Waugh Talent

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

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.

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.

That genius cast a long shadow over Evelyn’s own literary son. Like his father, Bron began to write early and with precocious success, but his novels, while not at all bad (I recommend Consider the Lilies, a most amusing book about an affectless vicar and his ghastly wife, satirizing political correctness avant la phrase in 1968), cannot be called seriously good. Then he discovered his métier as a polemical and satirical journalist, the funniest and most vituperative of his age.

But Bron, too, was wounded, and not only by a bizarre, near-fatal accident with a machine gun when he was doing his military service in 1958, a tragicomic set piece related again here. After Evelyn’s death in 1966, Bron for years took up the cudgels on his father’s behalf (and anyone who felt their blows will remember what his cudgels were like), in the process giving a most misleading account of his upbringing and of Evelyn’s last years. Then in his own 1991 memoir, Will This Do?, Bron at last came clean about a childhood starved of love by the father he revered, who “reserved the right not just to deny affection to his children but to advertise an acute and unqualified dislike for them.”

We might already have guessed that from Evelyn’s letters. Wonderfully funny as they are, and full of penetrating insight on every kind of topic, the passages about his children, even when you make allowances for wit and irony, are more than chilling: “I abhor their company because I can only regard children as defective adults,” he wrote. “I hate their physical ineptitude, find their jokes flat and monotonous. … I can’t afford to waste on them any time which could be spent on my own pleasures.”

Although Bron was keen not to inflict the sins of the fathers on his own children, he, too, was a victim of almost terminal irony. Alexander says that he barely ever had a serious conversation with his father. Bron never addressed him by his real name, but always by facetious or mildly derisive nicknames, never played games with him, took no interest in his career at school or university, and didn’t even “inspire in me a love of books.” And yet, Alexander writes, “I adored my father, more, I suppose than he adored me.” Yes, they are a strange family.

As the children of one’s friends grow up, one follows with pleasure their lives, personal and professional. In Alexander’s case that meant his dynastic marriage to Eliza, daughter of the journalist Alexander Chancellor, which produced three children (beginning with another Bron), as well as his previous books, and now this bittersweet chronicle. Although a little long, a little self-conscious, and spotted with one or two solecisms (“wreaking” for “reeking” may be a slip of the spell check, but Evelyn would have ground his false teeth at the use of “aggravate” to mean “annoy”), it is written with, yes, truly hereditary verve and humor.

For all that, the final flavor the book leaves is melancholy, a story of bravado concealing  repressed emotion. Nor did it help that the family hasn’t proven long-lived: Evelyn died at 62 and Bron at 61, in each case before their relationships with their devoted sons could be resolved; both of them, despite everything, missed more than they could have imagined. As Evelyn used to say in letters to his women friends: goodness, how sad.