When we think of the young Evelyn Waugh the image immediately conjured is that of a Twenties swell, brightest of the Bright Young Things, racketing about Oxford and London with the likes of Harold Acton and Brian Howard, knocking off policemen’s helmets and permanently tight on champagne. It is somewhat startling, then, to come upon the fact that in 1927 he enrolled in a carpentry course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Bloomsbury. He was then aged twenty-four and at a loss about what to do with his life, having failed in journalism—he was sacked from the Daily Express after three months there—and as a schoolteacher. He had written a book, Rossetti: His Life and Works, which would be published the following year, but as his biographer Selina Hastings points out, he “still… thought of himself as a painter and craftsman first, a writer second.”1 It was natural for him, therefore, to determine on a career as a cabinet-maker.2 Years later, when he was an established novelist with a worldwide reputation, his mother wistfully expressed the opinion that he would have done better to stick to his saw and wood-plane, since “furniture is so useful….”
Indeed, a dedication to utility was one of the chief virtues of the Waugh clan through the generations; not for nothing was the family motto industria ditat (“work enriches”). However, the word “waugh,” as Alexander of that ilk informs us in his breezily irreverent “Autobiography of a Family,” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “tasteless, insipid; unpleasant to the smell or taste, sickly, faint, weak, etc.,” while as a noun it is “an exclamation indicating grief, indignation or the like. Now chiefly as attributed to N. American Indians and other savages.”3 However, the fabulist and professor of English language at Oxford J.R.R. Tolkien assured Alexander’s father, Auberon, that “waugh” is the singular of “Wales” and means a Welsh person. “Papa,” Alexander writes, “gleefully told this story to Diana, Princess of Wales, but to his dismay she didn’t appear to understand it.”
According to Alexander, the Waughs can trace their lineage back at least to the seventeenth century, when they were farmers at East Gordon on the Scottish Borders—“I suspect they ate their porridge with their fingers”—and despite popular misconception, based chiefly on Brideshead Revisited with its lush and lordly overtones, they remained solidly middle-class, of yeoman stock. True, Evelyn married into the lower end of the aristocracy. His widowed mother-in-law was the only daughter of the fourth Lord de Vesci, whose family seat was at Abbeyleix in Ireland—her own house, the sprawling, ramshackle Pixton Park in Somerset, was the model for Boot Magna in Evelyn’s great comic novel Scoop. Evelyn is often thought of as an unregenerate snob, and his son Auberon in his journalism was certainly a scourge of what used to be called the working class, but neither entertained pretensions above their station—all the writing Waughs, and there have been many of them, took pride in the fact that what wealth they enjoyed was got by trade and not inherited.
Although the family tree that forms a frontispiece to Fathers and Sons begins with the author’s great-great-grandfather and namesake, Dr. Alexander Waugh (1840–1906), known in the family annals as “The Brute,” the book is essentially an act of filial piety. It begins with a telephone call early on the morning of January 17, 2001, informing Alexander of the death of his father, Auberon, at Combe Florey, the house he had inherited from Evelyn and where he had lived blissfully with his wife and children for most of his adult life. The male Waughs are cool customers in the main, and Alexander is no exception. “Quivering with excitement,” he tells us, he rushed to Combe Florey, where the previous evening he and his father had conducted their final, brief conversation. “‘Everything is going to be dandy,’ Papa had insisted, as he lay uncomfortable and bemused with the skids well underneath him. ‘Isn’t life grand?'”
Contemplating the “gruesome remnant” of his father—“open mouth, closed eyes; face a tobacco-stain yellow”—the son seems more baffled than bereft. “Now what? I wondered. A prayer? Should I speak to the corpse? Am I supposed to touch it?” He is aware, too, of the temptation on such occasions to fall into sentimentality—defined by his father, he tells us, as “the exact measure of a person’s inability to experience genuine feeling”—and approvingly quotes Nietzsche on the bathos of so many deathbed scenes: “Almost everyone is tempted by the solemn bearing of the bystanders, the streams of tears, the feelings held back or let flow, into a now conscious, now unconscious comedy of vanity.” Yes, cool customers.
