I was surprised to discover Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ in The Penguin Book of Horror Stories the other day. Waugh is not by any stretch of the imagination a horror writer, though it is true that he transformed his masterly short story into a novel which is, in many ways, dominated by the idea of the Gothic.
The Gothic of A Handful of Dust seems to be, at first glance, a merely architectural feature with three of the novel’s seven chapters being entitled ‘English Gothic’. However, there is more to it than that: Gothic pretensions are constantly undercut (or covered over) in this novel.
“Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last lies the extensive park of Hetton Abbey,” the county Guide Book tells us. “This, formerly one of the notable houses of the county was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest.”
In fact parts of Hetton Abbey suffer the ultimate indignity of being clad with white chromium plating in the course of the book. And yet the Gothic remains for Tony Last an ideal. When he discovers the extent of his wife’s treachery, his mind became “clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief ... there was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled...” The Gothic is more than an architectural style: it is an ideal, a moral guide, a symbol of a golden age.
This is why he does not abandon his ideal, even after the Gothic world “had come to grief”. Rather he pursues it across the globe. When he sets sail for Brazil, his mind is “occupied with the City, the Shining, the Many Watered, the Bright Feathered, the Aromatic Jam. [You have to read the novel to get the joke.] He had a clear picture of it in his mind. It was Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton, pennons and banners floating on the sweet breeze, everything luminous and translucent; a coral citadel crowning a green hill-top sown with daisies, among groves and streams; a tapestry landscape filled with heraldic and fabulous animals and symmetrical, disproportionate blossom. / The ship tossed and tunnelled through the dark waters towards this radiant sanctuary.”
It is, of course, an illusion, a handful of dust, for Waugh was no Gothic novelist. Perhaps, instead, we should see A Handful of Dust as a wry commentary on the Gothic pretensions of Horace Walpole et al. Frank Kermode has written about the way in which great houses become “by an easy transition types of the Catholic City, and in this book the threatened City is Hetton.” More convincing is Douglas Lane Patey’s argument that in A Handful of Dust Waugh actually offers us a critique of Hetton as a great house and, by extension, of the Gothic as an ideal.