Sunday 27 January 2013

Penguin no. 2475: The Foxglove Saga
by Auberon Waugh

     'Well I do,' shouted Kenneth, furious at being treated with quiet dignity, and shouting to prevent himself bursting into tears. 'I don't expect you've ever hated anybody in your life. You are incapable of love or hate or anger or joy. I may not be able to love, but at least I can hate, I may not know joy, but by God I know misery, and I'ld sooner be myself than you any day. I may be nasty but I'm bloody well right, and you're as wrong as sin and as stupid as your own boredom.'     
He was not quite sure what he was saying, but it sounded good, and the important thing was to keep talking.

The Foxglove Saga was Auberon Waugh's first novel, written while he was convalescing after a self-inflicted though accidental shooting injury, and published in 1960 when he was only 21. It was no surprise to read in his obituary that he was in conflict with those in authority many times during his life, for a frustration with those in power pervades this book. His main theme seems to be that individuals will always tend to act in their own self-interest, and to expect anything else is to be naive; institutions are therefore inevitably undermined by being comprised of individuals.

By the time he wrote this book he had been schooled at Downside, completed his National Service, and worked as a gossip columnist at The Daily Telegraph, and these experiences clearly underpin his novel. He portrays a world in which monks despise their students and covet the meagre possessions of their fellow monks, nurses disregard their patients in order to devote their lives to prayer, and those with authority in the army promote the mediocre, and punish others for their own incompetence. His characters inhabit a world in which people are often easily fooled by how things appear, and generally draw the wrong conclusions. It is clever, but very harsh, and he can seem somewhat intolerant of other people's failings.

The plot is intentionally absurd, built around the central character's desire to implement the seven corporal Works of Mercy. The catholic Lady Foxglove ticks them off one by one, treating the list as if it provided some definitive roadmap to saintliness, while liberally reinterpreting her own self-interested actions as charitable ones, in order to cross another required work from the list. The irony here is that while the list offers some guidance as to how the merciful should act in advancing the welfare of others, Lady Foxglove's interventions always reduce the happiness of her intended beneficiaries.

That such a thin line separates charity from interference is perhaps the main problem with her good intentions, if they can be considered that, for nothing she does is completely disinterested. The possibility that her efforts may be neither welcomed nor appreciated simply never occurs to her, for she is the centre of her own world, and her interest is in the illusion: the point is not to actually be kind and virtuous, but simply to be perceived as possessing those attributes, as her neglect of a child left under her care makes very plain. She is self-righteous, self-concerned, ignorant, and intolerant, despite living within 'an odour of sanctity'. In the end her dedication to good deeds guarantees her nothing, for the merciful here are to be shown no mercy.

Her undoing is the work of Martin, the son she adores, though he too fares badly in the long run. He begins life with so many advantages - exceptional good looks, a beautiful and devoted mother, a wealthy and successful father, and his early life is therefore without struggle. He comes to accept this as the natural order of things: a charmed life for himself; struggle and failure for others. But a term as Head Boy of his school Cleeve encourages his priggish inclinations, and he can never quite give up the callous tendencies it encourages. Eventually he is to find that good looks and early promise do not guarantee a successful life.

Kenneth Stoat is the antithesis of Martin, starting life with nothing but disadvantages. He is ugly, unclean, duplicitous and despised, but he is also aware that he is these things and recognises that he brings much of his ill-fortune on himself through his lack of thought and application. He aims to improve but somehow never manages it. He fares better than Martin, but not much better, eventually becoming part of the establishment he despises.

Auberon Waugh tells the intertwined stories of the lives of his characters, while including several references to British culture of the 1950s, from skiffle bands to Angry Young Men. There is no sense that he sympathises with or likes any of his characters, and you can almost sense his pleasure as he consigns them to their fates. It is an amusing book, but it is also rather savage and bleak.


  1. National Guard? Did they nationalize his unit during the Civil Rights era or for Vietnam? In fact, Waugh did his "national service" in (as I recall) a regular regiment, the Household Cavalry.

    I read the book a long time ago, and remember it is amusing in parts but not very good. I think that Auberon Waugh's best work was probably done in journalism.

  2. I wonder if he's any relation to Evelyn Waugh? Seems like an interesting book and it has a great cover!

    1. I agree the cover is wonderful - from memory, I think it was designed by Alan Aldridge and Dennis Rolfe (Aldridge designed some of Penguin's most memorable covers). Auberon Waugh was Evelyn's eldest son, though I don't believe they were particularly close.

      And I see that you're off on holiday, Jeremy - it looks like you'll have perfect weather for it. Hope you have a great time.



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