A Sad Tale’s Best for Waugh-ton

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Long time no blog post, and the reason for my recent silence is that when I’m not writing about Muriel Spark, I work in university administration, and we’ve just been through our Undergraduate Examinations Boards. If I had access to a font that could render the words ‘Examinations Boards’ in a typeface that looked as if it were made up of blood, sweat and tears, believe me, I would have used it right there. There was certainly a lot of sweat; quite a few tears dribbled out before I could stop them; and given the number of papercuts I inflicted on myself whilst sifting through piles of undergraduate essays, marksheets, moderation reports, and so on and so on, I can truthfully say there was also a certain amount of blood.

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However, it’s all over bar the shouting now, so I’ve been catching up with a few old friends this weekend: my laundry basket, for example; my long-neglected oboe; and, as you can see, my blog. Today I’d like to write about a couple of books I’ve read recently, The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton and A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Now, I’ve lumped these books together because they contain scenes of a similar nature: a married couple seeking a divorce organise a ‘clandestine’ meeting between the male partner and another woman, who is paid for her services. This meeting, however, is witnessed by paid detectives and documented accordingly. Arrangements of this kind were made prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937. Before this legislation, it was possible for a man to divorce a woman on the basis that she had committed adultery, but women were required to provide proof of the man’s adultery, hence the need for a make-believe assignation. In Wharton’s novel, Nick and Susy’s marriage appears initially to have broken down because Priggish Nick can’t get off his sanctimonious high horse; Lady Brenda is the adulterous party in Waugh’s novel, but an aristocratic divorce would almost certainly have made it into the papers in the early 1930s, so an assignation would have been staged to salvage whatever was left of Brenda’s reputation thereby allowing her to continue to move in the higher social circles.

Nick Lansing in the Wharton novel never does meet with his mystery woman at Fontainebleau: he comes back for Susy instead. And once again, I find myself wanting to rewrite the ending of a novel. Wharton does sad endings so well, you see. I blubbed at The House of Mirth and howled over The Age of Innocence. I am still devastated by Ethan Frome, which has to be The Saddest Book I Have Ever Read Ever. And I think Glimpses would have been a much better book if Susy had married Streffy and Nick had come to his senses too late. There’s a lovely little tragic ending for you, right there. But oh no – Susy deserts Streffy and then comes over all Won’t Someone Think Of The Children, and it’s just nauseating, frankly. I preferred her when she was an unscrupulous scrounger. She was more fun.

The picture below shows a scene from the musical of Glimpses(!!), although I can’t tell what’s going on. It looks like Nick and (I’m guessing) Cora warbling excitedly over a shard of some sort of pot.

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I’m afraid A Handful of Dust also proved to be unsatisfactory. It was all going really well until Waugh sent Tony off to Brazil, and then I wondered whether I’d picked up the wrong book by mistake – what’s this? Where’s everyone gone? Why is Tony in Brazil? What the chuff is going on? Waugh apparently finished his novel by Sellotaping one of his short stories on to the end, so it really is a book of two halves and the first half is infinitely superior. The novel’s ending was rewritten for publication in the States (because the short story had already appeared there), and while the alternative ending is a better fit, I just don’t believe in Tony’s implied affair with Viola Chasm. The whole thing is a great shame, because I was really enjoying the novel up until the Brazil bit, and I even got all emotional about the death of poor little John Andrew. Immediately once I’d read that part, I texted a friend to tell him that I would never forgive Brenda Last for that ‘oh thank God’. I don’t care what happens to her now, I said. She can die in the gutter for caring more about her feckless namby-pamby lover than her own little boy, I said.

The picture below shows the divine and effortlessly beautiful Kristen Scott-Thomas as Brenda Last.

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Well, there you have it. The lessons here, my friends, are: (1) stick to what you’re good at (sad endings); and (2) don’t pack your hero off to die in Brazil just as things are getting really interesting at home.

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