Evelyn Waugh and his family.

Reading between the lines.
June 25 2007 2:52 PM

Waugh Talent

How one family became a dynasty in the world of British letters.

Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh.

What with the merciful unpredictability of genetics, genius is by no means always inherited. Look at the unhappy case of Siegfried Wagner (what a name to be burdened with!), who tried to emulate his father, Richard, as an opera composer, with no success. But then there are contrary examples of hereditary creative gifts: the painting Bellinis of Venice, the composing Bachs of Leipzig—and the writing Waughs of Combe Florey, whose story is told in this quirky, fascinating, funny, sad Autobiography of a Family, as Alexander Waugh's new book, Fathers and Sons, is subtitled.

Its author grew up at Combe Florey, the beautiful house in Somerset where his grandfather Evelyn had spent his troubled last years, and where his father, Auberon—known to all as Bron—then raised his own family (and where also, by way of disclosure, I should say that I first knew Alexander Waugh as a little boy 35 years ago when I used to stay with Bron and his formidable wife, Teresa). Fathers and Sons begins with Bron's death in 2001, and then runs back through the generations. Having himself written the well-praised books God and Time, Alexander is the fourth successive generation of published authors (if you don't count the 19th-century sermons of his clerical ancestors). As he moves through each of these generations, he shows in each case how complex, and sometimes fraught, the relationship between literary father and son has been.

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Although Evelyn married into the upper class, whose novelist-in-residence he became, and tried somewhat comically to play the country gentlemen, the Waughs weren't aristocrats at all. By origin they were yeoman farmers from the bleak Scotch borders who moved south and produced a succession of professional men. The author's great-great-grandfather and namesake, Dr. Alexander Waugh, aka "the Brute," a Victorian country doctor and sportsman notorious for his cruelty to his family and animals, begat Arthur, who became a publisher and fathered two novelists, Alec and Evelyn, one a prolific hack, the other touched by genius. The name Waugh now makes us think of Evelyn's caustic satire; but that gift, even if it was passed on by him to his son, doesn't seem to have been inherited from his ancestors.

Fathers and Sons stretches back in time but concentrates mainly on the relationships between Arthur and his two sons, Alec and Evelyn; then on Evelyn and Bron, and finally Bron and the author himself. In A Little Learning, the only volume of an autobiography he never completed, Evelyn recalled his father with as much affection as he could, as an affable but embarrassing old geezer. Nothing his father wrote was discreditable, Evelyn said, and nothing memorable. To judge by the passage quoted here from Arthur's One Man's Road—which his grandson Bron used to recite derisively over the dinner table—that was almost a kind verdict. (Alexander calls it "the feeblest, the most inane and the most irredeemably second-rate paragraph that any man has yet committed to the pages of an autobiography.") As Evelyn was assimilated into the upper class, his exasperation with his placid, suburban father grew, and so did Arthur's estrangement from his clever and angry son. "He was really very cold, arrogant and contemptuous," Arthur wrote after a brief visit from Evelyn, adding still more bitterly, "the fact is that he is thoroughly ashamed of his parents and does his best to banish them from his conscience."

And yet, as Fathers and Sons shows more clearly than any previous book about the Waughs has, Evelyn was settling the score. Arthur devoted his attention and affection entirely to his elder son, Alec, or "Billy" as he called him in countless excruciating letters replete with obsessive warnings ("I gather that you have been unable to break yourself of the habit of self-abuse"), as well as sheer adoration of the boy, who shared his middlebrow tastes and passion for sport, which Evelyn had not time for at all.

Alas, that adoration was quite misplaced. Alec made a splash with The Loom of Youth, a novel about public-school life considered very daring in its day for its portrayal of adolescent homoerotic ardor. But he went on to churn out book after forgettable book, mainly mechanical novels, travelogues, and memoirs about which he seems to have been appropriately modest, for nearly 40 years, while he crossed the world in pursuit of amorous adventure. ("Venus has been kind to me," he once wrote, to his brother's sardonic amusement.) Then he belatedly hit the jackpot with Island in the Sun, which Evelyn said was "rather good if you think of it as being by an American which he is really."  Much the best biography of Evelyn is by Selina Hastings, who has a lethal phrase about Arthur and Alec, both of them cursed with "the fatal facility of the second rate." What Arthur never quite recognized—although Alec had the acuity and humility to do so—was that Evelyn's gift was in a completely different class.

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