Alexander Waugh was born in 1963, and literature was in his blood, as it was in that of so many of the Waughs—his great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father, and his father’s brother were professional writers, and his mother, Teresa, is a novelist. He is, according to a biographical note, “a publisher, a cartoonist and an illustrator,” and composed the music for a stage musical, Bon Voyage! He has been an opera critic at the Mail on Sunday and the London Evening Standard, has written a number of books on music, and, ascending ever higher, produced in 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, a surely timely book called Time and, in 2002, one called God. He seems a living refutation of Ben Jonson’s contention, quoted in the opening pages of Fathers and Sons: “Greatness of name in the father often-times overwhelms the son; they stand too near one another. The shadow kills the growth.” He acknowledges that “nobody is free from the influence of those who have brought them up4 and every son who has whiled his youth at his father’s table subconsciously emulates him,” but why, he wonders, should a son be thought to stand in the shadow of an illustrious father—“why not call it his ‘radiating light’?”
Yet the theme of the book is as often dark as it is radiant. The relationships between the various Waugh fathers and sons were fond, difficult, loving, resentful, and, in some cases, deeply troubled. For this we have not only Alexander’s evidence, but Evelyn’s and Auberon’s as well. In his unfinished autobiography, the first volume of which, A Little Learning, ends with a typically farcical account of an attempted suicide when he was in his mid-twenties, Evelyn devotes a chapter to his father in which the self-imposed restraint in the authorial voice is unmistakable—“He never wrote anything discreditable. Nor did he, except very rarely, write anything memorable”5—while Auberon, in his autobiography, Will This Do?, wrote an account of the aftermath of his father’s death in the lavatory of Combe Florey that was to become infamous and a stick for his many enemies to beat him with:
The night of his death there was a fire in the house. Somebody had left a door of the Aga in the old kitchen open, and it became red hot, setting various other things alight. Firemen tramped through the house, squirting things, before being given glasses of Guinness and sent away. On arrival, I had noticed a small pile of excrement on the carpet outside the downstairs lavatory. Others must have noticed it too, but, being Waughs, they all pretended not to have done so until the daily help arrived, when it vanished without anything being said.6
The daddy of them all, as it were, is the nineteenth-century Alexander Waugh, a man about whom no one, it seems, ever had a good word to say. His descendants dubbed him “The Brute,” the present Alexander writes, “partly to distinguish him from an earlier Dr. Alexander Waugh nicknamed ‘The Great and Good,’ and partly in fair recognition of his most repulsive attributes.” The brutish Alexander was a country doctor in the huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ mold, yet managed to invent an obstetric device, alarmingly called “Waugh’s Long Fine Dissecting Forceps”—“I shudder to think how they worked,” his great-great-grandson remarks—which was in use for many years after his death. When the word “sadist” was first explained to the Brute’s son Arthur, he nodded and said, “Ah, that is what my father must have been.”
Arthur, Evelyn’s father, was diligent, hard-working, excitable, asthmatic, and ineffably silly. He was an indifferent writer and a cautious though reasonably successful publisher. In the year that Evelyn was born Arthur was offered and accepted the position of managing director of Chapman & Hall, “at that time an august but somewhat decrepit firm,” as Evelyn described it, though he continued to publish there throughout his life. Arthur had an enduring though, it would seem, entirely innocent fondness for very young women, preferably mounted on bicycles, and a great enthusiasm for amateur theatricals. He loved to read aloud to the family of an evening, acting out the parts in Dickens7—the actress Ellen Terry referred to him, to his delight, as “that dear little Mr Pickwick”—which embarrassed and enraged the adolescent Evelyn, already possessed of that gimlet eye that later would make him such a cruel and irresistibly comic recorder of human foibles. In A Little Learning he wrote:
My father’s most obvious characteristic was theatricality, but I did not become conscious of this until it was pointed out to me at the age of sixteen by the first adult visitor I introduced into the house…. This friend said to me, “Charming, entirely charming, and acting all the time.” When I consulted her, my mother confirmed this judgement. My eyes were opened and I saw him, whom I had grown up to accept in complete simplicity, as he must always have appeared to others.
Although we know relatively little about Evelyn’s mother,8 she seems to have been a formidable figure, in her way. Her maiden name was Raban, and the family may have been, in Alexander’s phrase, “anciently Jewish,” but had been Christian for at least five generations. (Their descendant, the writer Jonathan Raban, says they were episcopal clergymen from the sixteenth century on.) Her great-grandson writes of her, “Adored by all who met her, she was a stoic, the humble backbone of Underhill [the Waughs’ family home]; aloof, quiet and undemonstrative, she acted as a sponge to Arthur’s loquacious theatricality.” As a small boy Evelyn adored her, and in A Little Learning wrote that “in my earliest days I regarded him [his father] as an intruder. At the height of the day’s pleasure his key would turn in the front door and his voice would rise from the hall: ‘Kay! Kay! Where’s my wife?’ and that was the end of my mother’s company for the evening.” It would seem, however, that the son’s adoration for the mother was not entirely reciprocated, and that she, like her husband, preferred her elder son, Alec.
