A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
published 1934 chapter 2
Shafts of November sunshine streamed down from lancet and oriel, tinctured in green and gold, gules and azure by the emblazoned coats, broken by the leaded devices into countless points and patches of coloured light. Brenda descended the great staircase step by step through alternations of dusk and rainbow. Both hands were occupied, holding to her breast a bag, a small hat, a half-finished panel of petit-point embroidery and a vast, disordered sheaf of Sunday newspapers, above which only her eyes and forehead appeared as though over a yashmak.
Beaver emerged from the shadows below and stood at the foot of the stairs looking up at her. ‘I say, can’t I carry something?’
‘No thanks, I’ve got everything safe. How did you sleep?’
‘I bet you didn’t.’
‘Well, I’m not a very good sleeper.’
‘Next time you come you shall have a different room.’
observations: Should be read with yesterday’s entry.
This is pretty much the start of the attraction between Brenda and John – an affair that’s most shocking moment will be [SPOILER] when Brenda is told that ‘John’ is dead and is relieved when it turns out to be her only child and not her worthless lover (they, obviously, share the name). But you don’t think ‘what a monster she is’, you think ‘my oh my Waugh must have really hated his first wife to give her that moment’ – a wholly imagined one as the Waughs had no children. It’s a fine example of what Martin Amis splendidly describes as an author putting his thumb on the scales.
Tony, her husband, is at church during the scene above (yes really, the thumb pushes down farther) and has given 2/6 (modern equivalent: £4 or $6.50) to the collection and picked a camellia for Brenda – in the Dickens novel which sent us off re-reading this book, David Copperfield spends 2/6 on a camellia for his ladylove of the moment. (Only a striking coincidence to us, we do see.) Half a crown is also the sum that Tony tips a seedy commissionaire to make a phonecall for him later on.
Fortune-telling features in the book – including a version of reading people’s feet – and is always faked as there is no great future for these characters. Tony in particular suffers a dire fate: he is tedious during the first half of the book, although the story to this point is highly entertaining. The second half is, honestly, close to unreadable as he crashes around in South America before reaching his grim ending. Dull as ditchwater. Poor man.
With thanks to Wendy for the suggestion.
Links up with: More Waugh everywhere – click on label below.
The picture is Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. True, Brenda isn’t nude, but this lovely description of her, and the light surrounding her, was hard to find in a realistic form, while this picture did seem to give an idea of the light. 'Lancet' and 'oriel' are types of window.