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Mrs. Beaver

It is fitting that Waugh should begin his novel ‘A Handful of Dust’ by introducing his readers to the characters of Mrs. Beaver and her son John. Although in terms of the amount of text devoted to Mrs. Beaver she appears, at first, to be a minor character, she is, in fact, in many ways central to the story. Her presence throughout the novel acts as a catalyst to many of the events which affect Tony Last, an evil spirit dominating the hero’s life, while at the same time symbolizing the modern vulgarity, debased morality and self-interest of the “savages at home” which Waugh seeks to paint using ironic and satirical hues.In this initial chapter the reader is introduced to most of the main characters, including the Lasts by way of the opinions of Mrs. Beaver and her son. Waugh’s favoured revelation of character through speech and dialogue is immediately apparent in Mrs. Beaver’s account of a recent fire. She is revealed as an insensitive, ruthless woman who is quick to exploit other people’s misfortunes. The ironic reversal of value and expectation in her comment on the fact that “no-one was hurt except two housemaids…..the fire never reached the bedrooms, I am afraid” is an indicator of Waugh’s intentions to take an ironic detached look at human behaviour in general and of upper class society in London at that time in particular.This ruthless exploitation of people is further seen in Mrs. Beaver’s treatment of her staff who paid her for the privilege of working in the damp and cold, ‘handling the crates like a man’ and being promised advancement which she had no intention of fulfilling as neither had ‘enough chic to work upstairs’. This materialistic attitude and judgment of people purely in terms of their financial and social standing is apparent in her comments on the amount of money owed to her by the various characters which are mentioned, such as the American who hadn’t ‘paid for the toile-de-jouy chair covers’ or the Lasts themselves. Her insolence in approaching the gardener at Hetton without her hosts’ knowledge to get his cuttings through her is another example of her avarice.Indeed, Mrs. Beaver continues to exploit the calamity that has befallen other people throughout the novel, particularly Tony’s personal tragedy. It is she who arranges to supply Brenda with the means by which she can conduct her adulterous affair by supplying a flat in her recently remodeled premises. Flats which appear to have been developed for this express purpose considering the limited amount of furniture, a chair ‘unused’, and the fact that most of the purchasers had ‘houses in London already’. This should not come as a surprise considering the lack of morality displayed in the attitudes to adultery of many of the debased members of that society, including Mrs. Beaver.She actually encourages the relationship between Brenda and her son, taking a certain pride in the fact that she may have actually instigated it when she chose to absent herself at an opportune moment. She thinks ‘it will do the boy a world of good’. Self-interest is at the heart of this decision as she hopes that a relationship with the well-connected and seemingly wealthy Lady Last would benefit her son’s as well as her own standing in society, not to mention her business interests. She grasps any opportunity to add to her wealth, offering for sale to Brenda a plethora of objects to install in the tiny love nest.We learn that both mother and son are obsessed with money and have no shame in taking advantage of any situation which is presented to improve their finances or social ambitions. So both accept that John is invited to society events merely because of his availability and his mother advises him to send a telegram to confirm his visit to Hetton rather than telephoning to ‘give them less chance to make excuses’. We later discover that many of the social events, central to the plot of the novel and instigated by Mrs. Beaver, offer some hidden financial reward, such as the promise of work in refurbishing Daisy’s restaurant or the commission taken from the clairvoyant.In the same way, once it becomes apparent that Tony is not going to divorce Brenda and that there is little chance of John gaining any benefit financially or in terms of his status as Brenda’s circumstances are now much reduced, she is quick to try to extricate herself and her son from the situation by arranging for them both to take a trip to America. The dependency of John on his ‘mumsy’ highlights both the weakness and passivity of his character and the controlling influence of his mother. She only laments the breakup of the Last’s marriage in commercial terms as ‘her workmen had been sent back from Hetton with their job unfinished’.Waugh uses Mrs. Beaver to show us a world of moral and spiritual emptiness in which people are lacking in any real purpose, simply drifting. Mrs. Beaver finds Tony boring, as do, we learn, the rest of the fashionable London set. He is not interested in the pursuit of pleasure and entertainment like her son and the rest of the heterogeneous crowd we are introduced to during the course of the novel so is considered a ‘prig’.Nor is he interested in the pursuit of fashion preferring the neo-gothic Hetton to remain as it was rather than be chromium-plated to fit in with the latest fashion and provide Mrs. Beaver with yet another opportunity to accumulate wealth.In her visit to Hetton on this mission Mrs. Beaver serves to represent the opposition of the two worlds, London and Hetton, revealing the artificiality and moral inadequacy of fashionable London society and the fate of an innocent victim suffering at the hands of a so-called polite and civilised society. The incompatibility of chromium plating and neo-gothic architecture and her insensitivity and disregard for Tony’s sense of tradition symbolises this invasion of Tony’s world by the world of London, his life and marriage destroyed by it. Mrs. Beaver exemplifies the death of all ideals of beauty and love at the hands of modern vulgarity.It is only in his delirium that Tony realises the truth about the cruelty of people under the thin surface of polite and civilised behaviour as he warns not to ‘let Mrs. Beaver see it (the mythical city) or she will cover it with chromium plating’ and convert it into flats – just as Mrs. Beaver’s flats had a veneer of respectability in the first flight of marble stairs which quickly changed to the faded carpet which had been left behind. Perhaps one of the few instances of rightful justice is that at the end of the novel the heirs to Hetton thwart Mrs. Beaver’s commercial ambitions in rejecting her plans for refurbishment and her offer to arrange for the building of Tony’s memorial.Nevertheless, it was Mrs. Beaver who had suggested the memorial, claiming that she would know what Tony would have liked as she was one of his closest friends. The irony continues to the end. She has been present from beginning to end, exploiting the personal disasters of Tony’s life as well as the circumstances of his presumed death so that the circular structure of the novel can be clearly seen through her presence. She has foreshadowed many of the events, beginning with her appraisal of Brenda and Tony’s marriage, ‘I should say it was time she began to get bored’, and made the observation that many thought that Brenda and Jock would marry. This, as with many of her cynical predictions, comes true. Although there is little authorial description in the novel, Waugh’s portrayal of Mrs. Beaver in her behaviour and dialogue is successful in not only realistically presenting her as a character but in offering perceptive comment on certain aspects of modern society at that time.

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