Top positive review
Entertaining, fully of good stories about the famous family,
on 6 September 2016
In this engrossing composite biography of five generations of the Waugh family - made famous by the star among them, Evelyn - the author, number five in the chronology, casts an affectionate, humorous and perceptive eye on his immediate ancesters. From his unique and personal point of view - the insider's view - what strikes him as the most significant is the relationships within it of fathers and sons. Colourful and profound and life-shaping as these relationships are, he says, they essentially fail, as if the sins of the fathers in their role as parents are inevitably passed down to their sons. Perforce, he traces only one possible line through the family tree, the one that we are, for literary reasons, most interested in, but you can't help thinking, as you look at the tree, that there are many other lines in it which remain untraced. But he has more than enough material here, much of it based on a mass of family records, and he steers his way through it with an unerring eye for what is significant and interesting.
We begin with 'The Brute', a medical man; he was eccentric, thoughtlessly cruel, obsessive, embarrassing, when happy "facetious, sentimental, patronising, demonstrative and over-bearing." He's remembered largely for some medical instrument he invented. We pass on to Arthur, his eldest of five children, who plays a large part in this history; he spent most of his life working for Chapman and Hall, the publishers. Arthur went to Sherborne school and idealised it thereafter. Unlike all the other Waughs depicted here, Arthur was soft-hearted, a sentimentalist. He had two children by 'K', his wife, Alec and Evelyn. His chief sin was favouritism. He worshipped his eldest son, Alec, to an unhealthy degree, putting him on a pedestal, indulging him in everything. Compounding this, he was only ever lukewarm about his second son Evelyn, was wary of him, did not understand him. Evelyn, throughout his childhood, had to live with the idea that in the eyes of his parents - K was in on the act - he was in relation to his brother second-rate, something of an embarrassment. Arthur was deeply sentimental, and though he had many sound qualities and in many ways was an exemplary father, Evelyn never could forgive him this trait. In kicking against his sentimentality, Evelyn much surely have sharpened his debunking wit, a wit which he passed, in a sense, to his own son Bron. Alexander, the author of this book, doesn't attempt to assess the psychological impact of this favouritism on Evelyn, or indeed on Alec, wisely he leaves that up to the reader. It may have spurred Evelyn on to succeed; it may also have been at the root of his later depressions; it may explain something of his bitterness, his loathing for popular sentiment; we can only speculate.
Arthur wrote fiction, poetry and literary nonfiction, but his works are forgotten now. Alec took up the pen and famously, at the age of 17, wrote 'The Loom of Youth' which scandalised everyone by implying that public schools were rife with schoolboy romances and homosexuality. Sherborne was not amused and Arthur had to break his beloved links to it. Alec poured out potboilers thereafter, only one of which was a commercial success, 'An Island in the Sun'. He was also a hopeless father, producing three children by his faithful wife Joan, then absenting himself for most of the marriage, chasing other women - he was a womaniser to excess, it seems. Evelyn began is illustrious career in1928 with 'Decline and Fall'. He was the genius of the family and without him there would be no book about the Waughs. He had seven children, some of whom he considered 'backward' and treated them with a kind of jocular dismissiveness which seems cruel to modern sensibilities; one wonders whether such treatment had a lasting effect.
One of these children was Auberon, the eldest son, known as Bron, the author's father. Bron began his literary career with three novels, but he's best known for his excoriating and witty journalism. Journalism, even when collected in volumes as Bron's was, is by nature ephemeral and doesn't carry the kudos of novels and poetry; his star is on the wane. Where his son Alexander is full of stories about the foibles of his grandfathers and great-grandfather, he's much more circumspect about his father; perhaps this is to be expected given their closeness in terms of time and sentiment. Bron treated his children more gently than Evelyn his, it seems, but the old tension between father and son is there, following its long line.
This multi-faceted story is assembled in the most entertaining way. The passages dealing with Evelyn's detestation of a schoolmaster called Crutwell, and the uses he made of it for comic effect in his books, are hilarious. The whole book is shot through with the Waughs' famous wit, and it's all told with great skill. Clearly Alexander as a writer is a credit to this famous family, and this is a great tribute to its most prominent members.