Arthur’s passion for Alec verged on the indecent. Despite what Alexander describes as the undersized boy’s “clicking mouth and simian posture,” Alec’s father simply adored him. When Alec was sent to Sherborne, Arthur’s beloved old school, Arthur wrote to him every day and waited for his replies, Alexander writes, “in the palpitating manner of a teenage paramour.” Conceive of the father’s shock and despair, then, to learn that his boy had been caught in flagrante delicto with a fellow pupil, though what exactly the two had been up to is not clear, except that it was classed as “smut,” and that the rest of the school was instructed to have nothing to do with the “dirty little beast” Alec Waugh.
It is ironic that Alec should have been expelled from school for homosexual practices, if that is what they were, given that throughout his adult life he dedicated much of his time and most of his energies to seducing women. Alexander writes that
until the day he died, Alec led the life of an eager and adroit womaniser. I think he was an erotomaniac. In “periods of chastity” he paid for sex or would find a blue movie. In 1930 Evelyn wrote to his agent: “Alec goes to an indecent cinema every day.” In old age, living in New York, he ventured out each morning in his outsized sable-lined, high collar coat, heading for the old Hudson Theater on West 44th Street to enjoy an hour or two of hardcore pornography after breakfast.
By that stage of his life Alec was quite rich, having scored a hit with a torrid novel set in the Caribbean, Island in the Sun, which was made into a successful movie. He had worked hard for his success. After a brief succès de scandale with The Loom of Youth, an autobiographical novel he wrote when he was nineteen, he spent decades churning out potboilers, for scant return. He had, he said, “no illusions about the quality of my work. I know myself to be a very minor writer.”
From early on, with the publication of Evelyn’s first novel, Decline and Fall, Alec clearly recognized, and warmly acknowledged, his brother’s genius. In 1951 he wrote to his mother, “Do you quite realise mother dear (I wonder if any of us do quite) how considerable a contribution Evelyn has made to the culture of his day, and how much honour he has brought to the name of Waugh?” Evelyn, in his turn, was fond of his brother, and amused by his amatory exploits, which included, at the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, his love for
a six foot two giantess [one Joan Duff] whose large bosoms bounced about on a level with his eyes when they danced together…. Alec danced unselfconsciously with his face buried in her chest. He loved her black wavy hair, her blue eyes, her strong hairy arms and her deep basso voice…. “Talking to her on the telephone was a date,” he used to say.
Evelyn’s relations with women were of an entirely different order from those of his incorrigibly randy and light-hearted brother. His first marriage, at the age of twenty-four, to Evelyn Gardner, known as She-Evelyn to his He-Evelyn, ended in disaster shortly after it had begun, when She-Evelyn, who “got engaged as easily as other girls bought hats,” confessed to an affair with one of the couple’s closest friends, John Heygate.9 Waugh was devastated, and probably never fully recovered from the shock and humiliation he suffered by his wife’s betrayal. The flighty and heedlessly destructive woman is a constantly recurring figure in Waugh’s fiction, from the egregious Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust to Guy Crouchback’s chronically unfaithful wife Virginia in the Sword of Honour trilogy. It is probably too deterministic to suggest that this wound soured his life, but certainly he became increasingly embittered and prone to accidie as the years went on. It is ironic that on his conversion to Catholicism in 1930 he chose a religion in which despair is singled out as one of the gravest sins.
His son Auberon made no bones about the relief that he felt when his father died. Arriving home one day,
I found a policeman waiting outside the door with a long face. Was I Auberon Alexander Waugh of this address? For a terrible moment, I thought that something had happened to the children, left behind with Lolita [the child minder] who still spoke no English. It came as a conscious relief when he said that my father had died suddenly in Somerset.10
Auberon’s relations with his parents were even more fraught than his father’s with his. Near the start of his autobiography he quotes a passage from Evelyn’s diaries, where he writes on November 13, 1943, a few days short of Auberon’s birthday, about the danger of V-2 rockets landing on London, which had led him to move his books from the capital to his house in the country, while directing that his son should be brought to London. The logic he adduces for this exchange is “that a child is easily replaced, while a book destroyed is utterly lost….” Auberon admits, “in fairness,” that “at this stage” the indifference between the father and his children was reciprocated, and that for his part he would gladly have swapped his Daddy for a toy whistle.11 Yet he honors, even reveres, this monstrous parent,12 recognizing how unhappy and self-hating he was, and also how funny and even, on occasion, endearing.
