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||Sir Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson (1913-1991)|
British writer who portrayed middle-class English life, its manners and characters from snobs and aristocrats to bums. Angus Wilson was one of England's first openly gay writers. His first book Wilson published at the age of 36.
"He's so good-looking," Clarissa said, "and a charmer. He hasn't done much, has he? It's awfully dangerous really for people with brains to have money and good looks. They´re practically born to waste their talents." (from Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, 1956)
Angus Wilson was born in Bexhill, East Sussex, into an
upper-middle-class family. William Johnstone-Wilson, his father, was
Scottish. Wilson's mother, Maud, came from South Africa; she died in
1928. In his childhood, Wilson spent a short but important period in
South Africa. The family lived in hotels and
boardinghouses and moved from place to place depending upon the
father's gambling luck. Wilson's siblings played transvestite games, in
which he also participated. Later Wilson depicted his rootless hotel
life in the autobiographical work Wild
After graduating from Merton College, Oxford, where he studied
medieval history and developed his acting talents, Wilson pursued a
number of jobs. He joined the British Library and worked there as
book cataloger, and eventually became deputy to the superintendent of
the Reading Room. This time he also
met Tony Garrett, another employee of the library, who was 16 years his
junior. They settled in the Suffolk countryside, where Wilson spent
him the remainder of his life.
During World War II Wilson worked a
Bletchley Park, the intelligence center of the British war effort. Like
the Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing, he made
little effort to tone down his eccentricities. At the Park he was
talked about for his "stretched-out nerves, extravagantly camp
mannerisms, wild temper tantarums, and richly coloured bow ties". (The
Secret Life of Bletchley Park: the WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men
and Women Who Worked There by Sinclair McKay, 2010, p. 7)
Wilson started to write in the 1940s on his psychotherapist's advice after he had some kind of nervous breakdown. His paranoidic fears were not completely groundless - his sexual inclination made him a target of gossips and he could run in the risk of being blackmailed. His first stories were published in Horizon. By the end of 1946 he had recoved sufficiently and had returned to the library, writing during the weekends, and replacing books lost in the blitz during working hours. Wilson stayed at the library until 1955.
As a writer Wilson established his reputation with his two
collections of short stories, The
Wrong Set (1949) and Such
Darling Dodos and Other Stories
(1950). The title story of the latter book told of a rightwing
homosexual named Tony, but Wilson himself was a supporter of liberal
social causes. The influential American critic Edmund Wilson saw him as
a possibe successor to Evelyn Waugh. Hemlock
(1952), in which Wilson drew upon his homosexual experiences, featured
a bisexual novelist.
The Mulberry Bush, a
full-lenght play, was first performed by the Bristol Old Vic Company,
including Eric Porter and Mary Hinton, in 1955. A slightly revised
version was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1957. There
was also a television performance. The
Times Litetary Supplement wrote
that "Mr. Angus Wilson's first play suggests clearly that he is one of
the younger novelists who should be encouraged to help meet the
theatre's rather dismaying lack of new plays." However, it was the time
when Wilson was giving up playwriting and focusing on his fiction. He
did not see see the novel and the theatre as separate genres. Some of
his novels even start with cast-lists or "characters in order of
"The one thing that matters, Gerald, with the children," said Inge, "is to be consistent. We want their little bodies to grow straight and fine like the birch trees on the mountains. But that is not so difficult. They are good strong little animals without blemishes." (from Anglo-Saxon Attitudes)
Gerald Middleton, Professor Emeritus of early medieval
history, the protagonist of Anglo-Saxon
(1956), knows that he has been involved in an archaelogical hoax as a
young man, but revealing the truth has disadvantages. "In any case, who
was he to drabble in truth-telling when he had evaded the truth, past
and present, for most of his life?" Wilson took the title for his novel
from a passage in Lewis Carroll's Through
"'What curious attitudes he goes into!'
The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot
(1958) was awarded the James Tait Black Mermorial prize in 1959. The
Old Men at the Zoo
(1961) was a novel about the "near future," not very different from the
present. In the story England is at war with an alliance of European
powers. Wilson's criticism of the middle-class did not arise
excessively debate in the 1960s when the "angry young men" - such as Kingley Amis, John Osborne, and Alan Sillitoe - dominated
the literary scene.
Late Call (1965) explored the spiritual desolation of life in the English Midlands, and was narrated from the perspective of a retired hotel manager. Sylvia Calvert, the protagonist, comes to the New Town of Carshall, finding there that people are strangers in their own life. No Laughing Matter (1967) was a long, ambitious works, tracing the fortunes of the Matthews family from 1912 to 1967.
From 1966 to 1978 Wilson was a lecturer of English literature at the University of East Anglia. He traveled much and participated in all kinds of literary events. Although he had become a highly visible character, his reputation faded in the late 1970s. Martin Amis dismissed As If By Magic (1973) as a failure in the Observer: "Americans saying 'Noo York' and 'anyways', hippies using 'like' as if they were rustics, the word 'delicious' appearing seven times in as many pages, the whole book riddled with repetitions, unintentional rhymes, jangles, even solecisms". (Martin Amis by Brian Finney, 2013, p. 7) Wilson's final novel, Setting the World on Fire (1980), once again disappointed critics. In 1985 he left his Suffolk home and Thatcher's England and moved to St-Remy-de-Provence, France. After returning to England Wilson had a pension from the Royal Literary Fund and also his friends supported him. His last years Wilson spent at Pinford End House Nursing Home, where he died of a stroke on May 31, 1991. Wilson's Collected Stories came out in 1987. He was knighted in 1980 for contributions to English literature.
Wilson was a fellow and subsequently president of the Royal
of Literature, chairman of the National Book League and a member of the
Arts Council. His non-fiction works include biographies on Charles Dickens (1970) and Rudyard Kipling (1970),
in which he examined the relationship between a writer's life
and art. Wilson once said that Dickens was the novelist whom he most
admired and who had the greatest influence on his own approach to
As an essayist Wilson became familiar for the readers of The Times Literary Supplement, Encounter, and The Listener. In an essay in The New York Times (March 1, 1981) he examined two works (The Decoding of Edwin Drood by Charles Forsyte and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, concluded by Leon Garfield) dealing with Charles Dickens's novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which the ending was left open. Dickens died before he finished the story and it has puzzled many mystery readers ever since. Wilson states that "endings" were not Dickens's strong suit, but the two writers are in a sensible direction insofar they accept Jasper as the murderer.
For further reading: Angus Wilson by Peter J. Conradi (2018); Polarization of Social Space: E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and Angus Wilson by Sławomir Kozioł (2015); The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: the WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There by Sinclair McKay (2010); Story-teller to Visionary: Angus Wilson's Narrative Craft by P. Radhika (1999); Angus Wilson by Peter Conradi (1997); Angus Wilson and His Works by S.S. Agarwalla (1995); Angus Wilson: A Biography by Margaret Drabble (1996); Angus Wilson: A Bibliography by J.H. Stape (1988); Angus Wilson: A Bibliography, 1947-1987 by John Henry Stape (1988); Angus Wilson by Averil Gardner (1985); Critical Essays on Angus Wilson by Jay L. Halio (1985); Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist by P. Faulkner (1980); Angus Wilson by K.W. Gransden (1969)