Monday, 6 October 2008
What to read when you're tempted by infidelity
This week's Bibliotherapy column is about Evelyn Waugh's 'A Handful of Dust'. I wish -- as is often the case -- that I'd had more room to write about this. It's a masterpiece, as we already know, but what I didn't realise until I'd started researching the story behind the novel is that it was written in the aftermath of Waugh's divorce, when his wife left him for a young man named John Heygate. (The Waughs shared a flat in Canonbury at the time with Nancy Mitford; she was close to both husband and wife, but after the affair became public, she ended her friendship with Mrs Waugh as a mark of loyalty to him). Heygate was himself a writer -- the author of five little-read novels -- and he killed himself in 1976. Perhaps I'm wrong, but his life seems to have been lived in the shadow of 'A Handful of Dust'... with consequences as bleak as those in the plot of Waugh's novel. Anyway, here's the column:
All this fuss about sleeping together,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in ‘Vile Bodies’. “For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.” He may or may not have been teasing, but a reading of his later novel, ‘A Handful of Dust’ is enough to put anyone off having an affair, however great the temptation.
Waugh wrote the book in the aftermath of the collapse of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), when he was feeling utterly humiliated by his wife’s affair with a writer named John Heygate. “Evelyn’s defection was preceded by no kind of quarrel or estrangement,” Waugh wrote in a letter to his parents. “So far as I knew we were both serenely happy.” The shock of this sudden betrayal permeates ‘A Handful of Dust’, a novel described by his friend Harold Acton as “written in blood”, in which a faithless wife, Brenda Last, cuckolds her husband Tony with a worthless lover, also called John. Even Brenda admits that John Beaver is dreary – “he’s second-rate and a snob and… cold as a fish” – but she nevertheless deserts her husband for him.
Even worse, when her son – another John – is killed in an accident, Brenda reveals herself to be more concerned about her lover than her only child. By the end of the novel, the affair has fizzled out; Brenda remarries one of her husband’s friends, while Tony is imprisoned in the South American jungle by the sinister Mr Todd, and condemned to an endless re-reading of Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ tales, there is to be no happy ending; this is as bleak as Waugh gets (hence his use of T.S Eliot’s lines from ‘The Waste Land’ in the novel’s title and epigraph, ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust…’).
Waugh himself converted to Catholicism and his second marriage lasted a lifetime; but Evelyn and John Heygate were divorced in 1936. Both of them remarried again, though Heygate’s life and career as a writer seem to have been overshadowed by his part in Waugh’s divorce. Some years afterwards, Heygate wrote to Waugh asking for his forgiveness. His answer came in a postcard: ‘OK – EW.’ John Heygate committed suicide in 1976.