When the exam results come out in August every year, do your thoughts go back to the Leaving Cert novels? Mine certainly do. While I loved English at school, like most of my classmates, I found the Leaving Cert novels difficult to appreciate. They were “study” and “study” was something to endure, not enjoy.
Seven Leaving cert novels
As far as I can remember, the seven novels on the syllabus at the time were:
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
- What Maisie Knew by Henry James
- The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
- A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
A few years ago, I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and came to the conclusion that our class of 16 and 17 year-olds were too young to appreciate it. Similarly, reading The Great Gatsby as an adult is more rewarding than reading it at school. And what’s true of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, is even more true of Evelyn Waugh.
A Handful of Dust
Re-reading A Handful of Dust this week, I’m surprised that it was on the syllabus. Perhaps we were a sheltered bunch but my classmates and I certainly didn’t have enough life experience to appreciate Waugh’s cynicism and satire. Nor had we the knowledge to understand the references to the decadence and decay of the years between the first and second world wars.
In case you need a reminder of the story, A Handful of Dust is about a married society couple — Tony and Brenda Last. They live in Tony’s family home, Hetton Abbey. Tony loves the house and estate but Brenda wants distraction. She finds it when she embarks on an affair with the dislikable John Beaver. When the Lasts’ marriage breaks down, divorce is on the cards — a society divorce in the style of the period.
Satirical, bitter and funny, A Handful of Dust is rich with literary references. The theme is the disintegration of society. Waugh first published the novel in the 1930s. I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition which has an introduction, footnotes and an alternative ending. The footnotes in the first chapter or two of this edition are distracting but there are fewer notes as the novel progresses and it quickly becomes an absorbing read.
Perhaps the point of enduring those Leaving Cert novels at school is the pleasure of enjoying them later when you have the maturity to appreciate them more.