s tramping, refuse to go further because it means crossing into Pie-Wie territory. Dr Messinger hopes these remote Pie-Wie people will be able to guide them to the Lost City.

Waugh himself went on a three-month long expedition into Amazonia which he described in Ninety-Two Days. Much of the detail of Tony and Messinger’s trip is based on that, not least a) descriptions of the umpteen different type of fly, mosquito, jiggers and even vampire bats which assail them during the day and are a serious menace by night and b) precise descriptions of the black crew on the boat and then the indigenous Indian porters, silent, self-contained movements, their  unconquerable fear of the other tribe.

Vivid descriptions of each stage of the Amazon journey are juxtaposed with developments back in London, namely the rather inevitable falling out of the adulterous lovers Brenda and John. Beaver tires of Brenda’s clinginess, Brenda, with no support from Tony, becomes desperate for money, lowers herself to ask for a job at Mrs Beaver’s shop and is mortified at being turned down.

Final developments

To summarise, beneath the impressively authentic details of Amazonian natives and fauna, key things happen:

1. Tony comes down with fever – Messinger nurses him for days.

2. Their food runs low and Messinger is forced to leave feverish, hallucinating Tony and set off for help, in the canoe, down the river. Unfortunately, he is swept over a waterfall and drowned.

3. Tony’s pitiful weakness is powerfully described. The way he tries to fill the empty lantern with paraffin but is so weak he knocks the can over and listens helplessly as the precious liquid gouts out into the soil, weeping helplessly, was very affecting.

4. The scene cuts to some days later when an exhausted, fever-ridden, delirious Tony stumbles out of the jungle. Indians spot him and take him, shambling, covered in bites and rashes and cuts, to the only educated man in the area, a Mr Todd.

The bleak ending

Mr Todd nurses Tony slowly back to health, but when Tony mentions it is time for him to leave, Mr Todd makes excuses. Things take a sinister turn. Mr Todd has a collection of mouldy, ant-eaten old books, including a complete set of Charles Dickens. He asks Tony to read to him for a few hours every afternoon. He used to have another man staying with him who did this. He shows Tony the poor wretch’s grave. Slowly Tony realises the other man was stuck there, trapped, a slave, forced to read Dickens in exchange for food. He realises Todd intends to keep him there in the same way, nursing him, feeding him, but never letting him go.

Tony is stuck because Mr Todd’s shack is so isolated. He lives off food provided to him by the native Indians and a few items of livestock. For scores of miles in every direction there is only barren savannah where Tony would starve and parch to death, or the impenetrable rainforest he stumbled out of. If he tried to escape in either direction it would be without food or water and so, as Tony realises, he would die within days. And so he is forced to stay

One day a European explorer stumbles into the clearing. Todd makes sure he is never alone with Tony but before the explorer continues on his way, Tony slips him a note saying he is alive and well. The explorer disappears back into the forest and Tony spends months and months in hope his message will percolate down to the coast and someone will come looking for him.

One afternoon Mr Todd tells Tony the villagers are having a feast, it might interest him to observe and take part. So they spend the evening at the little local village eating cooked meat and drinking generously from the home brewed alcohol. Tony wakes with a terrible hangover to discover his watch has gone from his wrist. Mr Todd comes into his room in the shack and informs him that a search party of Europeans had come looking for him. The native feast was a ruse to drug Tony and hide him out of the way so that when the search party arrived, Mr Todd was able to tell them that Tony had, alas, perished, to show them the grave of Tony’s predecessor saying it contained Tony, and to give them Tony’s watch as proof. Thus they were sent away with bearing a conclusive account of Tony’s sad death in a faraway country back to all his friends and family in England.

Mr Todd calmly explains all this to Tony and it is a sign of Waugh’s tremendous technique that he doesn’t give us Tony’s reaction at all. We don’t see him, hear him utter a word, share his thoughts, there is no description of his response to the fact that he is now doomed to spend the rest of his life, stuck in a crappy clearing in the middle of nowhere, eating the same awful subsistence food day after day, and forced, in order to survive, to read the complete works of Charles Dickens to a madman.

