Dress Down Sunday: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

published 1934 chapter 4


Milly sat up in bed. ‘O.K.,’ she said. ‘Winnie darling, give mother her jacket off the chair.’ She was a conscientious girl, ready to go through with her job, however unattractive it might seem. ‘But it’s early.’ 

Tony went into his room and took off his shoes, collar and tie, coat and waistcoat, and put on a dressing gown

‘You are greedy,’ said Winnie, ‘eating two breakfasts.’ 

‘When you’re a little older you’ll understand these things. It’s the Law. Now I want you to stay in the sitting room for quarter of an hour very quietly. Promise? And afterwards you can do exactly what you like.’ 

‘Can I bathe?’ 

‘Yes certainly, if you’re quiet now.’ 

Tony got into bed beside Milly and pulled the dressing gown tight round his throat. ‘Does that look all right?’ 

‘Love’s young dream,’ said Milly. 

‘All right then. I’ll ring the bell.’ When the tray had been brought Tony got out of bed and put on his things. ‘So much for my infidelity,’ he said. ‘It is curious to reflect that this will be described in the papers as “intimacy.”

observations: The scenes in the Brighton hotel are strange and funny: Tony Last is providing fake evidence for his wife to get a divorce. He and Milly have to be found in a state of undress, and the pretence falls apart as the problems of the accompanying child, Winnie above, feature more and more. 

It is Tony’s wife who wants to end the marriage, as she has a lover. The staged adultery is for the court’s benefit, and to protect his wife’s reputation. But this is not going to happen – Tony will renege on his agreement. It didn’t always work anyway: in Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon a Countess says 

My idiot great-nephew, Hughie, has bungled matters as usual. Having undertaken to do the thing like a gentleman, he sneaked off to Brighton with a hired nobody, and the Judge wouldn't believe either the hotel bills or the chambermaid—knowing them all too well by sight. So it means starting all over again from the beginning.

Brenda knows that her lover, John, is ‘second rate and a snob’. But no-one in this book is particularly nice – we said Tony was a passive-aggressive idiot in an earlier entry. His sense of entitlement is not attractive, he is painful with Brenda, and his attachment to his hideous-sounding house doesn’t really sound any better than Mrs Beaver flogging her chromium-plated walls. 

There’s one unlikely character, the Shameless Blonde, Mrs Rattery, who seems to have wandered in from a different book, and there is a very detailed description of a hunt – it’s surprising Waugh, essentially urban at this stage in his life, knew so much about it. 

Brenda’s bleak fate – ‘And she went out alone into the sunshine’ – after finding from the solicitor that she will get no money, foreshadows Graham Greene’s Rose in Brighton Rock four years later who ‘walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all’. However, Brenda will find another husband – and one who knows the worst about her. 

Links on the blog: previous entries from this book

The picture is Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - What I find interesting about this is that Tony wants to protect his wife's reputation. When I think about the cases of divorce one reads about today, well, it's not exactly that way at all is it? And thanks for reminding me of Busman's Honeymoon. I really like the appearance of the Dowager Duchess of Denver in that novel and the way she and Harriet Vane interact.

  2. Was just reading about Evelyn Waugh and his horrid attitude towards his children the other day somewhere.

    1. When WW2 ended, and the first bananas arrived in the UK, the Government awarded one banana to every child in the country. Evelyn Waugh (with his 6 children) famously ate all the bananas, with cream, in front of them: they got none. This makes me think of my grandfather, who worked on the docks unloading the bananas - they were allowed to take home any fully ripe ones, so my very unmoneyed family did much better than the posh rich children...


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