Imagine being part of a literary dynasty; the pressure to achieve must be unbearable. We automatically think of stern Catholic Evelyn Waugh as his dynasty’s prime mover, the man whose innovative satirical writing came to symbolise an era (that’s him above, looking extremely cross). But he wasn’t the only writer. Alec was the younger brother of Evelyn, uncle to Auberon, and towering above them both was a father who wrote Tennyson’s biography.
In 1917 Alec wrote ‘The Loom of Youth’, based on his schooldays at Sherbourne, and his implication of its homoerotic stratum led to him becoming the only former pupil to be expelled from the old boys’ society. The book sold well, although Alec was a POW in France by this time.
He continued to travel through the warmer climes throughout his life, marrying a wealthy Australian who made his lotus-eating lifestyle possible. He’s been described as the poor man’s Somerset Maughan, and as the author of over fifty books, is proof that output has little to do with inspiration. About him, Auberon said dismissively that he ‘wrote many books, each worse than the last.’ As he aged, his literary subjects reduced themselves to discursions on alcohol and his family. There was, however, a successful film version of one of his novels, ‘Island In The Sun’, which created the unlikely Harry Belafonte hit.
Meanwhile, nephew Auberon nearly managed to blow himself to bits during his national service, losing a lung, his spleen, some ribs and a finger. He tackled five novels in his early career and then gave up, fearing comparisons with his father. They’re nicely written and often funny, but rather pointless and divorced from the real world. In his writing, Auberon had something of the old man’s spikiness, but with far less discipline. His best work was in was ‘Another Voice – An Alternative Anatomy Of Britain’, and his collected diaries are still fun to dip into. He also wrote a superb expose of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal after attending the trial.
Becoming a newspaper columnist clearly suited his talents better, and his political writing for the Spectator constitutes some of his finest work. But it was his scabrous Private Eye diary that brought him wider fame, and his attacks on the Labour government, especially against education secretary Shirley Williams, were appropriately splenetic. His main mode was one of complaint but this meagre skill, coupled to a life of privilege, doesn’t make for a very popular picture now, no matter how elegantly written.
Unexpectedly, it was Evelyn’s daughter, Kate Waugh, who returned lustre to the family’s literary heritage by combining a sharp wit with powerful stories in books like ‘Kate’s House’ and ‘Mother’s Footsteps’.
For me, though, Evelyn Waugh’s shockingly short (and simply shocking) novels can be read again and again without any diminishment of pleasure. If, by some astonishing oversight you’ve never read one, might I suggest you do so immediately? Try ‘Scoop’ to start with.