Coda

With new of Tony’s death Hetton passes to his nearest relatives, the ‘poor Lasts’, a cadet branch of the family we had heard about a few times earlier in the narrative. They are decent people but have to downsize the domestic staff and energetically set about expanding the farming operation, specially of lucrative silver foxes, bred for their fur.

Brenda, as a widow, is free to marry. John Beaver had, some time earlier, heartlessly abandoned her in order to accompany his mother on a business trip to America. From this nadir of her fortunes, she manages to recover herself and brings off the coup of marrying Tony’s old friend Jock Grant-Menzies. It speaks volumes about both of them that Jock notoriously heard her first reaction when told that ‘John’ had died, and so fully knows what a heartless , selfish bitch she is – and yet goes ahead with the marriage.

Author’s message

The world is cruel and pointless. Human life, by itself, is meaningless.

For a month now [Tony] had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new, mad thing brought to his notice, could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Religion is rarely mentioned in the book, none of the characters take it seriously, it only features in the form of the slightly gaga comedy vicar, with his comic name, Mr Tendril. And yet anyone who knows that Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, can sense that the more he emphasises the cruel, amoral heartlessness of the world, the more this vision of despair cries out for a countervailing force, for a force which will restore meaning and purpose and morality to the shabby lives of these broken puppets. Without mentioning Catholicism once, it can be interpreted as a deeply religious book.

Waugh’s way with words

London:

Dawn broke in London, clear and sweet, dove grey and honey, with promise of good weather; the lamps in the streets paled and disappeared; the empty streets ran with water, and the rising sun caught it as it bubbled round the hydrants; the men in overalls swung the nozzles of their hoses from side to side and the water jetted and cascaded in a sparkle of light. (p.190)

The day of the inquest:

A day of fitful sunshine and blustering wind; white and grey clouds were scarcely moving, high overhead, but the bare trees round the house swayed and shook and there were swift whirlpools of straw in the stable yard. Ben changed from the Sunday suit he had worn at the inquest and went about his duties. Thunderclap, too, had been kicked yesterday and was very slightly lame in the off fore.
Brenda took off her hat and threw it down on a chair in the hall. ‘Nothing to say, is there?’

The way the eloquent description is capped off by the taut, abbreviated dialogue is masterly. The desolate scene in the stable yard echoes, mirrors, symbolises or represents Brenda’s state of mind. So that all is needed by way of dialogue is not a long speech of anguish but the opposite, a short taut sentence saying it all.  It’s not rocket science, it’s not a new technique in the novel; it’s just done very, very well.

Tony aboard a cheap steamer heading in bad weather down the English Channel, which is carrying one other passenger:

The wash of the ship was quickly lost in the high waves. They were steaming westward down the Channel. As it grew to be night, lighthouses appeared flashing from the French coast. Presently a steward walked round the bright, upper deck striking chimes on a gong of brass cylinders, and the genial passenger went below to prepare himself for dinner in hot sea water which splashed from side to side of the bath and dissolved the soap in a thin, sticky scum. He was the only man to dress that evening: Tony sat in the mustering darkness until the second bell. Then he left his greatcoat in the cabin and went down to dinner.

For me it is a physical, imaginative and psychological pleasure greater than anything a movie or TV adaptation could possibly give me, to read words like this. The precision of what they describe, the precision of their vocabulary, the fluency of their expression, the contrasting rhythms between the opening three relatively short sentences and then the long middle one which rolls and rights itself like the ship it describes. The subject matter may be bitter and grim, but it is always an immense pleasure to read Waugh’s beautifully clear and expressive prose.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

The Guardians by John Christopher (1970)

In the mid-1960s John Christopher switched from writing science fiction for adults to writing science fiction for teens or young adults as they’re called nowadays. The Guardians is one of the more successful of these teen novels. It won prizes – the annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for the German translation. I can see why. In clear, factual, no-nonsense prose Christopher vividly depicts the adventures of a fatherless young boy in a story which is both a scary adventure, but also strangely reassuring at the same time.

