Evelyn Waugh is one of a handful of great modern writers; his Brideshead Revisited is arguably one of the finest novels of the 20th century. Those who love Evelyn's work -- his novels, his essays, his journalism -- may be predisposed, like me, to open Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family with pleasurable anticipation. Alas, this stab at a Waugh family history is enormously disappointing. Alexander Waugh, Evelyn's grandson, can be an engaging writer, yet the defining characteristic of Fathers and Sons is its distinct lack of taste. Titillation quickly loses its shock value and simply becomes repulsive.
Fathers and Sons begins with Dr. Alexander Waugh (1840-1906), aptly nicknamed "The Brute." Dr. Waugh, it seems, brutally beat dogs, women, and children whenever the mood struck him. When Evelyn's children asked their father to draw pictures of The Brute, Evelyn, a deft caricaturist, "drew arresting images of The Brute, smarting nostrils, flaming devil eyes, lascivious mouth, and snapping black-dog teeth."
Of The Brute's five progeny, the oldest, Arthur, labored nearly thirty years for the publishing house of Chapman and Hall, and had modest success as a writer, including a bestselling autobiography called One Man's Road. Arthur is best remembered, though, for establishing a remarkable literary dynasty, fathering the prolific writing duo of Alec and Evelyn, who begat additional Waugh authors. Impressively, works by Waughs have been in continuous print since 1888, and nine of Arthur's descendants have produced 180 books between them, including novels, plays, poems, essays, histories, travelogues, philosophies, and biographies.
But here Fathers and Sons begins going terribly wrong. Alexander has a distracting obsession with speculating on the older Waughs' sexual habits and proclivities. He begins with Arthur, whom he accuses, based on flimsy evidence, of being "highly sexed" and indulging in fetishism with young girls.
Arthur positively fawned over his older son Alec as "Arthur's paternal devotion inflated into something of an obsession." The elder Waugh lived vicariously through Alec, relishing in his son's exploits and suffering his disappointments. Alec excelled at the prep school Sherborne until his -- ahem -- intimacy with a classmate got him expelled. The author spares us no salacious details, spending four pages on the particulars of Alec's habits of self-abuse that would have been better left to the boy and his confessor. Nevertheless, Alec's expulsion devastated Arthur: "All his dreams, high ambitions, soft romantic hopes, were all brutally shattered."
Arthur much less favored Evelyn, perhaps because of his wife's difficult delivery. Evelyn was "a sweet-natured and affectionate child who worshipped his mother." Despite his father's aloofness, Evelyn described his childhood as "blissfully happy."
"I was not rejected or misprized," he told a friend, "But Alec was the firstling and their darling lamb."
Later, the boys' careers appeared to take different paths. Alec had early success as an author, writing a popular reminiscence of his school days called The Loom of Youth. Evelyn became an illustrator, providing graphics for his brother's book. Not until later did Evelyn begin his career as a writer, but he quickly surpassed Alec in terms of literary quality and prominence.
When chronicling Evelyn's wild youth, Alexander relies purely on speculation. Despite saying, "I shall not delve into what he did, or did not do…nor shall I be pokin' m'nose into his intimate friendships," he proceeds to do precisely that, spending the better part of a chapter conjecturing on Evelyn's supposed homosexual attractions to his acquaintances.
Once Alec and Evelyn are married, Alexander still spares us no titillating details of the couples' boudoirs. He tells us, for example, that Alec and his first wife, Barbara, were unable to consummate their marriage, a failure Alexander somehow attributes to the barking family dog who shared their bedroom. Also, Evelyn was drawn to his first wife, also named Evelyn, because of She-Evelyn's supposed resemblance to someone Alexander speculates may have been He-Evelyn's homosexual lover as a young man.
As expected, Evelyn is the book's most intriguing character. While no sane person would argue for his sainthood, he was one of the brightest and wittiest men ever to grace the literary scene. Many of his letters in Fathers and Sons are uproariously funny and are unquestionably the book's high point. He comes across as a lovable curmudgeon rather than The Brute reincarnated. Still, Evelyn was hardly a model father. He could seem by turns selfish, impatient, patronizing, and neglectful. For instance, he sought to avoid attending his son Bron's wedding in 1961, planning instead to go to a society wedding that same day, although his wife eventually prevailed.
But a kinder, gentler Evelyn can be glimpsed between the wisecracks. He rejoiced in Bron's success, which maintained the Waugh family's literary traditions as novelist, journalist, and founder of The Literary Review. Evelyn doted on his daughter Meg, although Alexander hastens to insinuate that their relationship "bordered on the incestuous" because they occasionally traveled together.
Bron comes across as a likable man and an indulgent father, Alexander tells us, not an old crank like his father. In the same breath, Alexander admits he was "seldom if ever disciplined by" Bron, which may be part of the problem here. Alexander frequently overpraises his father, stating, for example, that A.N. Wilson and V.S. Naipaul, among others, believe Bron "to have been greater in stature than his father," Evelyn. Yeah, right.
Finally, we come to Alexander, who is thoroughly modern and most eager to please lowbrow readers. Like many authors today, he lacks humility -- he was cheeky enough to write a biography of God -- and is obsessed with sex talk, naturally assuming everyone is just begging to read a dirty, psychosexual family diary.
The book has generally received rave reviews, most extolling Alexander's "rich, tea-cake prose" -- a family trait. Strangely, not one critic commented on the book's most glaring flaw: its indecorum, so disrespectful of the author's ancestors, akin to desecrating their graves. Perhaps this can be attributed to the Spirit of the Age, but if so, I'll take a Victorian-era biography any day. Regardless of what one thinks of Alexander Waugh's literary talents, the big question is: What motivated him to play Peeping Tom on his forebears?
- James Bemis
[James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review, and a columnist for Catholic Exchange's The Edge. The present review of Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family by Alexander Waugh, was originally published in the New Oxford Review (February 2008), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]