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.” 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.” 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 …
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