Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh was born on 28 October 1903. Biographers always take a keen interest in a subject’s early life - looking to the child to explain the man – and one finds an odd dynamic at Underhill, the modest villa in Hampstead, where Evelyn and his elder brother, Alec, grew up. The oddity was their father, Arthur’s obsessive affection for his first-born son. Arthur’s letters to Alec at boarding school are astonishing and when he came home for holidays, Alec was greeted with a huge sign, ‘Welcome Home The Heir To Underhill’. One can only guess at the effect this had on the young Evelyn; but, sharp-tongued and gimlet-eyed, he was then - and always – ready to give and take offence.
17-year-old Evelyn dedicated his first (unpublished) book ‘To Myself, Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh, to whose sympathy and appreciation alone it owes its being’ and throughout his life as a novelist, he would avenge this neglect by arming his characters with unattractive aspects of Arthur - from Mr Prendergast in Decline and Fall, Mr Rampole in Vile Bodies and Put Out More Flags, Mr McMaster in ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ and Mr Todd in Handful of Dust, to Edward Ryder in Brideshead Revisited While Alec always generously acknowledged his brother's superiority as a writer, Arthur, perhaps understandably, never did. And yet when it was his turn to play father, Evelyn, while rejecting his Arthur's stifling sentimentalism in favour of a state of studied sang froid, was just as prone to favouritism.
I like the observation of Evelyn’s grandson, Alexander, in his brilliant study of five generations of Waughs, Fathers and Sons (2004). ‘I suppose, when I think of it, that all of us Waughs only became writers to impress our fathers.’ Given that nine of Arthur's descendants have published 180 books between them, among them some masterpieces, English letters have much to be grateful for this Waugh-like trait. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
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