A MEMORY OF AUBERON WAUGH and THE FOXGLOVE SAGA
Sometimes part of the attraction a book has for a reader depends on the time and place where the reader first read the book, the circumstances surrounding the event. The ambience gets into the readers’s memory of the book, and never goes away. My father used to read Wind in the Willows to my little brother, and I used to listen in, and so the story is woven into the experience of the reading. I always think fondly of those times whenever I read or hear someone read the book. When I was about fifteen I had a crush on a boy who gave me a blue and white Penguin copy of the first volume of The Divine Comedy which I then read with a special weird fascination, a fascination coloured by thoughts about the boy himself. I used to sit on the front veranda reading The Divine Comedy and this boy would come past and we would more or less solemnly discuss the book.
In Sydney in May 1998. It was early evening. I was waiting for a cab at the wharf, going back to the hotel after a session at the Writers’ Festival. It was raining like mad and I was sharing a black umbrella with a man I had just met. It happened to Auberon Waugh. I have admired his writing since the sixties, and I’m an avid reader of The Literary Review of which he was then the editor. Under the umbrella he didn’t seem to me to resemble the cartoon of himself in the pulpit at the front of the magazine.
The cab didn’t come and didn’t come, and I begin to tell AW about the first time I read his work.
It was summer 1963 Massachussets. I was staying with friends of friends in a tall serene old house surrounded by European trees. My bedroom was an attic, and beside the bed was a low white bookcase. It was there I found The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh.
The novel is a bit like a sharply farcical Brideshead Revisited – sly, ruthlessly subversive and very funny. I was captivated by delicious the characters and elegant turns of phrase. The action moves from a religious community and school to hospitals, madhouses, the army and various dens of iniquity. The aristocratic Martin Foxglove is matched by Kenneth Stoat, the repellent and unprepossessing son of a dentist. The ridiculously Catholic Lady Foxglove is a magnificent hypocrite whose antics and manipulations are described with a breathless glee. ‘She took out her little notebook in which she wrote her day’s good works. On each page was printed a list: Bury the Dead, Visit the Imprisoned, Clothe the Naked – goodness she must remember about Martin’s new uniform. Give Food to the Hungry – well, that’s myself, she thought humorously.’ She knows the best make-up to wear in times of disaster. She makes at least one fatal mistake when she puts two letters in the wrong envelopes. I love novels with the letter motif.
Nobody is really redeemed in The Foxglove Saga ; people start out bad and just get worse. To spite his mother Martin loses his faith. When she is slowly fading away in a nursing home he sends her a jar of gooseberry jam each Christmas. The religious Brothers are devious and spiteful, and the nurses are in fact criminal.
I loved that book, and I sometimes re-read it with great pleasure. Its principal subject is the joke of the fact of mortality, as this joke translates into character and society.
As we stood in the gloom under the umbrella, AW reached into his briefcase and pulled out a small book. He handed it to me and said he would like me to have it. It was a slightly battered uncorrected proof copy of The Foxglove Saga bound in manilla, with burnt umber type. Chapman & Hall. Lg. Crown 8vo. pp.240 Approx. price 15s. 0d. To be published September 1960.
I was amazed. Dazed. One of my favourite novels by one of my favourite authors, and here is the author handing me a rare and precious copy. An unimagined moment. I really like bound proofs, I love their spare design and simplicity. No blurbs, no guff, no cover illustration. In the proof of The Foxglove Saga there’s a black and white line drawing on the title page. This is an unusual flourish, even for the real thing, but very odd in a proof. A sketch of a foxglove in bloom, with a stoat standing on its back legs gazing into the lowest floret, like an illustration in a children’s book.
The first time I read the novel in Massachussetts, I liked it so much my hosts said I could keep it. So for me it seems to be charmed. First the desired copy became mine; thirty-odd years later, the bound proof. Imagine. The cosy attic bedroom in Massachussetts is wrapped around me and The Foxglove Saga. Then this the long-ago bedroom is brought forward in my consciousness as I stand with the author in the rain at the wharf. And as if by magic the buff and russet book, soft, faintly ragged, vaguely discoloured at the edges, rusting at the seams, lifts from the briefcase and is put into my hands. There was something unreal and dreamlike about all this.
Auberon Waugh has since died. This makes me very sad.
Lady Foxglove died, you may like to know, as she had lived, in the odour of sanctity.
Stoat joined the order.