A. N. Wilson’s novels are part of the tradition of sophisticated wittiness—sometimes comic, sometimes satiric—that explores the English caste system (with particular emphasis on the middle and upper middle classes), long a subject for English letters, particularly in the 1930’s. The promise that World War II would not only stop international tyranny but also destroy the British social hierarchy was not, in fact, fulfilled. Great Britain may have fallen on hard times economically, and may have become less important politically, but the class structure, though shaken, has prevailed.
The Sweets of Pimlico
Evelyn Waugh was the foremost social satirist prior to World War II and until his death in 1966, commenting on the dottier aspects of life among the well-born, the titled, the talented, and the downright vulgar climbers and thrusters determined to ascend the greasy pole of social, political, and economic success. Wilson’s first novel, The Sweets of Pimlico, might well have been written by a young Waugh. Thinly plotted but written with astringent grace and wide-ranging peripheral insights into the fastidious improprieties of the privileged, it tells of the bizarre love life of Evelyn Tradescant (whose surname alone is appropriately odd, but whose credentials are established by the fact that her father is a retired diplomat, Sir Derek Tradescant, of some minor political reputation).
By chance, Evelyn tumbles (literally) into an association with a much older man, Theo Gormann—wealthy, pleased by the attentions of a young woman, and mysteriously ambiguous about his past, which seems to have involved close association with the Nazis before the war. While Theo urges his peculiar attentions on Evelyn, so does his closest friend, John “Pimlico” Price, and Evelyn learns that everybody seems to know one another in varyingly confusing ways. Her father and mother remember the Gormann of Fascist persuasion, and her brother, Jeremy, is also known to Theo through his connection with Pimlico, who proves to be an occasional male lover of Jeremy, who in his last year at Oxford is doing little work but considerable loving, including a sudden excursion into incest with Evelyn. Wilson is teasingly and sometimes feelingly successful in exploring the sexual brink upon which Evelyn and Theo hover in their relationship and which convinces Theo to give part of his estate to Evelyn. Pimlico, the present heir, knows that someone is being considered as a joint recipient of the estate, but he never suspects Evelyn, and Theo dies before the will is changed. All is well, however, since Evelyn and Pimlico decide to marry. The novel is farce of high order in which coincidence, arbitrary behavior, and sophisticated silliness are mixed with moments of genuine tenderness (but not so tender as to overcome the sly mockery of money and influence in the smart set of south London).
Unguarded Hours and Kindly Light
In his next two novels, Unguarded Hours and Kindly Light, Wilson eschews the underplayed wit of The Sweets of Pimlico for comic excess, reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse in its extravagant playfulness. These theological comedies are strongly cinematic in their incident and character and they display, if ridiculously, Wilson’s strong interest in, and deep knowledge of, English Anglicanism and its constant flirtation with Roman Catholicism as well as his affectionate enthusiasm for the detail, the knickknackery, of religious ceremony and trapping. The two novels ought to be read in the proper chronological order, as the hero escapes in a balloon at the end of Unguarded Hours and begins in the next one, having floated some distance away, once again trying to make his way into the clerical life.
The Healing Art
The Healing Art, one of Wilson’s most admired works, reveals how wide his range can be, not only tonally but also thematically. The novel is a “black comedy” in the sense that acts that normally offend are portrayed in such a way that readers enjoy the improprieties without worrying about the moral consequences. Two women, one a university don, one a working-class housewife, meet while having surgery for breast cancer and comfort each other, despite the fact that they otherwise have nothing in common. Their doctor, overworked but peremptory, unfeeling, and vain, may have misread the women’s X rays and deems one of them cured and the other in need of chemotherapy. The gifted, handsome, successful younger woman, informed of her possibly fatal condition, refuses treatment, energetically determined to live out her life quickly and to explore her personal relations with some fervor. In the process, she learns much about herself and her male friends and becomes involved in a love affair with the cast-off, occasional mistress of the man whom she presumed was, in fact, her lover (even if such love had not, to the moment, been consummated).
Wilson juxtaposes the range of experience open to a woman of the upper middle class, searching for some meaning for the last days of her life, surrounded by the many pleasures and alternatives of her world, to the life of a working-class woman, supposedly healthy but obviously wasting away and ignored by family and by the medical profession as something of a nuisance. Wilson subtly explores the cruelty of it all, and the final ironies for both women are unnervingly sad and comic. Wilson proves with this novel that he is serious and sensitive, particularly in dealing with the emotional lives of the two women.
Who Was Oswald Fish?
In Who Was Oswald Fish?, which might be called a contemporary black fairy tale, coincidence simply struts through the novel. The mysterious Oswald Fish, a turn-of-the-century architect and designer whose one church—a Gothic ruin in the working-class district of Birmingham—is to be the center of life and death for the parties drawn together to decide its fate, proves to be related to everyone who matters (and some who do not). In the retrieval of Fish’s reputation from the neglect and indifference of twentieth century tastelessness and vulgarity, one suicide, one manslaughter, and two accidental deaths occur, the latter two in the rubble of his lovely old church. No one means any harm (although there are two children in this novel who could put the St. Trinian’s gang to flight).
Fanny Williams, former pop star and model and survivor of the English rock revolution of the early 1960’s, is, in the late 1970’s, famous again as the owner of a chain of trash-and-trend novelty shops dealing in Victorian nostalgia, and she is determined to protect the ruined church from demolition at the hands of soulless civic planners. Sexy, generous, and often charmingly silly, Fanny lives a life that is an extravagant mess, a whirlpool of sensual, slapstick nonsense in which some survive and some, quite as arbitrarily, drown. Behind the farcical escapades lies Wilson’s deep affection for the rich clutter of Victoriana juxtaposed to the new efficiency.
After the comic excesses of Who Was Oswald Fish?, Wilson pulled back into the narrower range of his early work in Wise Virgin. There has always been a sense that not only Waugh but also Iris Murdoch influenced Wilson (The Sweets of Pimlico is dedicated to her and to her husband, the literary critic John Bayley), particularly in the way in which she uses love as an unguided flying object that can strike any character in the heart at any moment. Love tends to strike arbitrarily in Wilson’s fiction, for he, like Murdoch, enjoys tracing the madness of fools in love. Also reminiscent of Murdoch, Wilson works interesting technical detail into his novels, often, as has been stated, of the religious world, but in Who Was Oswald Fish? his interest in Victorian architecture and objets d’art predominates and adds amusingly to the texture of the novel. In Wise Virgin, Wilson utilizes his own special knowledge as a literary scholar, since hisprotagonist, Giles Fox, is a medievalist, working on a definitive edition of an obscure text, A Treatise of Heavenly Love, on the relation of virginity and the holy life. Fox, irascible, snobbish, and sometimes vicious, has two virgins on his hands—his daughter, whom he has sought to educate without benefit of twentieth century influence, and his assistant, Miss Agar, who is determined to marry him.
Wilson has been accused of gratuitous cruelty in the way in which he allows his characters to comment on the gracelessness of contemporary British society, and it is true that Fox is a master of the unfair comment and is insensitive to the possibility that some kinds of stupidities, particularly in the less privileged classes, are only innocent gaucheries. Certainly Fox is an unattractive protagonist, but he is also a man who has suffered much, having lost one wife in childbirth and another in an automobile accident, and having himself gone blind in midcareer. He is something of a twentieth century...
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