It uses familiar sci fi tropes: a) it is set in a future society which b) has been divided into castes or distinct groups c) is controlled by shadowy, all-powerful forces, but d) there is a cohort of keen young idealists setting out to overthrow it. If Christopher doesn’t investigate any of these themes in any depth a) this is maybe appropriate in a book aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds, and b) instead of depth what you do have is tremendous speed. It’s a short but fast-moving book, good to keep easily distracted teenagers’ attentions.

Lastly, unlike The White Mountains and some of his novels for adults which consist of long, gruelling journeys which end up wearing down the reader as well as the protagonists, The Guardians has a compelling symmetry and circularity to the storyline, and it ends on a pleasing note of excitement and expectation. It is a good novel for older children (11 to 14).

The Guardians

Future It is 70 or 80 years in the future. England is divided into the ‘County’, a rumoured land of leisure beyond the ‘Barrier’, and the ‘Conurbs’, the extensive urban areas in one of which lives Rob Randall. Rob’s been living in an apartment in a high rise with his dad since his mum died after a long illness.

Conurbs The Conurbs are packed. People live in high rise blocks and have access to futuristic gadgets. Monorails run at up to 200 kilometres an hour. Cars run on predetermined routes. There are portable lumoglobes.

Games The populace is kept entertained with bread in and circuses, in this instance the high-speed often violent Games held in massive Stadiums, including terraplaning where jet-propelled cars hurtle round a cambered track, occasionally crashing, to the cheers of the crowds. Crowds entering or exiting often turn into mobs, creating hysterical crushes.

China war The world is at peace as far as we know, except for a permanent war in faraway China, which people rarely talk about, and never seems to present any threat.

Library Rob gets caught in one of these sudden mob crushes on the way back from the library. The library is falling to bits, no-one goes there. A sign outside says it was opened as long ago as 1978 (thus setting the story in what was then the future). This is because in the Conurbs hardly anybody reads books or writes anything. Everybody watches holovision (HV) or dictates messages into handheld recorders.

An accident Rob pops by the Stadium to see his dad but is met by his friend Mr Kennealy who tells him his dad’s had an accident. He’s an electrician and touched a live wire. Mr Kennealy takes him back to his house for supper and to spend the night.

Conspiracy? That evening Rob hears Kennealy discussing his father in a conspiratorial way with some men who’ve come to visit, but can’t hear the details. ‘This is a dangerous business… We better all watch out.’ Was Rob’s dad’s death not an accident? Why? Was he part of some conspiracy? What?

Dad dead Next day Mr Kennealy takes Rob to the hospital where he is shocked to be told Rob’s dad has died. Kennealy takes Rob to his dad’s apartment to collect some things, including an old box Rob finds, containing his mum and dad’s letters and old b&w photos, and then back the Kennealy flat.

Leaving Mr Kennealy’s Mr and Mrs Kennealy discuss whether Rob could stay with them but the decision is taken out of their hands at his school next day when inspectors turn up and declare Rob must be sent to a state boarding school in Barnes. Rob goes back to the Kennealy’s to get his stuff. Keannealy tells him he’ll be ‘safer’ there. Safer? From what?

Barnes Boarding School It’s horrible. Extremely regimented, with fanatical rules about making your bed just so and presenting possessions for a weekly inspection. Rob, predictably, fails the inspection and is subject to a midnight bullying, ‘the Routine’ (hit on the forehead repeatedly by a rubber-tipped hammer) by the other boys. He is given an extended detention, extra work, and the precious books we saw him borrowing from the library at the start of the book, are taken away and burned.

Running away Early the next Sunday, Rob takes a small bag, makes his way between buildings to the school gates, out into the road beyond, catches a bus into central London (through Trafalgar Square with its glass column) and to a train terminus where he takes off his school blazer and bow tie (!) then spends almost all his money on a ticket to Reading.

