Who is your favourite character from English literature and why?
By Nicholas Hall, First Runner-up of the Connell Guides Essay Prize 2016
Brenda Last is not a clockwork mouse. From her first haughty, dispassionate “Kiss” to her crushing societal demise, Waugh baptises his authorial turning point from satire to realism with an anti-hero worthy of the title. Tossed headfirst into the dark heart of post-depression England, the reader bears witness as literary tradition is dismantled upon the page; the redundant cogs and tarnished gears of Aristotle and Epicurus broken down into a “heap of broken images,” squeaking, wheezing accessories of nobility’s expired narrative; left to wind down in the beating sun of a moral wasteland. The poisoned landscape of British high society pines for a new idol, and Waugh divulges one such in a bored aristocrat confined by a loveless marriage, hungering for havoc, for catharsis. ‘A Handful of Dust’ is anarchic tragedy at its most devastatingly human, a twisting, oozing, black vortex with Brenda, and all her destructive hauteur, smouldering at its epicentre.
Waugh stages Hetton, a sprawling Gothic revivalist mass of trapped history, presided over by the feckless Tony Last, as the battleground between past and modernity, the chaos of cyclical heritage and the greater chaos of industrial and societal progress represented by Brenda. Tony’s one true spouse is his inheritance; Brenda can only survey from the side-lines as Tony becomes increasingly absorbed in a tragic waltz with his roots. From her disillusionment Brenda cultivates a restlessness, recoiling from the phantoms of ‘Plato’s cave’ and eager to expand beyond its four walls:
‘Well,’ she asked, without looking up from her needlework, ‘what did you think of it?’
‘You don’t have to say that me, you know.’
‘Well, a lot of the things are very fine.’
‘Yes, the things are alright, I suppose.’
‘But don’t you like the house?’
‘Me? I detest it … at least I don’t mean that really, but I do wish sometimes that it wasn’t all, every bit of it, so appallingly ugly.’
TS Eliot’s grotesque prophecy of the ‘red rock’ comes to fruition through the eyes of Brenda, whose flirtation with the moral redundancy of contemporary society awakens her to the fraudulent projections of a false world perpetuated by human legacy. Civilisation is but a shadow upon the wall, housed and preserved by the dark interiors of our own naivety. For Tony, his heritage is a rock, the most profound sticking point atop of which his whole ‘Gothic World’ is founded, and when it finally falls away from his feet the extent of his delusions become frighteningly apparent: ‘There was now no armour glittering through the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the green sward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled …’
As Brenda braves the rubble of a shattered illusion, abandoned by those whom she sought to control, Tony becomes further and further removed from reality, desperate to fasten his dream of Hetton to something material, only to wander deeper into the jungle, lost and without means of navigating a broken new world. The image of the ‘Lost City’ is rebuilt in Tony’s mind as ‘a transfigured Hetton ... everything luminous and translucent; a coral citadel crowning a green hill top sewn with daisies’. Seized by delirium, civilisation warps and twists before his eyes. “Gilded cupolas and spires of alabaster” seem to materialise over the primitive mud huts of the Pie-Wie settlement, reality and desire melting into one continuous, unravelling “white collar” haze. We are only able to look on as internal and external truths become absolved of all distinction. One remembers the words of Okello the slave from ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ as he hallucinates, feverish, upon a drifting raft: “That is no ship. That is no forest. That is no arrow. We just imagine the arrows because we fear them.’
Beyond the pointed arches and latticework of Plato’s Cave, the wasteland finds a host in John Beaver, the “Lack of Something”, a man whose conceit and vacuous ambition serve not only as a reflection of our hero, but also as the vehicle for Brenda’s sexual awakening; a process that is not granted but instigated herself:
Brenda wished him to make love to her. But he decided it was time she took the lead. So he sat at a distance from her and commented on an old house that was being demolished to make way for a block of flats.
“Shut up,” said Brenda. “Come here.”
For as long as she is permitted, Brenda seeks to dominate Beaver, feeding him social advances to keep him compliant: “Men treated him as an equal…a successful male competitor.” The masculine ego is a construct that Brenda trusts she can manipulate, though few could manage to come across as contrived and schoolmasterly in doing so than she, as Beaver evaluates: “You are one for making people learn things.” These subtle hints at an underlying vulnerability to Brenda provoke less pity than a certain admiration for her reckless pioneering spirit. She is not omnipotent, her experience has limits, and as a consequence of these downplayed weaknesses, we are able to establish human connections, to see ourselves reflected in her setbacks.
Through Brenda, Waugh grants us a deeper understanding of how these early avatars of feminism served as a vital stepping stone to contemporary interpretation. Female literary archetypes unite in an evolutionary timeline stretching from Anna Karenina to the contemporary feminism embodied by such characters as Lisbet Salander. A motif of natural selection threads these characters together, a process of trial and error advanced through the failures of the former: Anna is deceived by love, diminished by childbirth to the role of a vessel, and objectified by her husband’s piety; Daisy Buchanan, symbolic of the “youth that wealth imprisons and preserves”, recedes back into her husband’s control when Gatsby threatens her security, returning obediently to the role of caged songbird. Brenda suffers a different fate.
Contrary to Tolstoy’s fallen aristocrat, Brenda is not ‘robbed of life’: she thrives. Rather than surrender to objectification, she finds aspects to objectify in others: “She twists the ring on his finger, adjusting her plaything.” When notified of the death of her son John Andrew, she assumes an apathy as poignant as it is repellent: “John…John Andrew…I… oh, thank God…’ Then she burst into tears.’ With these lines Brenda becomes the latest disciple of a Misopaedist tradition, initiated with Epicurus’ Medea, and preserved by Shakespeare in the serpentine words of Lady Macbeth:
“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out.”
As Tony grows sluggish, reduced to ‘racing spilt coffee down the station steps’, Brenda gathers pace, a faithful agent of the speeding societal change. The ‘handful of dust’ is not an omen of death, but rather the ‘triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life’ testified to by Josef Conrad in ‘Youth’ and fleetingly realised in Brenda. The couple and their estrangement in character gains new emphasis through the passivity of one and the aggression of the other. Tony hoards; Brenda discards. For Tony, comfort is to be found in ‘The Museum’ of his possessions, ‘the fruits of a dozen desultory hobbies’. He is the self-professed casualty of progress, a prisoner of the past, symbolised by his Dickens-themed incarceration at the hands of the sinister Mr Todd. It is in his passivity that he meets his demise, drugged and ‘sleeping’ on his salvation as the search party returns to England with news of his death.
The autonomy is incomplete, and in its incompleteness it earns a tragic status. When the divorce settlement falls through, Brenda is spurned by Beaver, now grown comfortable in his social standing. She is left with no choice but to return to the patriarchal institution of marriage, a resubmission to the masculine ego the only means of procuring her freedom. Like those who came before, the Daisy Buchanans, the Anna Kareninas, Brenda fails; but now, we can say that something has changed. Progress has been made. Brenda’s peripeteia is not the consequence of mistake or personal deficiency: it is imposed upon her by the inadequacies of the world in which she lives. Brenda craved liberation, vision, a voice, movement- all of which she was denied. Yet she was not without success. Brenda Last and other modern female anti-heroes carved their own trace, a raw and volatile brand of early, aggressive feminism without which we would have lost an entire generation of inspiring female protagonists. Indeed, Brenda Last is not a clockwork mouse, she is a woman with a manifesto; but that’s not all: she is also appalling, unbearable in every sense of the word, and it is through her ability to pander to that mischievous corner of the human psyche that appreciates the cruel, the amoral, and the misled that she has fascinated, intrigued and revolted me ever since our first meeting.