Tony Last (the Last is significant) clings to his image and his station in England between the World Wars. He’s the current head of a Gothic style country manor (Hetton Abbey) and while there’s not really enough money to keep it up properly and live, he makes do by cutting corners. By preferring to stay in the country for instance, rather than travel to London for its pleasures. His wife Brenda, increasingly bored with their way of life, has other ideas. She takes a flat in London. She takes a lover in London. Her lover turns out to be a ne’er-do-well called Beaver (John Beaver), who still lives with his mother, who runs her own decorating business. Beaver has no occupation at all. He’s a professional gigolo, who nobody much likes.
Waugh’s novel is a satire on both the landed gentry represented by Tony Last and the emergent middle class as represented by John Beaver – and especially his mother Mrs. Beaver. The sudden death of the Last’s young son John in a riding accident, is the impetus for Brenda to leave her husband and permanently move to London, seeking a divorce. When a divorce cannot be agreed upon, Tony Last takes off for the tropics. On board, he meets an explorer named Dr. Messinger and decides to accompany him to British Guiana.
The novel has two endings – the intended one and an alternate. But more on that later.
Tony is all about tradition, and its preservation. This leaves little room for human understanding. Tony loves Brenda, but does not “care” for her. He’s too busy caring for his estate. When their son is killed, it takes some time to get the news to Brenda. When she is finely told that “John” has been killed in an accident, she at first thinks that the John is Beaver, even though no one ever calls him by that name. When she quickly realizes her mistake, she utters a “Thank God” and then breaks down in tears as she realizes the implications of what she has just said. It’s a stunning moment. But some of the best moments come with Tony in the jungle, and his fever dreams from malaria. Messinger has drowned, and Tony wanders aimlessly in a halluinatory state. Spliced between these scenes, there are moments of Brenda in society, although fallen from a great height. Tony ends up at a remote camp headed by a Mr. Todd. Todd cannot read himself, but is addicted to the works of Charles Dickens, of which he has a complete set. Soon it is clear that Tony is the prisoner of Todd, destined to read and reread Dickens for eternity.
This ending is the one that was the original, from an earlier Waugh short story called “The Man Who Liked Dickens”. Too bleak, the American publishers said, and an “alternate” ending was written for the American release. In the Modern Library edition (which I read), both are included – the alternate ending as an appendix. I much prefer the prisoner in the jungle ending, rather than the eventual return to England of Tony, and the resumption of his marriage to Brenda – both chastened and wiser. William Boyd, in the introduction to this edition, has the opposite opinion. He makes a good case, but I have my own druthers.
This is a remarkable book, rightly on the Modern Library list of the top 100 (#34)
A vintage 1952 radio play of the short story can be found here.