The product of five years of meticulous and exhaustive research, novelist Margaret Drabble’s second literary biography—her first was of Arnold Bennett—may help restore the once-high reputation of Angus Wilson. The decline in his standing and popularity has been exaggerated, the biographer has written elsewhere, while having to admit that none of his eight novels was in print in America when her book appeared. Drabble, who came to know her subject as a friend from 1971 until his death twenty years later, acknowledges in her preface that “I came to this task as a committed admirer of Wilson’s works. I have long considered him one of the major novelists of the post-war world, indeed of the century.” She always refers to him, the literary hero of her student years at Cambridge University, as “Angus.” Wilson made no secret of his homosexuality. This volume is in part a history of gay liberation and the decreasing need for discretion. Well into her lengthy biography, however, Drabble writes: “Coming out was not easy [for Angus].” By demonstrating the truth of this statement, Drabble, a noted novelist in her own right and editor of the fifth edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985), has conveyed the courage of one who dared to challenge the sexual taboos of his native England and, from the start, deal with them in his fiction.
That start was delayed until his middle thirties by circumstances that, in combination, made Angus Wilson a rare example of one who, in effect, turned to creative writing as therapy after mental breakdowns; he discovered as Somerset Maugham had before him that writing about disturbing matters enables the writer to deal with them.
Angus Frank Johnstone-Wilson was born in August, 1913, in the seaside resort of Bexhill, Sussex, between Hastings and Eastbourne. His parents were in early middle age when he was born, the youngest of six brothers, the nearest in age to him, Colin Frank, being thirteen years his senior. During the Great War, his mother communicated to her youngest her anxiety for three of his siblings who were involved in fighting on the other side of the Channel. Parental worry ran in tandem with patriotic bigotry. Once, when Angus was five, his mother ordered his twice-wounded brother out of the house because he expressed doubts about German barbarity.
Much later, Wilson would describe the many households of his parents and brothers as characterized by “genteel poverty” but also by shouts, screams, kicking—a lifestyle, in short, that contained memorable material for the unplanned stories he would write. Between the ages of seven and eleven, Angus Wilson also experienced the world of his mother’s girlhood when the family immigrated to Durban, South Africa, in 1920. Although the country had changed much during her thirty-two-year absence, her people—the Caneys—had prospered. So, too, did the young Angus. As Drabble puts it, “Angus found himself greeted by a vast new array of cousins, much nearer in age than his own brothers, and by a country that struck him as thrilling and exotic.”
By 1924, when he was eleven, Wilson and his parents were back in England, they to the careful middle-class world of small hotels in the Kensington area of London, he to a preparatory school at Seaford, Sussex, run by his second-eldest brother. After Angus left Seaford, where he distinguished himself less in academics than as an actor who persuaded the dancing mistress to teach the boys the Charleston, his mother died unexpectedly. The effects on him of the loss of this “sad-eyed, embittered, courageous but snobbish woman,” who was typical of those displaced home colonials his fiction would bring to life, never really left him. She died during Angus’ third year as a day boy at Westminster, one of England’s oldest and most distinguished public schools. At Westminster, he discovered that his gift for “impressionistic mimicry,” which he later called “my principal natural asset as a writer,” and his shock of yellow hair topping a body that was always in motion conferred on him the affectionate tag of “mad boy.”
Ironically, it was an inheritance from his mother that enabled Angus to be the first of his family to go to university. Having failed to obtain one of the closed scholarships available only to Westminster boys, he took up in 1932 a commoner’s place at Merton College, Oxford, where most of the undergraduates were less rich, to read Medieval History. Drabble writes that Wilson’s “long evident” homosexuality predated university. The early 1930’s at Oxford were what Isaiah Berlin, contrasting it with the Golden Age of Harold Acton and Evelyn Waugh and his own slightly later Silver Age, calls the Leaden or Copper Age when apprehension over the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini led to moral earnestness. “Certainly Oxford was for me something quite apart from active sexual life,” Wilson wrote later. Privileged self-indulgence often ruled. More important, however, Wilson came to know working-class students whose beliefs reinforced left-wing ideas he had drawn from some of the Westminster masters. Oxford widened his social framework and developed his sympathy for ordinary people which would surface thirty years later in Late Call (1964). In that novel, his fifth, he forged new novelistic territory and, in the flashbacks of his sixty-four-year-old female narrator, relived the traumas of his youth. Sylvia Calvert’s early mental history can be said to reflect Wilson’s crucial wartime crackups which led to his turning to fiction-writing. The notion of a creative...
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