The Waugh at Home

Article excerpt

[Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family, Alexander Waugh, Nan A. Talese, 472 pages]

The Waugh at Home

By Daniel McCarthy

Theyf- -k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with faults they had, And add some extra, just for you. -Philip Larkin, "This Be the Verse"

AUBERON WAUGH came home Easter Sunday 1966 to find a policeman waiting for him. His father, the great novelist Evelyn Waugh, had died. That came as a relief-Auberon at first feared something had happened to his children. He made his way to his father's house. By the time he got there, the body was gone but not his father's last remains. "On arrival," Auberon later recalled, "I found a small pile of excrement on the carpet outside the downstairs lavatory" where Evelyn died. "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."

Other Waughs kept their peace; Auberon put the story in his autobiography. His son Alexander always wondered why he did it. To dump on his father's memory? To show the clan's indifference to "dung, death and other worldly horrors"? In Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family, Alexander speculates that his father appreciated the symbolism of Evelyn's death-that it came on Easter, appropriate for a devout Catholic, and that he left behind something obscene, befitting a comic novelist.

Whatever the case, this episode-and a half dozen like it involving deaths, weddings, wars, and bananas-illustrates the ambiguous relations between the Waugh fathers and sons. Alexander revered his father, but he was the exception: Evelyn resented his father for the favoritism he showed his other son, Alec; Auberon, for his part, warmed up to Evelyn in adulthood, but earlier they were not close. Evelyn did not hide his feeling that his children were bores-"Of children as of procreation," he wrote Nancy Mitford, "the pleasure is momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable."

Four generations of Waugh boys-from Evelyn's father Arthur, born 1866, to Alexander, born 1963-have grown up to be writers. Between them, Arthur's descendents-daughters, too-have produced 180 books of all kinds: biographies, novels, journalism, poetry, even treatises entitled Time and God. The last two are among Alexander's previous works: warm-ups for tackling the Waughs, one might say.

Alexander begins with the last of the nonliterary Waugh patriarchs, his great-great-grandfather and namesake Alexander, known to posterity as "the Brute." (The author claims he was not named after the Brute but an earlier Alexander, "the Great and Good," first of the English Waughs. The family name itself is of Scottish origin, and good evidence suggests it is the singular of Wales.) The Brute read the Bible, Shakespeare, and Wisden's Cricketing Almanac, but not much else. His old-fashioned ideas of child rearing involved sticking son Arthur high up in a tree and firing off a shotgun near his ears to cure his nerves. Arthur, a boy of his time, was dutifully eager to please his father, but the only interests they shared were cricket and amateur theatricals.

Arthur turned out to have a literary streak: at Oxford he won the Newdigate Prize-past winners included John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde-for "Gordon in Africa," a poem celebrating the British general decapitated at Khartoum. The poem impressed the Brute. Four years later, Arthur published a life of Alfred Lord Tennyson and was on his way to minor fame as a biographer of eminent Victorians. He fondly wished to be one himself, affecting Dickensian mannerisms and an outmoded style of dress that would later grate on his younger son, Evelyn.

It took a while for Arthur to catch on to that; his attention was fixed on his elder son, Alec. Reacting against the hard ways of the Brute, Arthur doted on Alec-"the son of my soul," he called him-and when Alec was kicked out of boarding school for homosexual activity, Arthur was crestfallen but stood by his boy. …