Angus Wilson Essay - Wilson, Angus

Wilson, Angus

Introduction

Wilson, Angus 1913-1991

English short story writer, novelist, critic, playwright and essayist.

Wilson was recognized as a prominent figure in both fiction and literary criticism in post World War II England. He began his career as a short story writer, and these tales—laced with violence and satire—are considered by numerous critics to be precursors of the social protest works by the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of Wilson's stories are semiautobiographical, analyzing dysfunctional family relationships and depicting postwar society in flux. Wilson criticized traditional middle-class aspirations and values while focusing on the shortcomings of his characters and the collapse of social structure. Critics contend that his works serve as a detailed social history of the times, due to his painstaking recreation of time and place as well as his considerable talent for mimicry. Wilson gained immediate acclaim for his collections of short fiction, but eventually abandoned this form once he began writing novels in the 1950s.

Biographical Information

Wilson was born in England to parents from wealthy families. Largely due to his father's gambling, however, the family was forced into genteel poverty, and Wilson spent much of his boyhood living in hotels. The family's somewhat nomadic existence, combined with the fact that Wilson was much younger than his siblings, led him to feel insecure and isolated; these feelings were compounded with his mother's death when he was fifteen; subsequently, themes of childhood, family dynamics, and loss often presented themselves in his short fiction and novels. Wilson took up writing in his thirties as a form of therapy after a nervous breakdown. Despite the success of his first volume of stories, Wilson's writing was confined to weekends and limited to short fiction because of the demands of his full-time job at the British Museum Library. After several collections of short stories and a novel were published, Wilson decided to leave his job and devote himself to literary matters. After writing several novels, he experimented with nontraditional form and also produced highly regarded works of criticism. Wilson was knighted in 1980 for his literary achievements and contributions to arts and services organizations.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In 1949 Wilson published his first volume of short fiction, titled The Wrong Set and Other Stories. This collection yielded one of his most controversial stories, "Raspberry Jam," in which a young boy is confronted with cruel and untrustworthy adults in the form of two women who torture a bird in his presence. Such Darling Dodos and Other Stories appeared the following year; the title story, which uses terminal illness to symbolize the death of 1930s liberal ideals, was lauded for keenly portrayed psychological and historical details. Wilson's third collection, A Bit Off the Map and Other Stories, was distinguished by its softened stance toward the characters, mixing the pathos and comedy that often marks his writings with more subtle satire. It was at this time that Hemlock and After, Wilson's first novel, appeared. Subsequently, only different collections of his early stories were published, with the occasional piece of short fiction appearing in literary magazines. His The Wild Garden or Speaking of Writing, based upon university lectures, delves into the major influences on his writing and is considered a candid look at his creative process.

Critical Reception

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. One element that evoked negative comments was the violence exhibited in his fiction. A critic of Wilson's first collection expressed surprise at the horror and cruelty depicted in the stories, but acknowledged that it aptly reflected the "sickness" of the postwar period. In general, however, most commentators judged Wilson's stories as innovative and bold, taking some pleasure in the sometimes humorous unpleasantness of the tales. Wilson's reputation grew with the publication of several popular novels, but his experimentation with nontraditional form in subsequent works drew mixed reactions. Indeed, 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.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

The Wrong Set and Other Stories 1949

Such Darling Dodos and Other Stories 1950

A Bit Off the Map and Other Stories 1957

Death Dance: Twenty-Five Stories 1969

The Collected Stories of Angus Wilson 1987

Other Major Works

Emile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novel (criticism) 1952

Hemlock and After (novel) 1952

For Whom the Cloche Tolls: A Scrapbook of the Twenties (fictional journal) 1953

The Mulberry Bush (play) 1955

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (novel) 1956

The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (novel) 1958

The Old Men at the Zoo (novel) 1961

The Wild Garden or Speaking of Writing (essay) 1963

Late Call (novel) 1964

No Laughing Matter (novel) 1967

The World of Charles Dickens (criticism) 1970

As if by Magic (novel) 1973

The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (criticism) 1977

Setting the World on Fire (novel) 1980

Criticism

Rosemary Carr Benét (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "On the Way Up or Down," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 11, March 18, 1950, p. 15.

