The Imperial Archive
In recent times there has been an increasing interest in rethinking fictions written in the modernist period from a post-colonial perspective - that is to make a post-colonial reading of a text in order to outline the effects of colonisation on both the centre of empire and the margins, and reveal how such a text either openly or unwittingly exhibits colonial ideologies. In particular, books such as Joseph Conrad's A heart of Darkness and E.M Fosters A Passage to India have been the subject of much critical analysis. Evelyn Waugh's popular 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust, does not in my opinion advocate colonial or imperial ideologies. I would argue that this text displays a discomfort with racial stereotypes and the imperial project.
The book recounts the demise of the upper-class marriage between Brenda and Tony Last. The ancestral home, Hetton Abbey, and it's upkeep consume the couple's finances and Tony's devotion - the building "was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the gothic style and is now devoid of interest" (14). The mundane and economically stagnant life at Hetton drives Brenda to London where she instigates an affair with the younger, parasitic John Beaver, professional guest and notorious bore. Brenda's popularity soars amongst London society people while she increasingly neglects the welfare of her husband and child, the tragic John Andrew, in her pursuit of Beaver, culminating in John Andrews death and Brenda's gratitude that it is her son rather than the other John in her life, John Beaver, who is dead. Following the death Brenda files for divorce demanding a large settlement. In a farcical episode Tony is sent to Brighton to act out his infidelity to Brenda to satisfy the courts of his unreliable character. In many ways the second part of the novel is juxtaposed with the marital collapse to emphasise the moral decline consuming the world, in both the centre (England) and in the margins (South America) as Tony embarks on a journey through the Amazon with the explorer Dr. Messsinger in search of the mythical El Derado, an ancient city in the Amazon interior where Tony hopes to find "a transfigured Hetton" (160). Deserted by their guides, the tribal Indians, Dr. Messinger meets his death on a water fall and Tony suffering from fever is saved by the Dickens obsessed but illiterate Mr. Todd of Indian and English descent, who enslaves Tony in his mud hut home to read Dickens for the remainder of his days.
The decline of Hetton Abbey, it's ugliness, and the deterioration of the upper-class marriage between Brenda and Tony Last symbolise the extinction or "last" of Empire, the disillusion with the imperialist project that was looming in the modernist period. The penultimate pages of the novel see Tony's relatives, who have inherited Hetton, breed silver foxes representative of the new breed of savages that roam England. Although Waugh is not regarded as an overtly modernist writer, the editors of Modernism and Empire state that "modernism's place at the 'end of modernity' has led some to locate in modernism a questioning of attitudes to the 'other' and to colonialism...the argument is that more than an increasing liberal disquiet over colonialism can be see in modernism, rather it is the true starting point of postcolonial critique" (Intro 4). Patrick Williams points out that "one of the reasons for post-colonial animosity towards modernism is no doubt the fact that postcolonial critics encounter modernism as already in situ, an institutionalised, would-be hegemonic, seemingly reactionary presence, and one which even in its self-reflective moments appears obsessively concerned with the position of the west" (Modernism and Empire 18). In my opinion the alignment of modernism with post-colonial criticism is a worthwhile enterprise and one which I employ throughout the course of this essay. In some ways modernism's status as in situ makes an analysis more favourable than the growing comparisons between the postmodern and the postcolonial, which generally seems to reflect similarities between a critic's own agenda for postmodernism, notoriously difficult to define, and postcolonialism.
Like many writers of the modernist period, Waugh travelled widely and in December1932 he travelled to British Guyana which influenced the Amazon sequence in A Handful of Dust. Waugh was attracted to the East and the colonies as a place of liberation from the taboos of the West and a desire for the Other, but in A Handful of Dust Waugh clearly rejects such romantic assumptions. Many of the elements of this part of the novel can be traced to the people and customs Waugh encountered and recorded in his travelogues, such as the existence and ingredients for cassari, a drink received by Tony and Dr. Messinger from the local tribal women. Famous for his satire and conversion to Roman-Catholicism, Waugh's writings have been interpreted as a critique of English religious traditions and the demoralised society that exists as a result. Many critics argue that the Amazon sequence in A Handful 0f Dust highlights what Waugh felt was not just a decadence that was destroying English life, but that there is no sanctuary in which to hide from the growing problem of evil, and thus rejects the desire for Other. Different from other modernist writers, Waugh's encounter with the "savage" causes him to conclude that they are no different to the savages in England. Reconsidering A Handful of Dust in the twenty-first century from a post-colonial perspective, new readings such as the increasing discomfort with racial stereotypes, imperialism and the idea of Empire in the modernist period are evident.
