Parental neglect: the Wavian muse (National Post June 13,2007)

Parental neglect: the Wavian muse

Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Dr. Alexander Waugh (1840-1906) was a fine English surgeon, but by disposition cruel. He flogged his hunting dog unmercifully, and once, spying a nearby wasp, the good doctor employed his whip's ivory tip to crush the insect where it sat, on his long-suffering wife's forehead. For these and other good reasons he came to be known by his descendants as The Brute

The Brute's eldest child of five, Arthur (1866-1943), disliked shooting and pitied the dog. As punishment, he was put overnight in a cupboard and made to kiss his father's gun case. One wouldn't give short odds for such a boy becoming the patriarch of England's most illustrious literary dynasty. And yet, since May, 1888, when Arthur won Oxford's distinguished Newdigate Prize for poetry, novels, biographies, travelogues, essays and journalism by Waughs have remained continuously in print.

Arthur enjoyed a long career in writing and publishing. By turns Pickwickishly innocent and kinky (his particular fetish: young girls on bicycles), he stoked his sons' love of literature with hammy marathon readings of Dickens. (Oddly enough, no future Waugh pere encouraged a love of literature in any Waugh fils, while all the mothers were indifferent or opposed: Arthur's wife Catherine regretted their son Evelyn's literary career, wishing he had become a furniture designer, as "furniture is so useful.")

Nine of Arthur's progeny have collectively published 180 books. Three Waughs earned global renown: All of Evelyn's work succeeded, and his Brideshead Revisited remains a classic of the modern canon; Evelyn's brother Alec (1898-1981) achieved fame with artistically lesser, but enormously popular novels (best-selling novel, later blockbuster film, Island in the Sun being his jackpot); Auberon ("Bron") Waugh (1933-2001), Evelyn's eldest son, was the most brilliant, controversial and prolific journalist of his generation.

With the recent publication of Fathers and Sons, in which these three luminaries feature, Alexander ("Alex"), Bron's elder son, projects a bright and steady glow as the newest star in the Waugh firmament. Refreshing familiar stock with personal memories and hitherto unpublished material, 44-year old Alex, already a publisher, illustrator, opera critic/historian and composer, mines the Waugh family saga with his predecessors' anti-sentimental candour, but also with decidedly un-Waugh-like empathy for his often unsympathetic subjects.

Sorting and organizing the mountain of material around the biography's primary, secondary and tertiary characters, with their attendant sexual escapades (all kinds), stately homes, very weird in-laws, professional feuds and genealogical esoterica had to be a daunting task. But with unusually sure-footed confidence and panache, this first-time biographer has made of it all a seamless whole.

The stories entertain, but at heart the book is thematically focused on the relationships between fathers and sons endowed with talent and strong will, in which the son's release from scapegoating hangs on his ability to exorcize his Oedipal grievances through writing.

The English have always indulged their eccentrics, but for Wavians (the term is to Waughs as "Shavians" is to George Bernard Shaw), "eccentric" must be accorded unusual elasticity to accommodate the Waugh men's extraordinary unfairness and/or negligence meted out to their children. From The Brute forward -- to put it kindly --no Waugh father got it right.

Arthur exhibited diametrically extreme attitudes toward his two sons: With overflowing Victorian sentimentality, he scaled near-romantic heights of favouritism for Alec in daily lovestruck letters ("Every wound that touches you pierces my own soul ?"), while ignoring Evelyn as if he were literally invisible.

Smothered by Arthur's love, Alec struggled with youthful homosexuality (so did Evelyn, actually), married twice and eventually fathered three children. But, peripatetic, serially adulterous and, like every serious writing Waugh, workaholic, Alec all but abandoned his family.

Evelyn translated Arthur's rejection into misanthropy, alcoholism, depression and highbrow parody (Charles Ryder's dottily rebarbative father in Brideshead, somewhat tempered by lurking affection, was Arthur transmuted into literary gold).

All surviving six of his seven children frequently suffered from Evelyn's mean-spiritedness, such as the time he greedily consumed the whole family's long-awaited ration of rare post-war bananas and cream before their incredulous eyes. But Bron was in particular a cynosure for Evelyn's antagonism. From a diary entry, August, 1955: "Back from London. To my annoyance, Bron is still here. I was promised his absence."

Paternal rejection, however, was matched and even surpassed by their cold, obsessive, bovine-breeding mother, Laura. Evelyn physically distanced himself from his children whenever possible. But Laura, although corporally at hand, inhabited a child-oblivious, manure-scented world where "cows and only cows" mattered. (Ashamed for them to return to boarding school in rags Laura never noticed, their nanny bought the children new underwear from her own salary.) As Bron drily noted: "I was not aware that motherhood involved any particular emotional proximity."

In one horribly inculpatory segment, 19-year old Bron, training in Cyprus for his National Service in 1952, lies in agony in a local hospital, having narrowly survived an accidental machine gunning. Laura flies out to him, but while there openly expresses her yearning for home and cows. Evelyn refuses to budge (although "I shall go out to travel home with Laura if [Bron] dies"). During his nine-month Cypriot hospital ordeal, involving 12 operations, Evelyn writes Bron but two notes, and attends a reading in Munich on the day Bron, still dangerously fragile, arrives home to convalesce (at which point Evelyn discontinues his allowance).

Beside Evelyn, Bron was a fatherly paragon: He didn't purposely alienate his children or seek to deflate their egos. But by normative standards, he was disengaged, neither loving nor nurturing. Alex concludes philosophically: "I adored my father, more, I suppose, than he adored me ? but I do not repine, as the Wavian saying goes, for that is the nature of any father-son relationship."

Still, there are compensations for talented boys in a troubled father-son dynamic: "[We] Waughs only became writers to impress our fathers." And what writers! Mind you, after five generations, Alex presents as a father finally getting it right with his own brood. Hmm. Will untortured -- but also unmotivated -- could've-been-writers rule the Wavians henceforth, their psychological gain our literary loss? Aesthetically, it's the oldest question.

© National Post 2007