The Magazine

Underhill Revisited

The child was the father of the man in the Waugh household.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Fathers and Sons

The Autobiography of a Family

by Alexander Waugh

Nan A. Talese, 400 pp., $27.50

In Fathers and Sons, Evelyn Waugh's grandson revisits some fascinating family history. Here is the story of four generations of Waughs told with wit and brio. Evelyn has been fortunate in his biographers--Frances Donaldson, Selina Hastings, and Douglas Lane Patey all wrote brilliantly about him--but Fathers and Sons reveals aspects of the novelist's poisonous relationship with his father, Arthur, that have never been given adequate attention. Anyone interested in the Waugh family, or family history in general, will find it an absorbing read.

The book opens with a portrait of Arthur's father, Alexander, otherwise known as "the Brute," an award-winning doctor who delighted in shooting and fishing. With his booming voice, Dundreary whiskers, and mad, piercing eyes, he terrified family and associates alike. He took particular pleasure in flogging his dogs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of his three daughters ever married. When the word "sadist" was first explained to Arthur, he is reported to have thought a minute, and said, "Ah, that is what my father must have been."

Although the Brute congratulated Arthur on winning the Newdigate Prize at Oxford for his epic poem about Gordon at Khartoum, he died before he could see his son's later attainments as publisher, poet, biographer, and critic. The only interests father and son shared were amateur theatricals and cricket.

The theatrical interest would become a Waugh family staple. Arthur regularly recited passages from Dickens, Shakespeare, and the great Victorian poets to both his sons at Underhill, the family home in Hampstead. Evelyn endowed most of his books with the pace, economy, and seamlessness of good theater. He might also have been a first-rate theater critic, as a review he wrote of a 1955 production of Titus Andronicus demonstrates. Here is his description of Vivien Leigh as Lavinia:

When she was dragged off to her horrible fate she ventured a tiny impudent, barely perceptible roll of the eyes, as who should say: "My word! What next!" She established complete confidence between the audience and the production. "We aren't trying to take you in," she seemed to say. "You're too clever, and we are too clever. Just enjoy yourself." It was the grain of salt which gave savour to the whole rich stew.

Evelyn also enjoyed playing theatrical roles himself, the most memorable being the one described in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957): "[A] combination of eccentric don and testy colonel," which he acted relentlessly in his later years. Like Pinfold, he "offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass."

Cricket played an immense part in Arthur's family life. "With a thorough knowledge of the Bible, Shakespeare and Wisden Cricketers Almanac," he would tell his sons, "you cannot go far wrong." In 1893 Arthur married, and five years later was born his first son, Alec, whom he always referred to as "the son of my soul," not least for his cricketing prowess at Arthur's own public school, Sherborne.

Arthur's love for his first-born son was all-consuming. When Alec was boarding at Sherborne, Arthur wrote him daily and awaited his responses "in the palpitating manner of a teenage paramour." Something was not right in this picture. "I think Arthur may have suffered from the same syndrome that is claimed of the pop star Michael Jackson," Alexander observes. "Those who are brutalized by their fathers often find themselves unable to grow up: They are consumed with a need to relive their childhood over and over again to get it right."

Alec was the golden boy Arthur had never been able to be himself. Where did this leave Evelyn? Alexander puts matters succinctly: "Alec and Arthur were a two-man gang from which Evelyn was excluded." The second son, whose difficult birth had come five years after Alec's, was never shown the attention he craved. Both parents had wanted a girl and let Evelyn know it. He was not the golden boy and, as Alexander shows, the resentment this caused stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, all was not well at Sherborne: Alec was discovered in flagrante delicto and stripped of all his schoolboy honors. He wrote his first novel, The Loom of Youth (1917), to expose the homoeroticism rife at public schools. A succès de scandale, the book won him praise from the likes of J.C. Squire and Arnold Bennett. Then Alec went off to war and witnessed the horrors of Passchendaele from an abandoned German pillbox. But when he returned home it was his experiences in French brothels that he was eager to share with his wide-eyed brother.