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)
Tony and Dr. Messinger's journey into the Amazon interior repeats and parodies that of the futile and mercenary post-colonial hate-figure, Sir Walter Raleigh. The Guyanas were relatively undiscovered before he embarked on a quest for a hidden El Derado where he hoped to find gold. The mythical source of gold was most likely rumoured by the Spanish in order to divert Raleigh's attention from more profitable areas.
I mentioned earlier that the first half of the novel is juxtaposed with the second to portray the futility and amoral nature of life both in the centre and peripheries - Waugh commented that "'the Amazon stuff... had to be there. The scheme was a gothic man in the hands of savages - first Mrs. Beaver, etc., then the real ones...'" (Problem of Evil 44), Waugh's opinion being that the savages of the West are civilised savages. The failure of communication between Tony, Dr. Messinger and the tribal people is recounted in opposition to the failure of communication in Westminster, the centre of imperial government, where Tony's friend Jock attempts to do "something tangible in the interests of his constituents" (Dust 176). Another important result of this is reading Tony's imprisonment as his inevitable punishment for the imperial system that he invariably represents as the owner of a large estate in England. One critic has pointed to the fact that Tony bores Brenda and John Andrew when he reads to them at home in Hetton, while in the second half of the novel Tony is forced to spend his days repetitively rereading the work of Dickens to Mr. Todd. This is the event that I believe marks the explicit critique of imperialism in the novel, as it criticises the role and influence of the English literary canon in the process of colonisation. English literature played a major role in colonial education and it was through this that euro-centric and apparently "universalist" values were impressed upon the colonised subject. This literature often presented images of the colonised as inferior to the colonisers. A high value was placed upon the knowledge of English literature as such a well-grounded knowledge was required to enter into the civil service and legal professions in the colonies. Thus the ironic imprisonment of Tony in Mr. Todd's home is a dramatic inversion of the master-slave relationship that results in the canon as an instrument of torture against the centre of empire. The imperialist project back-fires ultimately destroying the life of Tony Last (or what was left of it after the savages in England ripped it apart), his ownership of Hetton and his command over his own life.
Waugh was anti-modernist Catholicism and in many ways his writing reflects a hark back to the pre-Anglican era in England and to a traditional Catholicism. What is interesting about such a nostalgia is that it coincides with the period prior to the dawn of imperialism and Elizabethan England, before the excursion of Sir Walter Raleigh (who apparently loathed Catholicism) to South America and the plantations in Ireland, according to The Atlas of the British Empire, "all represented as incidents in the expansion of God's Protestant empire. Historians today are more likely to view the exploits of Queen Elizabeth's 'sea dogs' as looting expeditions on the fringes of the much greater world empire of Spain" (3). But again this exposes the problematic nature of equating Waugh's traditional Catholicism with an anti-imperialist mentality as the Spanish empire was at that time Roman-Catholic.
Bayly, C.A., ed. Atlas of the British Empire. London: Hamlyn, 1989.
Carens, James F., ed. Critical Writings on Evelyn Waugh. Boston: C.K Hall, 1987.
Heath, Jeffrey. The Picturesque Prison. London: Weidenfeld&Nicolson, 1982.
Myers, William. Evelyn Waugh and the Problem of Evil. London: Faber&Faber, 1991.
Stannard, Martin, ed. Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage. London: Routlege&Kegan Paul, 1984.
Waugh, Evelyn. A Handful of Dust. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1951.
This page was written by Rosa Flannery. E-mail me with your suggestions
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
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