Reading? Yes. When he read the dusty old love letters written by his mum to his dad, he learned that she originally came from The County, beyond the wall. Well, he’s got nothing to stay in the Conurbs for. Reading is only a few miles south of the border. He’ll go there and sneak across The Barrier and see if he can find a better life in the County.

Reading carnival When the monorail has whisked him to Reading in just 30 minutes (as if any train in England could ever run that fast!) Rob discovers there’s a Carnival going on, one of the many festivals which Conurbanites fill their time with in between watching violent competitions in stadiums or immersing themselves in twaddle on the holovision.

Rob is given a lift This is bad, though, because when he asks a guy for a lift to the north side of Reading, the guy helpfully starts asking around and someone volunteers to take Rob in a ten-seater ‘Electrocar’ and others offer to come along – with the result that he can’t just hope to be dropped and slip away. Damn! These volunteers ask him where he lives so he has to invents a street on the spur of the moment. After driving around north Reading in search of this non-existent address, the volunteers stop at a police station and most of them go inside to ask directions. Rob takes the opportunity to nip out the car but some of them see him running away, so there’s a chase through the Victorian terraces of north Reading.

Rabbit man Rob nips into someone’s back garden and into their garden shed. The mob arrive moments later and the owner gives them the wrong directions. Rob realises this is because he’s keeping rabbits in his shed, which is illegal. He’s a rough, working-class, ferret-faced man who, when Rob says he’s hungry, gives him some mildewy cheese in week-old bread, then tells him to hop it.

Through the Barrier Rob walks north as the buildings of Reading peter out into bare moorland and eventually stumbles on the legendary Barrier. Instead of being vast and electrified it’s only 12 feet or so high and, when he watches a squirrel scamper across it, he realises, not electrified at all. He walks along it, comes to a bit that’s come loose from the earth, digs for a while with his bare hands and wriggles underneath. He is in the County!

Horses He immediately notices the difference. Some men ride by on horses, wearing swords in scabbards and accompanied by hunting dogs while Rob hides. He walks on getting hungry and grubbing up some potatoes to eat raw. Oh dear, this recalls the protagonists of all the other Christopher novels I’ve read, who spend weeks on the run, hungry, cold and exposed to the elements

Mike Luckily this phase is relatively brief because after a night sleeping rough, he’s making his way through fields when a figure on horseback spots him and gives chase. Rob runs but (inevitably) stumbles and there’s an exciting moment when the horse rears above him, the sun behind the rider dazzling terrified Rob. Then it speaks and turns out not to be some vengeful Viking but a boy his own age named Michael, who is jolly decent.

Bunker Mike is astonished to learn Rob has crossed from the Conurbs and decides to help him. He takes him to an old disused concrete bunker (from back during the ‘Hitler war’, apparently) which is relatively dry and secure. Here Rob rests and over the next few days Mike brings him a huge amount of stuff, fresh food every day along with blankets and bedding, a torch and a little paraffin stove.

Mrs Gifford One day Rob is cooking up a nice little meal when someone stands in the doorway. It isn’t Mike and, once again, for a moment I thought it would be some horrible police / army / militia figure who would drag Mike off to prison, but it’s the opposite. It’s Mike’s mum, Mrs Gifford. She’s realised food and clothes have been going missing and watched Mike one morning. She briskly makes a decision to take Rob in.

Big house The Giffords are an old landed family, members of ‘the gentry’. They (Mr and Mrs Gifford, Mike and his younger sister Cecily) live in an enormous old mansion staffed by at least 20 servants. Mrs Gifford runs a tight ship, keeping the servants up to snuff, so that food is served on time, the horses are well looked after, everything runs like clockwork. Mr Gifford is a very passive, understanding man. After the initial introductions, he shows Rob his collection of miniature bonsai trees and there’s a couple of pages going into some detail about how to tend and nurture them.

