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In praise of Evelyn Waugh - Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Apr 10, 2024

Wavian Dynasty

48 Years after the Death of Evelyn Waugh

Twenty years ago, Alexander Waugh wrote a brilliant collective life of his family, Fathers and Sons (Hodder). So what better time to recall a remarkable literary dynasty than the anniversary of his grandfather Evelyn's death on 10 April 1966?

It was Easter Day and Evelyn, that master of prose, monstresacre, and devoted Catholic, had just attended Mass in the ancient Latin rite said by his favourite Jesuit, Fr Philip Caraman, SJ, and walked home, in a mood of contentment, with his family to Combe Florey, his Somerset seat.

As his friend and first biographer, Christopher Sykes, delicately put it: He retired to the back part of the house. He was found dead a few hours later. He had had a heart attack. He was only 62.

How sad that he would meet his Maker on the most sacred day in the Christian calendar but on the lavatory - such a profane spot. How much more tranquil had Waugh expired in his sanctuary, among his books in the library?

But back to Alexander. The old Oxford English Dictionary apparently defines Waugh, when an adjective, as "tasteless and insipid" and when a noun as "an exclamation indicating grief, indignation or the like. Now chiefly attributed to N. American Indians and other savages."

Alexander claims that JRR Tolkein told his father Auberon that 'waugh' was the singular of Wales and effectively meant a single Welsh person. "Papa gleefully told this story to Diana, Princess of Wales, but to his dismay she didn't appear to understand it."

In his quest to define what it means to be a Waugh (he had wanted to call his book, Waviana, but thought no one would get it) Alexander delves into the inner lives of five generations – from his 1860's namesake, Dr Alexander Waugh, to himself. But it is essentially the three generations in between – Dr Alexander's son, the publisher, Arthur; Arthur's novelist sons, Alec and Evelyn; and Evelyn's combative columnist son, Auberon - who compose the heart of this anything but insipid dynasty.

Next came 'the Brute', Alexander, a provincial doctor who invented Waugh's Long Fine Dissecting Forceps but was remembered by his family for squashing a wasp on his wife's face with his ivory-tipped whip. When young Arthur showed little interest in hunting, the Brute forced him into a cupboard under the stairs and made him kiss his gun-case. The one pastime they both enjoyed was amateur theatrics and Arthur wrote hundreds of short plays, many with a principal part for a tyrannical ogre that suited the Brute. Arthur briefly shone in his father's eyes when he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford but after a few weeks the Brute condemned Arthur for his 'self-satisfied atmosphere of puffed success'.

In 1893 Arthur married Catherine Raban. One interesting nugget (unearthed since Alexander's tribute) was a footnote in the introduction (by John Howard Wilson and Barbara Cooke) to one of the first volumes of OUP's magisterial Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. EW had abandoned an attempt to trace the heritage of one of his great-grandmothers, Theodosia Raban (nee Mahon).

This made Evelyn one-thirty-second Indian.

Arthur had begun his literary career at the feet of his cousin, Sir Edmund Gosse (who, coincidentally, found fame with his memoir Father and Son). His great-grandson describes Arthur at one of Gosse's soirees in the company of Kipling, Hardy, Conan Doyle, Ibsen and Beardsley as 'a quaking West Country bumpkin…… drooling on these idols with his eyes popping and his weak chin wavering in excitement."

Arthur soon joined Dickens' publisher Chapman and Hall and would remain there for the rest of his life. The actress Ellen Terry called Arthur 'dear little Mr Pickwick'. Despite Arthur's geniality and fondness for anecdote, the only time Evelyn could recall his saying anything funny was when Arthur suggested that a friend who had just written Turkey: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow should have called it Boxing Day.

When Arthur's paternal turn came, he smothered his first-born son, Alec, with all the love the Brute had withheld from him. The birth of a second son did nothing to change this stifling obsession. In fact both parents were so disappointed they had not been blest with a daughter they called their son Evelyn. That Evelyn was quick to take - and give – offence only bound them closer to Alec.

Underhill, their Hampstead house, would be garlanded on Alec’s return from school with “Welcome Home the Heir of Underhill”. Arthur relived his unsatisfactory schooldays at Sherborne through Alec and was devastated, as an anticipated final glorious year approached, when Alec was expelled after being caught wet towel flogging the bare bottom of a boy called Renton. "This is the first time to my knowledge that such a thing has happened to a Waugh." Alec followed this with a sensational novel based on Sherborne, Loom of Youth (1917), which brought him fame but meant that Evelyn had to find another, in his opinion, inferior, school.

And yet Arthur's devotion to Alec remained undiminished. 17-year-old Evelyn dedicated his first (unpublished) book "To Myself, Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh, to whose sympathy and appreciation alone it owes its being" and throughout his life as a novelist, he would avenge this neglect by arming his characters with unattractive aspects of Arthur ......

From Mr Prendergast in Decline and Fall, Mr Rampole in Vile Bodies and Put Out More Flags, Mr McMaster in "The Man Who Liked Dickens" and Mr Todd in Handful of Dust, to Edward Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. While Alec always generously acknowledged his brother's superiority as a writer, Arthur never did.

And yet when it was his turn to play father, Evelyn, while rejecting his Arthur's stifling sentimentalism in favour of a state of studied sang froid, was just as prone to favouritism. He doted on his second daughter, Margaret, but retained an often-exasperated interest in his eldest son, Auberon, who continually craved his father's attention and approval and wanted nothing more than to amuse the irascible Evelyn as he battled insomnia and ennui.

The question Auberon, an Oldie founding father, posed in the title of his brilliant autobiography Will This Do? (1991) was essentially directed to his father. And so was Alexander's, who, while observing that they never once had a single serious conversation, opens and closes his memoir with an unclouded affection for Auberon, whose death in 2001 inspired this work.

Alexander observes in Fathers and Sons, "I suppose, when I think of it, that all of us Waughs only became writers to impress our fathers." Given that nine of Arthur's descendants have published more than 180 books between them, among them some masterpieces, English letters have much to be grateful for this Waugh-like trait.