[In the following review, Benét praises The Wrong Set, noting that Wilson 's writing "is marked by sharp detail and a keen eye and ear. "]

These are very good short stories. I was surprised at howgood they are, for I did not know the author's name. I was even more surprised to read that he has worked since 1937 on the staff of the British Museum Library, for that staid atmosphere is not reflected here. It is only fair to warn that the stories [in The Wrong Set] are not always pleasant ones. If you are squeamish you may object to some of the emotions for there is a queer, morbid vein running through them, but I doubt if you will forget them. Angus Wilson has been compared to Saki—"the sudden round-the-corner surprise of Saki"—and at least one story here reminded me of Katherine Mansfield's method. His writing is his own but like Saki's and Mansfield's it is marked by sharp detail and a keen eye and ear. The emotional content is high. I thought I was a case-hardened reader, but I felt a pricking and my hair standing on end over one called "Raspberry Jam," about a little boy who has tea with two crazy ladies—insane-crazy.

The stories often have a savage intensity and Mr. Wilson can write with equal knowledge and accuracy about a professor of English poetry...

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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Human Frailty," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2903, October 18, 1957, p. 62.

[In this mixed review of A Bit Off the Map, the critic approves of Wilson's "accurate " and "kindly " fictional observations but speculates that the stories might become dated due to their emphasis on contemporary society.]

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Michael Mitigate (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Angus Wilson's Guide to Modern England," in The New Republic, Vol. 137, No. 2244, November 25, 1957, pp. 17-18.

[In the following excerpt, Millgate finds A Bit Off the Map to be more compassionate than Wilson's earlier story collections. The critic also believes that the book is an insightful guide to the English social structure after World War II.]

It is, of course, the characters in Angus Wilson's new book of short stories who are off the map, hopelessly lost in a land of shifting values and changing class-lines—not the author himself. He, indeed, sits squarely in the middle of the contemporary English scene, like a supersensitive radar scanner...

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C. B. Cox (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Angus Wilson: Studies in Depression," in Critical Essays on Angus Wilson, edited by Jay L. Halio, G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, pp. 81-7.

[In this essay, originally published in Cox's 1963 book The Free Spirit, the critic argues that Wilson's short stories represent a liberal humanist attitude but that the author's pessimism about human life makes his humanist sentiments less idealistic than those of authors like English novelist E. M. Forster.]

The fiction of Angus Wilson provides evidence for the great changes that have taken place in the thinking of liberal humanists during the last hundred years. In fact George Eliot would have found him a very odd...

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Angus Wilson (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: An excerpt, in The Wild Garden or Speaking of Writing, University of California Press, 1963, pp. 23-55.

[In this excerpt from his book-length commentary regarding his development as a writer, Wilson discusses the manner in which events and characters from his life influenced his short fiction.]

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Jay L. Halio (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, " in Angus Wilson, Oliver and Boyd, 1964, pp. 13-26.

[In this chapter from his book-length study of Wilson, Halio discusses the author's first two collections of short stories and outlines the characters, situations, and constructs employed in his fiction.]

The original, enthusiastic response to Wilson's first two collections of short stories, The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, unquestionably owed much to their refreshing wit and vigorous satire. Causing this response, too, was the brilliant way that they treated the problems of contemporary life, particularly the difficulties of social...

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Malcolm Bradbury (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Angus Wilson," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter, 1966, pp. 117-25.

[An English man of letters, Bradbury is best known as the author of such satiric novels as Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and Stepping Westward (1965). He has also, as a literary critic, written extensively on English and American literature, especially the works of E. M. Forster. In this analysis, he discusses Wilson 's unusual mix of moral realism and absurd, grotesque characters.]

Many of the critics who have commented on Angus Wilson's fiction appear to have seen him as a direct inheritor of a central tradition in English fiction—the...

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Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: A review of Death Dance: Twenty-five Stories, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LII, No. 27, July 5, 1969, pp. 33-4.

[Oates is an American fiction writer and critic who is perhaps best known for her novel Them (1969), which won a National Book Award in 1970. Her fiction is noted for its exhaustive presentation of realistic detail as well as its striking imagination, especially in the evocation of abnormal psychological states. As a critic, Oates has written on a remarkable diversity of authors—from Shakespeare to Herman Melville to Samuel Beckettand is appreciated for the individuality and erudition that characterize her critical work. In this...

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Robert Kirsch (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Death Dance: 25 Stories Designed to be Dipped Into," in Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1969, p. 8.

[In this mixed review of Death Dance: Twenty-Five Stories, Kirsch criticizes Wilson's detachment in his stories and his overemphasis on English class relations, traits that often result in one-dimensional characters.]

Death Dance: Twenty-five Stories by Angus Wilson should not be read straight through but rather dipped into. I suspect that the first procedure produces a response similar to the presence of a weekend guest: he is interesting at times but an intense exposure produces moments of ennui.

The fact is that too much...