County living The gentry live very well. There are regular luncheon parties, dinner parties, and bigger garden parties including one where Rob turns out to have a natural ability for archery. However, this big party is also risky. Having accepted him into their family, Mrs Gifford comes up with a cover story. Rob is renamed Rob Perrott and said to be the son of a cousin of Mrs G’s, raised by an old colonial family in faraway Nepal. After dinner party guests ask him about Nepal, Rob makes straight for the big Gifford library and reads all the books about Nepal that he can find in order to improve his cover story. The family stableman teaches Rob how to ride. Mrs Gifford teaches him how to dress, speak correctly and tip the servants. He is being turned into a gentleman.

Posh boarding school Eventually the time comes for school. Mike had been ill earlier in the year. Now he returns to school along with Rob. It is a very posh boarding school, a mirror image of the Barnes state school (just one of the many parallelisms between the two societies.

Conspiracy After various details of the school routine and settling in and lessons and so on, one night Mike introduces him to a bunch of older boys who, after cocoa and biscuits, fall to having a schoolboy-level debate about the rights and wrongs of the society they live in. The group is led by Daniel Penfold who takes the view that all the peace and plenty is the result of exploitation of the masses. Rob tends to the common sense point of view that most people appear to be pretty happy with the way things are. Rob notices that Mike takes Dan’s side. Later, Mike inducts Dan into a deeper secret, the fact that Penfold is the representative in the school of an organisation of revolutionaries actively dedicated to overthrowing this society.

Debates about revolution If this had been a John Wyndham novel, there would have been a long and penetrating discussion of the merits of revolution. Being John Christopher discussion and debate is much thinner: Mike says people need to be woken up and realise the system is rotten and based on exploitation of their apathy. Rob replies that most people are actually happy enough living as they do. You’ll have a hard job persuading people to throw away the comfort and security the currently enjoy, and for what? For a handful of high-sounding words bandied around by some disgruntled sixth formers.

Christmas at the end of the term the boys go home. Mrs Gifford has always shown a penchant for Rob. He now routinely refers to her as ‘Aunt Margaret’. Now she confides in him her concerns about her son: his school reports all say he’s falling short and not concentrating. Rob and Mike have been invited over to the Penfolds house for lunch and Mrs G expresses concern about the influence of Dan Penfold.

The Penfold household Christopher draws a sharp contrast between the two households and their inhabitants: where the Giffords are tall and handsome and Mrs Gifford is brisk and commanding, the Penfold parents are short and tubby and exercise no discipline over the servants, with the result that tea is served late and cold and, in a piquant detail, Rob’s shoes, which he leaves outside his door to be polished, are done so badly he has to do them again himself.

The revolution After Christmas, back to school and another term, but now with this added tension that Mrs G is unhappy about her son, Mike is distracted and aloof from Rob and Rob wonders what is going on. Back home after that term, Rob and Mike plan to go fishing for a morning before rising on to the Penfold place for lunch, but Mike makes excuses about having to go and see a man about a horse. When Rob eventually arrives at the Penfolds he discovers it in uproar. The Revolution has begun! That’s why Mike rode off that morning, to join it.

Protecting Mrs Gifford Rob rides straight to Mike’s house to discover all the menfolk have ridden off: the radio’s down, there are mad rumours of massacres in Oxford and Bristol, the Cherwell is said to be running with blood, mobs of Conurbanites are said to have stormed the Barrier. Rob saddles up to go and join the ‘vigilantes’ (probably better described as the militia) but all the men including Mr Gifford have left and Mrs Gifford begs him to stay and protect them, so he does.

The rebellion is suppressed The next morning Mr Gifford and the male servants return in a downpour. They tell Mrs G and Rob that the rebellion has been completely suppressed. None of those rumours were true, there was no massacre, no storming of the Barrier, nothing like that. Everyone is very relieved and life goes back to normal except that… Mike is missing! His parents are understandably concerned about what has happened to him.

Mike at midnight That night Mike slips into Rob’s room. He’s on the run. Sure, the rebellion was defeated and the servant class didn’t rise up as Penfold et al hoped they would, but he hasn’t given up. He describes how the rebels were outnumbered and outgunned. Theoretically guns are banned in the County, even in the Conurbs, but it turns out that, when they’re needed, the authorities had plenty to use. Plus helicopters flying overhead which released a fatal nerve gas onto the revolutionaries. Many died on the spot but Mike was out on the periphery and just felt very ill.

