The legacy of a famous father is usually a death sentence for the son. However, there are exceptions to the rule.
There are plenty of actors, musicians, artists and athletes who’ve walked down the same professional path as their famous parents. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Today we’re looking at two very successful writers and their equally successful sons. And we might also get a little tiny glimpse into a couple of flawed father-son connections.
First off, we’re going to nineteenth-century France, and then to twentieth-century England to have a look at the Dumas and Waugh families.
Alexandre Dumas père and Alexandre Dumas fils
Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870) was a prolific writer, penning essays, plays, travel pieces and novels, the best known of which are The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1845). Both are gripping adventures rightly regarded as classics. Who doesn’t feel outraged on behalf of Edmund Dantès’ wrongful imprisonment and delight in his escape and eventual revenge on his enemies? Loyalty, justice, love, treason, wealth, power – The Count of Monte Cristo has it in spades.
Dumas first found literary fame with his plays, writing about 20 or so before finding himself immersed in historical fiction. Although he collaborated on many of his works including his novels, it was his own vivid imagination and literary flair that ensured his success. He was hugely popular and earned enough to build his own small castle, the Chateau de Monte-Cristo not far from Paris. Money, however, slipped through his extravagant fingers, frittered away on gourmet dinners and expensive gifts for his multitude of mistresses (it really was “all for one and one for all”). He was often short of a franc and died in penury aged 68. His literary output has maintained its appeal, his exciting tales still widely read and enjoyed to this day.
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His son Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895) is most famous for his novel later adapted for the stage, La Dame aux Camélias (1848), upon which Verdi based his opera La Traviata a few years later. It’s a tragic tale of a dying courtesan who, in spite of her profession, is the most moral character of the story. Another play, Le Demi-monde (1855), considered by many a masterpiece of nineteenth-century French theatre, is about a discredited married woman trying to get back into polite society.
Dumas fils was the product of one of his father’s many affairs, and was taken away from his mother to live with his father. Witnessing his mother’s utter devastation at that forced removal affected him profoundly and his writing tends to focus on tragic women, and the sacredness of marriage and family bonds. He was understandably bitter about being on the receiving end of taunts about his legitimacy, and his 1858 play The Natural Son has a clear message – if a man fathers a child out of wedlock he has a duty to marry the mother so the child is not a “bastard”.
Dumas fils was a successful writer in his day and was admitted to the prestigious Académie Française in 1875. He maintained his bitterness towards his father all his life. He died at the age of 71.
Evelyn Waugh and Auberon Waugh
Brideshead Revisited (1945) is the masterwork from English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966). Christopher Hitchens called it “an elegy for a dying class”. The main character recalls the times he spent at Brideshead Castle in his youth as a friend of the estate owner’s second son. The novel examines class, religion, family, alcoholism, friendship, and is far superior to any of the television or film adaptations. Among Waugh’s other novels are Decline and Fall (1928), A Handful of Dust (1934), Black Mischief (1934) and The Loved One (1948). His writing is sharp, satirical, brilliant.
Reams could be written about Waugh the man and Waugh the writer. Sadly, space doesn’t permit, but it’s safe to say that he’s one of the great English novelists of the twentieth century. It’s also safe to say he wasn’t a very likeable man. As a father he was distant, avoiding his children as much as he possibly could. His son Auberon wrote: “He reserved the right not just to deny affection to his children, but to advertise an acute and unqualified dislike of them.”
Auberon Waugh (1939-2001) was a journalist and novelist. It can’t have been easy being the son of such a renowned author but Auberon made his way in the world on his own terms. He’d written five good novels by the age of 33 and his autobiography Will This Do? (1991) is as hilarious as it is insightful.
It was as a journalist that Auberon came into his own. Over his career, he was a political columnist, literary critic, wine commentator, travel writer, satirist. He was known for his acerbic writing style, ruthlessly settling personal scores in print and parodying anyone from politicians to businessmen to authors. He made no secret of his dislike of authority, he openly criticised the Catholic Church, denounced the Falklands and Gulf wars and panned the education system. He was vocal across all his journalistic offerings, and practised what he called “the vituperative arts”.
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A highly intellectual man, in private Auberon Waugh was well liked by his friends for his roguish sense of humour and his charm, and he was a good father to his four children.
In 2004, Auberon’s son Alexander Waugh (born 1963) wrote Fathers and Sons, an account of the male members of the Waugh family across five generations. He writes that in spite of the emotional distance between Evelyn and Auberon, the Waughs “entertained people and gave people pleasure”. And that counts for a lot.
Some father-son relationships seem cursed to a greater or lesser extent and labelling them complicated is a bit simplistic. Novelist Martin Amis, himself the son of writer Kingsley Amis, once remarked that the father-son bond is an “argument that never really ends”. The “argument” between writers William S Burroughs and his son William S Burroughs Jr only ended when Burroughs Jr died of liver failure in 1981 aged only 33. Theirs is really quite a sordid tale.
Today is more about the books than the personalities. Still, it does incline one to start reading a few biographies – truth is, after all, often stranger than fiction.