South American journey
In 1932 Waugh embarked on an extended voyage to South America. His decision to absent himself may have been a reaction to his increasingly complicated emotional life; while his passion for Teresa Jungman remained unrequited, he was involved in various unsatisfactory casual sexual liaisons, and was himself being pursued by the much older Hazel Lavery. The choice of South America was probably influenced by Peter Fleming, the literary editor of The Spectator. Fleming had recently returned from an expedition to Brazil seeking traces of Colonel Percy Fawcett who, in 1925, had disappeared in Brazil while searching for a fabled lost city.
Having seen Black Mischief launched to mixed but generally favourable critical comment (Oldmeadow's intervention was not immediate), Waugh sailed from Tilbury on 2 December 1932. He arrived in British Guiana on 23 December, and after some days of indecision opted to accompany Mr Haynes, the district commissioner for Rupununi, on a journey into the interior. He hoped that he might reach Manaus, a large city deep within the Brazilian jungle, but transport proved unreliable, and he got no further than the border town of Boa Vista. On the way, at one of his overnight stopping points, he encountered Mr Christie, an elderly mixed-race settler who greeted him with: "I was expecting you. I was warned in a vision of your approach". The two enjoyed an agreeable dinner together, where Christie talked of the "Fifth Kingdom" (a biblical prophecy from the Book of Daniel). He told Waugh that he had seen the entire gathering of the saints in heaven—surprisingly few, he said—but could not count them because they were incorporeal. Waugh added Christie to his "treasury of eccentrics", set aside for future literary use.
"The Man Who Liked Dickens"
Waugh arrived at Boa Vista on 4 February 1933, to find no boats available to take him on to Manaus. Days of inactivity and boredom followed, with "nothing to read except some lives of the Saints in French and Boussuet's sermons". Waugh passed some of the time by writing a short story; although not identified in the diaries, this story has been generally accepted as "The Man Who Liked Dickens".[n 1] Apart from using different names and some minor details this story is the same as the episode that Waugh later used as the climax to A Handful of Dust: an elderly settler (modelled in manner, speech and appearance on Christie), rescues and holds captive a lost explorer and requires him to read aloud the novels of Dickens, in perpetuity. The story was published in 1933, in America in Hearst's International–Cosmopolitan, and in Britain in Nash's Pall Mall Magazine. In an article written many years later, Waugh explained how the story became the basis for his next novel: "The idea [for the short story] came quite naturally from the experience of visiting a lonely settler [Christie] ... and reflecting how easily he could hold me prisoner. Then, after the short story was written and published, the idea kept working in my mind. I wanted to discover how the prisoner got there, and eventually the thing grew into a study of other sorts of savage at home and the civilized man’s helpless plight among them."
Writing and title history
On his return to England in May 1933, Waugh, short of cash, had to complete numerous writing commitments before he could begin work on the projected novel. In October–November he wrote his account of the South American journey, which he called Ninety-two Days. He then went to Fez in Morocco, to begin the novel in warmth and solitude. In January he wrote to Mary Lygon, reporting that he had written 18,500 words of "my filthy novel", and later he told Katharine Asquith: "I have just killed a little boy at a lawn meet and made his mother commit adultery ... so perhaps you won't like it after all". By 10 February he had reached the half-way point—45,000 words—but was uncertain about how the story should proceed, and returned to England at the end of February with most of the second half unwritten. He finished the book at the Easton Court Hotel at Chagford, in Devon, a regular retreat that he used when completing writing projects. By mid-April the book was with his publishers, Chapman & Hall, and Waugh was busy correcting the proofs.
Waugh's agent A. D. Peters sold the pre-publication serialisation rights to the American monthly magazine Harper's Bazaar. Because the "Mr Todd" episode had been published as a short story the previous year, for the purposes of the serialisation Waugh provided an alternative ending. In this, the whole Brazilian adventure was replaced by a brief coda, in which Tony returns from a luxury cruise to be greeted by a chastened Brenda asking to be taken back. Tony agrees, but the balance of the relationship has shifted and, unknown to her, he decides to keep her London flat for his own purposes. Waugh's biographer Selena Hastings describes this ending as "artistically far more complementary" than that used in the book version; an earlier biographer, Christopher Sykes maintained that had this alternative been the original, the novel would not have acquired its later distinction.
In March 1933 Waugh wrote to Peters from Chagford to say that he intended to call the novel A Handful of Ashes. This title was disliked by Harpers; an alternative, Fourth Decade, was also considered and rejected. Finally, the story was serialised under the title A Flat in London, and the chosen book title was A Handful of Dust—taken from a line in T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust". The line is within the section of the poem entitled "The Burial of the Dead", which depicts a comfortless, lifeless land of desert and rubble, reflecting the empty moral ambience of the novel.[n 2] The title phrase had been used earlier by Tennyson in this bleak sense in Maud: "Long dead! And my heart is a handful of dust," and even earlier by John Donne.