BORN: 1913, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, England
DIED: 1991, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
Hemlock and After (1952)
Emile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels (1952)
A Bit Off the Map (1957)
The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958)
No Laughing Matter (1967)
Angus Wilson. © Sophie Bassouls / CORBIS SYGMA
Angus Wilson was one of the leading British authors to emerge in the post-World War II era. Wilson is best known as a chronicler of the postwar social revolution in England and for his ability to successfully combine the techniques of modernist fiction with the traditional novel. Although often extremely funny, his novels also contain serious critiques of British society. Wilson’s subjects are usually failed or wasted lives, individuals whose crises reflect the disintegration of a larger way of life.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Isolated Childhood. Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson was born in Bexhill, Sussex, a small town on the southeastern coast of England, on August 11,1913. His father, William Johnstone-Wilson, was of Scottish origin, and his mother, Maude Caney Johnstone-Wilson, was from South Africa. Wilson was the youngest of five sons, thirteen years younger than the fourth child. Consequently, Wilson spent a somewhat lonely childhood with adults as companions, and this isolation from other children was further compounded by his parents’ frequent moving. Wilson took refuge in his imagination, in role-playing and reading.
Becoming Politically Active. In 1932, Wilson went to Merton College, oxford, to study medieval history. At oxford, he met friends with different backgrounds and political ideas. Wilson adopted several left-wing causes and converted to socialism. In the 1930s, such left-leaning political beliefs were popular in Great Britain as well as the United States among those who rejected fascism and wanted to improve the lives of working-class people through political change.
After graduating, Wilson took a variety of jobs, including tutoring and secretarial work. In 1936, he took a position in the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum, where he worked for almost twenty years. During this period, he was politically active, mixing with intellectuals of the left, who recur in his work. This experience, as well as his education, made him interested in the use and abuse of power.
Affected by World War II. In 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany after the Nazis invaded Poland, beginning World War II in Europe. Britain and its allies sought to contain German leader Adolf Hitler’s territorial and military ambitions. Germany, however, was able to control much of continental Europe for much of the war, and heavily bombed Great Britain in preparation for an invasion which never happened. Great Britain’s casualties reached seven hundred thousand over the course of the conflict.
During the war years, Wilson worked in the Foreign Office doing intelligence work. He had to leave the busy city life and move to a small village where he was housed with a widow and her daughter. His sense of loneliness and alienation at work and at his lodgings, together with an unsuccessful love affair, brought him to the point of a nervous breakdown. Per his therapist’s suggestion, Wilson began writing short stories, and during the following seven years, he published two collections of short stories and two novels. His first short-story collection, The Wrong Set and Other Stories, appeared in 1949. By this time, he held a new post.
From 1947 to 1955, Wilson was deputy superintendent of the Reading Room, where he was in charge of replacing three hundred thousand volumes lost in the bombings of World War II. His work in the museum and the Foreign Office provided him with important insights into the world of the cultural establishment and into the workings of bureaucratic administration, both of which he frequently criticizes in his stories.
Writing and Teaching. In 1955, Wilson resigned his job at the British Library to become a full-time writer. During the next ten years, he produced four novels and one more collection of short stories. Wilson’s novels in this time period include The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961). He also became an active reviewer and literary biographer.
From 1966 to 1978, Wilson was a professor in the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, but he continued to travel and lectured extensively all over the world. In 1978, at age sixty-five, Wilson retired from his teaching post, though he continued to take guest professorships at various universities in the United States.
He was knighted in 1980 for both his literary achievements and his contributions to the arts and service organizations. His last novel, Setting the World on Fire (1980), explores the influence of place on human character and is largely constructed of dramatic dialogue. Wilson died of a stroke on May 31, 1991, at a nursing home in Bury Saint Edmunds, where he had spent his last few years.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Wilson's famous contemporaries include:
William Golding (1911-1993): Golding was a British novelist and poet best known for his novel Lord of the Flies (1954).
Richard Nixon (1913-1994): Nixon was an influential American politician and thirty-seventh president of the United States (1969-1974).
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): Hemingway was an American Nobel Prize-winning author, one of the most celebrated and influential literary stylists of the twentieth century. His novels include The Old Man and the Sea (1952).
Irwin Shaw (1913-1984): Shaw, an American writer best known for his novel Rich Man, Poor Man (1970), was considered a master of modern short fiction in the years between World War II and the Vietnam War.
Ralph Ellison (1914-1994): Ellison was an American author best known for his novel Invisible Man (1953), which won the National Book Award.
Doris Lessing (1919-): Lessing is a British novelist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. Her novels include The Golden Notebook (1962).
Works in Literary Context
Wilson’s stories fictionalize much of his childhood and experiences during the war. Childhood and the family form the deepest autobiographical layers in Wilson’s fiction. In a 1972 interview with Frederick P. W. McDowell, Wilson describes his stories as being ‘‘s little bits of my life which I had transformed into stories.’’ Wilson’s work at the museum gave him an understanding of the management of English high culture that also informed and influenced his work. In his stories, Wilson describes and criticizes simultaneously, mixing nostalgia and sarcastic wit. His prime targets are old-fashioned middle-class aspirations and traditional liberal values.
Family Relationships. Most of the stories in The Wrong Set take place in the 1930s, and Wilson uses jargon and fashions to place the characters and their backgrounds. In Wilson’s fiction, language is the most important indicator of a character’s sincerity and selfawareness, or lack thereof. Many of the stories focus on the uncertainties and clashes caused by the postwar unsettling of class barriers. The Wrong Set explores the diametrically opposed political and social values that split a family. Wilson’s pointed titles are frequently cliches taken from conversations in the stories, as he explains in the interview with Michael Millgate: ‘‘I take a platitude—‘the wrong set,’ for example: the point is that no one knows what the wrong set is, and one person’s wrong set is another’s right set. And you get the pay-off, which is something I like.’’
