The epigraph to Angus Wilson’s book is taken from Alice Through the Looking Glass
‘What curious attitudes he goes into!’
‘Not at all,’ said the King. ‘ He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger – and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he’s happy.’
And what a curious world this book reveals. As well as a pre-first World War (possible) archeological hoax dating back to Anglo Saxon times, Wilson’s subject is post second World War life in Britain on many social levels, with characters ranging from academics to working class petty criminals. It is largely concerned with how to live. Or rather, how to live a good life according to one’s ethics, and also, how to be happy.
The main character, historian and scholar, Gerald Middleton, is something of a lost soul. Estranged from his family, wife Ingeborg and three adult children, he suffers from a sense of failure. Lacking the conviction to leave his wife for the woman he loves, or to speak out about his suspicions of the actions of Canon Portway over the Melpham burial, he lives with a sense of having compromised his life away.
When we meet him, it is at Christmas in the house of his wife. He sits dreaming about his past, while family engages in their usual power games.
Gerald shook himself uneasily. Old age, he reflected, seemed to have every disadvantage. It cut one off; but it also let in what had long been carefully censored. He trained himself for years not to hear the embarrassing nonsense that Inge talked, and now it cut through his enfeebled defences.’ It is only when we are really happy that we know what is true.’ Inge’s sugary words, her glottal Scandinavian sing-song, flowed back through his memories until they had covered with their sticky coating one of the episodes he kept apart as sacrosanct…
To live a life not consumed by regret Gerald has to free himself from the compromises he has made. Persuaded by Inge that it is better for the family, he has continued his relationship with Dollie under Inge’s control, thus losing the love of his children and in the end, of Dollie.
Inge is a true monster. Like a juggernaut she crushes all the lives around her. She knows no vision of life except her own. Heavily whimsical, she is also controlling and manipulative. Gerald has long lost the power to rescue his children from her.
So many characters in this book, some like Mrs Salad, caricatures, some, like Frank Rammage more complex. I must say I found the thread of the story concerning the French relatives of Marie Heléne rather confusing and not contributing much to the story.
Somehow Gerald reconnects with his career again and acts in a way that eases his conscience. It was satisfying to see him getting the better of his rival Professor Clun, who Margaret Drabble tells us, (she has written a biography of Angus Wilson) is based on F R Leavis.
I was revisiting Angus Wilson when I read this, having been a fan in my early days. I was interested to see his writing is not terribly popular on Goodreads. I would say it is far too British and far too of its time.
When this book came out it earned high praise; Anthony Burgess said, ‘One of the five great novels of the century,’ and Paul Bailey wrote, ‘No other English novel of his generation has offered as complete and detailed a portrait of English society…’ But how the mighty can fall. When Angus Wilson died at the age of seventy-seven, he was in an old people’s home partly supported by the British Literary Fund.
Michael Wood said of him in the NY Review of Books, ‘(he showed) a vast, careless, lordly condescension both towards characters and readers.’
He had, however, worked at Bletchley Park during the War and suffered a breakdown after, he lived openly with his gay partner and fought for the right for others to do so, and he helped to establish the Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
His books are big and complex, dealing with high life and low. He admired Dickens and has, I feel, a great deal in common with him. I hope one day his works will meet a new public.
A BAFTA award winning TV Series was made of Anglo Saxon Attitudes in 1992. We can’t seem to get it in Australia but for those lucky enough to be in Britain I’d say it’s a must see.