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Angus Wilson with Frederick P. W. McDowell (interview date 1971)

SOURCE: "An interview with Angus Wilson," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall, 1972, pp. 77-105.

[In the following excerpt, taken from an interview conducted in the fall of 1971, Wilson discusses various writers that have influenced his work, including Charles Dickens, Fedor Dostoevsky, and Samuel Beckett.]

[McDowell]: You have presented your views on Dickens at considerable length in The World of Charles Dickens. . . . Like Dickens you tend to have one or two characters presented in some detail (especially with respect to their moral choices), surrounded by a group of characters presented from the outside. Dickens illustrates this principle in...

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Peter Faulkner (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "To 1950: The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos," in Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist, Seeker and Warburg, 1980, pp. 1-21.

[In this excerpt from his book-length study of Wilson, Faulkner analyzes the stories in Wilson's first two collections of short stories, noting the author's developing style.]

The title [of Wilson's first collection] The Wrong Set is a highly appropriate one for the whole volume, as well as for the [title] story, for Wilson's central concern is with characters who find themselves with wrong sets of relationships; can there be relationships, the volume asks, which allow and help all concerned to grow and develop, or are...

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Averil Gardner (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Trifle Angus Wilson': Two Volumes of Short Stories" in Angus Wilson, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 12-34.

[Gardner is an English-born Canadian educator and critic. In this excerpt from her book-length study of Wilson, she discusses The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos.]

"Mr. Wilson is a satirist," roundly declared an anonymous reviewer when The Wrong Set appeared in 1949. Since many of its stories, and many of those in Such Darling Dodos (1950), are lively, sharp, observant, and particularly concerned with social relationships and social class, it is not very surprising that they should have prompted a reviewer, pressed for time and space,...

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The Wrong Set (1949)

Angus Wilson also spoke, in the review already referred to, of the need for a collection of short stories to hang together, to have some sort of unity. Of the collections he was reviewing, he singled out Louis Auchincloss's The Romantic Egoists as the best in this respect. Wilson, a liberal humanist, did not approve of Auchincloss's "arrogant, neo-aristocratic" outlook, but it had had a good effect artistically, producing a book of stories with "a strict social framework and a convinced social standpoint." The coherence of Wilson's own earliest collections, both The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, is equally recognizable, though his middle-class framework is fluid rather than strict, and his...

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Such Darling Dodos

After this fairly detailed treatment of The Wrong Set, it is not necessary to spend quite so much time on Wilson's second collection. The feelings, recollections, and social ambience out of which both volumes spring are to a large extent the same, though the stories in Such Darling Dodos sometimes have a certain emotional thinness (as in "Sister Superior") and an element of exaggeration and contrivance (as in "A Little Companion") that suggest an imagination working at reduced pressure while the conscious mind makes a story out of an interesting idea.

"Rex Imperator," which derives its claustrophobic emotional atmosphere from the many vacations Wilson spent in the 1930s at his elder...

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Wilson as a Short-Story Writer

Wilson's satisfaction with "Totentanz"—whose heartless yet zestful extravagance gives it a unique place among his short stories—is a feeling his readers have generally experienced toward his two earliest collections as a whole. They are a most distinguished contribution to the genre, and display such versatility of technique and variation of detail that no story seems merely to repeat another, even though they proceed from a mental world recognizably Wilson's own and thus characterized, like that of any writer, by recurrent patterns and underlying assumptions. The world of Wilson's short stories assumes a close emotional link (whether present or desired) between children and parents, an "apprehension of moral...

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J. H. Stape (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Unknown Angus Wilson: Uncollected Short Stories from the Fifties and After," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 80-97.

[In this essay, Stape analyzes a number of Wilson's lesser-known stories. The critic focuses on the incidents from the author's life that contributed to the tales and discusses the manner in which the characters and themes of the stories are reflected in Wilson's subsequent novels.]

A number of stories published in the 1950s and excluded from Angus Wilson's three short-story collections throw considerable light on the discovery and development of his distinctive voice and on his exploration of the genre....

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John Bayley (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Last Words," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 7, 1988, p. 16.

[An English poet, novelist, and critic, Bayley is best known for his critical studies of Thomas Hardy, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy. In this review, Wilson's stories are compared to the work of English authors D. H. Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling, though Bayley finds that Wilson's early stories, in particular, are "in a class of their own. "]

There is certainly a hint of [D. H.] Lawrence in Wilson's verbal exuberance and zest, and in his ruthless geniality, although the Wilson world is all his own. Lawrence, like [Rudyard] Kipling, makes extensive use of what might be termed...

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