Escape In fact, far from deterring him, the brutality with which the revolt was put down has hardened Mike’s determination. He plans to go over the Barrier into the conurbs at Southampton. He makes Rob swear not to tell anyone, then they go down to the empty kitchen, steal some chicken and ham, then Rob sees Mike quietly mount his horse, Captain, and head off south, before going back to bed, his mind in turmoil.

Militia Next day a military patrol stops at the Gifford house led by a Mr Marshall and asks after Mike. He’s wanted. They must give up any information they have about him or face prosecution. Mr and Mrs Gifford say they know nothing and are sick with worry (worried parents; a very young adult fiction trope).

But the militiaman insists on arresting Rob. He is forced to come on horseback. At first he is terrified and the reader wonders what dungeon and tortures await. But then Rob is reassured when he discovers they’re going to the Old Manor, home of inoffensive old Sir Percy Gregory (page 141).

Sir Percy interrogates Bumbling old Sir Percy puts Rob completely at his ease, offers him coffee and cherry cake, asks a number of innocent sounding questions… and then springs a surprise. They know who he is. They know he is really Rob Randell who absconded from Barnes Boarding School made his way to Reading and crossed under the Barrier. They knew who he was within a day of Mrs Gifford finding him. Sir Percy gives a complete biographical sketch, including the dates and full names of both his parents (page 145). (This passage contains the kind of chronological information which gives all true science fiction fans a thrill, by specifying the dates of the action. We learn his father died in 2052, so if a Christmas has gone by the revolution and these scenes are set in 2053.)

The Guardians Who are ‘they’? They are The Guardians. English society was divided between the heavily populated Conurban areas full of proley families kept entertained by holovision, games and the occasional riot, and the sparsely populated County run by grand landed families with penumbras of servants, several generations ago. The division perfectly suits the majority of the population and has been preserved in a stable situation by the eternal watchfulness of the Guardians for 50 years or more.

An offer Throughout this piece of explication Rob has nervously been expecting to be told he will be sent back over the Barrier to Barnes. So he is thunderstruck when Sir Percy offers him the opportunity to become a Guardian himself. He is smart, he is resourceful, he has shown he can conceal his true identity and lie. He will be able to carry himself well either side of the Barrier. He is perfect for the role.

Gentleman’s agreement They shake hands on it. Sir Percy gives him a short-wave radio. All he has to do is report to them if Mike turns up. They don’t want him. They want the people he’ll lead them to, the ringleaders. ‘But what will happen to Mike?’ Rob asks. Oh, Sir Percy replies, he won’t be harmed. He will just have a small operation in the brain. It won’t change his memories or who he is. It will just stop him being rebellious. He will carry on living a privileged life, carry on fox hunting and archery and go to university. But with the rebel part of his brain snipped out. Sir Percy explains that this is a fundamental method which has been used to keep the populations in both societies cowed and quiescent. If by chance, young men continue rebellious despite the operation, then they are packed off to the war in distant China so they can exercise their testosterone in a safely distant arena.

Mrs Gifford reveals They let Rob go. He rides back to the Gifford House with the little radio. The Gifford family are relieved to see him. After dinner it dawns on him that he is safe, utterly safe. He has a home for the first time in his young life, a warm loving family, a life of luxury. But after Mr Gifford potters off to his greenhouse to grow Mrs Gifford surprises him with two revelations. First, she says she knows Mike was there the night before. When food goes missing from the kitchen it is reported to her. She accuses him of not telling her and her husband, but Rob says Mike pleaded with him not to.

Mr Gifford’s operation The second revelation is that Mike’s father has had that brain operation. He, in his youth, had the rebel part of his brain snipped out. At a stroke various facts fall into place. First, why Mr Gifford is so placid and content to potter among his bonsai trees. Second, that rebellion must be genetic: Mike has inherited his father’s restless streak.