For his father, Auberon writes, “the main purpose of human association was to share enjoyment of the world’s absurdity.” He might have said the same of himself. Although not as lavishly talented as Evelyn, Auberon was one of the funniest writers of his time. The novels that he composed early in his life are elegant entertainments with something of his father’s beadiness and scathing wit, but one cannot lament his decision to give up fiction in favor of journalism. Not that his journalism was entirely based on fact. Auberon Waugh’s Diary, which he wrote for the English satirical magazine Private Eye, was scabrously funny and almost entirely fantastical, and his excoriations of the hated working class13 and relentless tormentings of the pompously asinine members of the Establishment, left, right, and center, were enjoyed even, one suspects, by those who most loudly deprecated him. After his death his enemies—or his victims, if you like—pounced. Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian that he had been a “ghastly man,” part of “a coterie of reactionary fogeys…effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist” which had done “mighty damage…to British political life, journalism and discourse in the post war years.”
The piece was accompanied, Alexander writes, “by a drawing of my father’s corpse being washed down a lavatory, in much the same way as pee, paper and faecal matter is sluiced on a daily basis.” Inevitably, others raised their voices in opposition, notably the novelist A.N. Wilson, who described Auberon as a genius who “will surely be seen as the Dean Swift of our day, in many ways a much more important writer than Evelyn Waugh.” The last word should be left to Auberon’s son, the latest but, we may hope, not the last of the writing Waughs:
I adored my father, more, I suppose, than he adored me, or at least I thought about him much more than he thought of me—but I do not repine, as the Wavian saying goes, for that is the nature of any father–son relationship. A father may have many children to add to his many concerns but a son has only one father….
Evelyn Waugh (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), p. 160. ↩
Anthony Powell, who was studying printing at the Central School, asked Waugh why on earth he was there, and Waugh replied, “Oh, Tolstoy, and that sort of thing.” ↩
In the Second Edition of the OED the phrase “and other savages” is delicately reduced to “etc.” ↩
Though surely neither Evelyn nor Auberon would have committed that solecistic “nobody is free…brought them up.” ↩
A Little Learning (London: Chapman and Hall, 1964), p. 78. ↩
Will This Do? (Carroll and Graf, 1998), p. 185. ↩
It is significant to recall that in Evelyn’s short story “The Man Who Liked Dickens”—which Waugh adapted as the closing section of A Handful of Dust—the central character, the explorer Henty, is captured in the jungle by the malevolent Mr. McMaster and forced to read all of Dickens to him, over and over and over, with no hope of escape. It is a nice reversal of torments, for Evelyn was surely thinking of those nightly recitals at home. As McMaster says to Henty, “You read beautifully…. It is almost as though my father were here again.” ↩
At the start of his book Alexander Waugh, with unapologetic insouciance, writes: “I do not wish to diminish the role of mothers, sisters, great-aunts, school-teachers or anyone else with claims to influence the individuals around them, but this book is not about them. It is only about fathers and sons.” ↩
The comedy of names might have been worse. Heygate’s mother was a descendant of the diarist John Evelyn, and it had been thought to christen her son Evelyn in commemoration of the illustrious connection, “which,” Selina Hastings writes, “would have turned an already complicated situation into one bordering on farce.” ↩
One wonders if Auberon was aware of what might be called the reverse echo here between his response to his father’s death and Brenda Last’s to the death of her son John in A Handful of Dust. Her lover is also called John, and at first she thinks it is he who has been killed. When she learns that not her lover but her son is dead, she exclaims, “Thank God!” ↩
As to his mother, ever vague and remote, he seems to suspect that she preferred her cows to her offspring: “She never had more than six or seven of them [cows, that is] and they cost a fortune to keep, but she loved them extravagantly, as other women love their dogs or, so I have been told, their children.” He also remarks, in passing, almost, that as a child he “was certainly not aware that motherhood involved any particular emotional proximity.” ↩
Alexander writes: ↩
For example: “The roads of West Somerset are jammed as never before with caravans from Birmingham and the West Midlands. Their horrible occupants only come down here to search for a place where they can go to the lavatory. Then they return to Birmingham, boasting in their hideous flat voices about how much money they have saved.” ↩