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.

Alexander calls Alec an "erotomaniac." Evelyn and his friends called him "the bald-headed lecher." Although married twice, he never put down roots and was happiest trotting the globe in search of exotic conquests. Tahiti was his favorite destination. "Polynesians," he discovered, "as hula dancers, acquire an astonishing mobility between the knees and navel."

While Alec was setting himself up as a successful novelist, Evelyn floundered. He did poorly at Oxford. He took teaching jobs from which he was ignominiously sacked. He even enrolled in a course for carpenters. But mostly he drank. When he did finally put pen to paper, settling scores with his father became paramount. In Rossetti (1928) he was careful to differentiate his own from his father's brand of biography, which he claimed only produced "catafalques heaped with the wreaths of august mourners, their limbs embalmed, robed, uniformed and emblazoned . . . their faces serenely composed and cleansed of all stains of humanity."

In Decline and Fall (1928), Evelyn's first novel, Arthur is mocked in the character of Prendergast, a sentimental glutton, whose death, as Alexander points out, "must have been especially galling to Arthur: his head is sawn off by a madman who wants to be a carpenter." In 1930 Evelyn had Arthur's shortcomings in mind when he wrote a piece called "What I Think of My Elders."

I admire their lack of scruple. It takes a great deal to rouse them, but when some feature of their comfort is really threatened they will suddenly plunge into conflict with every artifice their long lives have taught them. I admire their lack of ambition. I admire the resolution with which they hold to their own opinions; their indifference to the traps and pitfalls of logical proof. I admire their sense of humour, those curious jokes which seem to gain lustre and pungency with each repetition . . .

When Evelyn's story "The Man Who Liked Dickens" (1933) appeared, the mere title must have made the old man shudder: "What new onslaught--what new patricidal biffing am I in for now?" (Alexander provides inspired interior monologue.) Everyone in literary London knew that Arthur loved Dickens. He was president of the Dickens Fellowship. He lectured on Dickens. For over 30 years, as managing director of Chapman and Hall, he published Dickens. The actress Ellen Terry called him "Mr. Pickwick." Evelyn took his father's harmless delight in the novelist and turned it into a comic nightmare in which a shipwrecked explorer falls into the clutches of a lunatic half-caste who insists on having his captive guest read the works of Dickens over and over again. Later Waugh would make the story the gruesome finale of A Handful of Dust (1934).

When Arthur took revenge by writing his second son out of his autobiography, Evelyn retaliated with incendiary ruthlessness. Arthur's diary for January 29, 1935, records: "Woke at 4 am to a strong smell of burning. On opening the bookroom found the room ablaze." Evelyn recounted the episode two years later in a piece he wrote for the Pall Mall Magazine:

My father is a literary critic and publisher. I think he can claim to have more books dedicated to him than any living man. They used to stand together on his shelves, among hundreds of inscribed copies from almost every English writer of eminence, until on one of my rather rare recent visits to my home, I inadvertently set the house on fire, destroying the carefully garnered fruits of a lifetime of literary friendships.

Evelyn's literary star rose with dazzling celerity. Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies (1930) sold more copies in a week than all Arthur's and Alec's books put together. His diaries document the gusto with which he enjoyed his success. Many writers can look back on robust drinking days, but few persisted in them with Evelyn's abandon. His heroic intake only decreased when he retired to country hotels to write his books or to faraway jungles to research his travelogues. But then his first wife, Evelyn Gardiner (nicknamed "She-Evelyn"), left him for a man whom Evelyn nicely called a "ramshackle oaf," and his bright young world toppled around him. As he told one friend, "I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live."

After converting to Rome in 1930, Evelyn spent the rest of his days trying to see himself and the world sub specie aeternitatis. Alexander suggests that the novelist's conversion was simply another outrage undertaken to disconcert his already reeling father, but this is not true. Evelyn might have relished playacting, but there was nothing make-believe about his Roman Catholic faith.

Once his first marriage was annulled, Evelyn married Laura Herbert, an imperturbable 19-year-old who spent most of her married life doting on her beloved cows. Alexander implies that Laura and Evelyn disliked their six children. Evelyn, it is true, told Diana Cooper, "I can only regard children as defective adults," but the letters he wrote to his children when they were unhappy at school (especially to his son Auberon) are models of parental affection and good sense.

Towards the end of his life, after he had survived the ordeal of bringing up Auberon, Evelyn mellowed. The hurt that Arthur had caused still rankled, but he could see it in a larger light. In his own unfinished autobiography, he paid the memory of his father a fitting tribute. Speaking of Arthur's recitations in the bookroom at Underhill, Evelyn recalled:

In these recitations of English prose and verse the incomparable variety of English vocabulary, the cadences and rhythms of the language, saturated my young mind, so that I never thought of English literature as a school subject, as matter for analysis and historical arrangement, but as a source of natural joy. It was a legacy that has not depreciated.

Fathers and Sons is a special book. It puts one in mind of something Francis Bacon said: "Use the memory of thy predecessors fairly, and tenderly; for if thou dost not, it is a debt will sure be paid, when thou art gone." Alexander Waugh has nothing to fear on that score.

Edward Short's book about John Henry
Newman and his contemporaries will be
published in the fall by Continuum.