A decision Reeling from this revelation, that night Rob comes to a decision. He decides he had been taken in, deluded, seduced by the comfort and luxury of this life. But it is not the real life, the whole thing is based on the neutering of the human brain to make people quiescent. He could acquiesce and lead a life of luxury, private school, university, then a life of fox hunting and harmless hobbies. Or he can make his way to the Conurbs, find Mike, and join the struggle to free humanity from its sedatives and delusions.

The novel ends with Rob leaving the Gifford house that night, heading south towards the Conurbs, with a backpack of supplies which includes a trowel for digging under the Barrier on his way to freedom.

Thoughts

The Guardians is a lot better than the first book in the Tripods series, The White Mountains. In both books 13-year-old boys are brought up in a future society which passively accepts philistinism and the submission to accepted conventions. So in both novels the boy protagonist ups stumps and goes on an arduous trek to freedom.

Christopher’s books suffer in comparison with his peer John Wyndham. They lack Wyndham’s psychological or intellectual depth. When the protagonist of The Chrysalids, David Strorm, rebels against his upbringing in a stiflingly conformist future society, it happens over a period of many years of thinking and learning, punctuated by key and highly dramatic episodes, and all accompanied by his slowly maturing conversations with Uncle Axel. You feel you have entered really deeply into David’s mind and experienced the difficulty of breaking away from family and convention.

Rob, on the other hand, goes to a rough school for a few weeks where he’s beaten up one night so he decides to run away. That’s it. It feels trivial and shallow, as if little effort went into imagining the psychological background and none at all went into really thinking about the issues involved.

Also, Christopher’s prose is pretty boring. It is plain and factual, unenlivened by metaphors or similes. Pages go by without any colour. Dull.

And, at least to begin with, I was dismayed when Rob sleeps in a ditch and is quickly reduced by hunger to eating raw potatoes plucked from a field, because that’s more or less what happens to the protagonists of the previous three Christopher novels I’ve read.

However, as you continue reading I think this book addresses and overcomes all these issues. Rob is quickly rescued from sleeping rough and quickly assimilated into a life of luxury (which is a blessed relief for the reader). And the lack of psychological or intellectual depth (for example, around the whole notion of rebelling against a conformist society) can perhaps be justified in at least two ways:

  1. Speed. What it lacks in depth, The Guardians makes up for in pace. At just 150 pages long, a lot of events and brief ideas are packed into a short exciting narrative.
  2. Target audience. Maybe it’s age-appropriate. Wyndham’s novels are all, ostensibly, for adults. In the foreword to The White Mountains Christopher dwells on the advice and guidance he was given by his American publisher which led him to comprehensively rewrite the middle of the novel. We know from his adult books that he’s not a great thinker, Maybe his publishers said, ‘Play to your strengths: put as little controversy or thought or ideas into the book as is necessary, at just the right level to get an intelligent 12-year-old thinking, and then get back to the action.’

And maybe the same thing applies to his bare prose. I went from reading this to reading a William Gibson novel and it was like going from a scratchy black and white silent movie to a modern CGI Marvel movie. Christopher’s prose is colourless. But, again, maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe the prose in a young adult novel should be as bare and functional as possible to let the story and the narrative take priority.

There is also the structure of the narrative. His previous novels were straightforward linear narratives describing gruelling journeys. However, The Guardians is notably more sophisticated than that in its symmetrical structure, in the way the hero introduces us to two very different societies, ending up alienated from both of them.

Not only that but it is aesthetically pleasing the way that privileged Mike is, of course, in many ways a mirror image of working class Rob. Mike has both his parents unlike Rob the orphan; he has been brought up in luxury and privilege, unlike Rob raised in a crappy council flat, and so on.

But the most obvious mirroring is that whereas Rob has escaped from the Conurbs into the Country, Mike wants to escape the other way. It isn’t particularly prominent, it feels a natural part of the plot, but the way the two boys echo and contrast with each other lifts the novel significantly above the level of a mere trek into something much more artful and satisfying.


Credit

The Guardians by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1970. All references are to the 2015 New Windmill Series hardback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

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