Middle-Class Values. In many ofWilson’s stories, he interweaves the effects of a shifting class structure with individual hopes. He portrays how ‘‘getting ahead’’ means that sacrifices and compromises must be made. Social and material ‘‘success’’ are bought dearly, at the price of displacement and loneliness. The tone is often somber and disillusioned as characters must sort out the predicament of his society. The old world and its ways are in decline, but there are no new alternatives to replace it.
In A Flat Country Christmas, Wilson explores the social problems of the suburbs. The flatness of the landscape is reflected in the dullness of the human life it supports. The new housing estates flatten out class differences and facilitate the gathering of an amorphous collection of people without common values. The two couples celebrating the season are connected only by the men’s work, and they adopt party personas in order to get through the evening without dissension and boredom. However, their masks are shattered by a seemingly harmless party game. One of the men confronts his own nothingness in the mirror, yet this vital self-revelation is typically brushed under the rug in order to maintain appearances.
Influence. Wilson’s influence extends beyond his fiction, for he was a respected critic, reviewer, and biographer. These writings, together with his work as a professor and international public lecturer, have had a profound effect on the shape of English literature from the 1940s onward. Wilson is regarded by many literary historians as a transitional figure from the modernist to the postmodernist era because of his unusual melding of traditional subjects with experimental methods. No other writer at the time so clearly dramatized the collapse of the upper middle class in England, and his social satire opened the way for the works of social protest by the angry young men in the 1950s.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Wilson never preaches or moralizes. Instead, he allows the characters to reveal and condemn themselves. Here are some works that take a similar approach to character development:
Something Happened (1974), a novel by Joseph Heller. This work is a darkly humorous treatment of the work and home life of a corporate man living the American Dream.
American Beauty (1999), a film directed by Sam Mendes. This Academy Award-winning film tells the story of a cynical forty-two-year-old man attempting to find meaning and purpose in his life.
The Seagull (1895), a play by Anton Chekhov. The story centers around the conflicts between four characters working in the theater.
Works in Critical Context
Wilson’s position as a major novelist and, perhaps more important, as a distinguished man of letters for the period after World War II, is eminently secure. In Critical Essays on Angus Wilson, Malcolm Bradbury called him ‘‘one of four or five great English post-war writers,’’ placing him in the company of William Golding, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, and Iris Murdoch.
When Wilson’s first stories were published, reviewers were impressed with the technical skill displayed by the fledgling author. They praised his work for its attention to detail, expert mimicry, and accurate representation of the English social scene. While some critics reacted negatively to the violence in his fiction, it was also understood that it reflected the condition of the postwar period. Wilson’s reputation grew with the publication of several popular novels, but his experimentation with nontraditional form in subsequent works drew mixed reactions. Some of his later novels were deemed inaccessible, but renewed interest in—and appreciation of—his work was sparked shortly before his death in 1991. At that time, his books began being reissued in paperback. The television version of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) put the book on the bestseller lists, where it had never been during Wilson’s lifetime.
Hemlock and After. When Wilson’s first novel Hemlock and After was published, it was very well received. Evelyn Waugh wrote in praise of it in the Catholic journal Month, noting what he considered its defects but stressing that it was ‘‘a thing to rejoice over.’’ The Times Literary Supplement gave it a full-page review, praising it highly for its representation of contemporary English life. Even Ernest Hemingway had some good words for it, remarking that Wilson was a writer worth watching. If the novel has subsequently become overshadowed by his other, more ambitious works, it is nevertheless a very significant achievement, revealing Wilson’s ability right at the start to handle important ideas and themes in a novelistic way.
Responses to Literature
1. After reading Wilson’s work, determine what kind of social observation Wilson is making. In a group, discuss Wilson’s view of the working middle class.
2. Read several stories from The Wrong Set and Other Stories, noting Wilson’s treatment of violence. Write a short critical essay in which you argue whether the violence in the stories is gratuitous or necessary to enhance the theme.
3. Wilson wrote several important literary biographies on authors who influenced his style and themes. Read one of these biographies and write a brief report on the author.
4. Wilson makes use of a mixture of subjective and experimental first-person accounts with more traditional third-person narrative. Write a story that uses both of these narrative techniques.
Drabble, Margaret. Angus Wilson: A Biography. London: Secker & Warburg, 1995.
Faulkner, Peter. Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist. London: Secker & Warburg, 1980.
Fletcher, John. Claude Simon and Fiction Now. London: Calder & Boyars, 1975.
Gardner, Averil. Angus Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Grandsden, K.W. Angus Wilson. London: Longmans, Green, 1969.
Halio, Jay L. Angus Wilson. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964.
________, ed. Critical Essays on Angus Wilson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
McSweeney, Kerry. Four Contemporary Novelists. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983.
Bradbury, Malcolm. ‘‘The Short Stories of Angus Wilson.’’ Studies in Short Fiction (Winter 1966).
Cox, C. B. ‘‘The Humanism of Angus Wilson: A Study of Hemlock and After’ Critical Quarterly (Autumn 1961).
Scott-Kilvert, I. ‘‘Angus Wilson.’’ Review of English Literature (April 1960).
Shaw, Valeria. ‘‘ The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot and Late Call: Angus Wilson’s Traditionalism.’’ Critical Quarterly (Spring 1970).