Horrors of Waugh

In 1958, while on military training in Cyprus, Auberon Waugh accidentally shot himself in the chest with a machine gun. He was nineteen. Over the next ten days he fought for his life, having lost a lung, two ribs, part of his hand and his spleen. His mother Laura flew out immediately to be by his side. His father, Evelyn, preferred to remain at home. “I shall go out to travel home with Laura if he dies”, Waugh wrote detachedly to his friend Lady Diana Cooper. In the event, this was unnecessary; Auberon was brought back to England and installed at the Queen Alexandra Military hospital. Even so, it was a further week before Waugh managed to go and visit his son. By this point, Auberon had developed a chest infection due to a back abscess and again feared that death was near. “Dear Papa”, wrote Auberon on what he thought would be his deathbed. “Just a line to tell you what for some reason I was never able to show you in my lifetime, that I admire, revere and love you more than any man in the world.” The next month, with Auberon still too ill to be operated on, Waugh stopped his allowance of £25 a month. Auberon wept “bitter tears of rage”.

This is not the only instance of Evelyn Waugh’s unconventional approach to parenting documented in Philip Eade’s new biography. Whenever Laura fell pregnant – seven times in all, though only six of the children survived – his attitude was consoling rather than celebratory. “It is sad news for you that you are having another baby”, he wrote once – it evidently not having occurred to him that it was they who were having the baby. When his children came to school age, he openly rejoiced at the end of the holidays. He went out of his way to avoid spending Christmas with them when they were little, either staying in boarding houses or travelling abroad. There is also a famous story, not recounted by Eade, of his managing to procure a banana during the gourmet wasteland of the Second World War. The Waugh children had never seen the exotic fruit before – let alone tasted one – but their father, after showing it off proudly, covered it with cream and sugar and devoured the whole thing himself.

It would be anachronistic to judge Waugh solely by his fatherly standards; most men of his generation and class had little to do with their children. But it is illuminating to see how much his children adored him, despite his neglect and occasional cruelty. His daughter Meg, particularly, worshipped him, even offering to come back and live at home to be near him after she had grown up. His friends, likewise, were fiercely loyal, although Waugh teased and bullied and satirized them in life and in his novels. Eade’s fine biography does a good job of pinning down the particular puckish charisma that made Waugh so popular.

A large part of this charm, of course, is his comic genius. Waugh is by far the funniest writer of his generation. Eade’s biography is peppered with humour; the letters, liberally quoted, are full of jokes and witty observations. Even when he was unhappy he managed to be funny. On his thirtieth birthday, having been turned down in marriage by Teresa Jungman, he wrote to a friend “I celebrated by . . . going to the cinema in the best 1/6 seats. I saw a love film about two people who were in love; they were very loving and made me cry”.

Waugh’s letters to Teresa Jungman are one aspect of Eade’s biography that is entirely original; they had not been seen before. Another is the unpublished memoir by Evelyn Gardner, Waugh’s first wife, who left him for another man after less than two years of marriage. Eade uses these sources sensitively and judiciously, as he does with all his others. His biography is very much about the life rather than the work; although the novels are mentioned, Eade does not go in for any textual analysis.

The reverse is true for Ann Pasternak Slater, whose book uses Waugh’s novels as a way into his life. A renowned Waugh scholar, Slater examines the novels in turn. Her work sheds light on how Waugh’s Catholicism influenced his work; her chapter on Brideshead Revisited is particularly strong. She explains, for example, that “On Good Friday the doors of the tabernacle, where the Host – representing the body of Christ – is kept, are left open because there is no Host to be protected. Its void symbolizes Christ’s absence from the world between His death on Good Friday, and Resurrection on Easter Sunday”. Gems such as this – previously unknown to me, brought up Catholic – illuminate details of the text that otherwise could go unremarked upon. She makes one appreciate Waugh’s craft as a writer, drawing attention to themes and devices.

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