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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.