(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A Watch in the Night is chiefly a quiet story, not so flamboyant and farcical as some of A. N. Wilson’s earlier novels, but showing his characteristic wit as he dissects British institutions and social life. Its complicated plot involves members of the literary Lampitt family and their biographer and spans several decades.

At the beginning of the new century, Julian Ramsay, in his sixties, lives alone in a cottage. He is visited now and then by his cousin Felicity, the owner of the cottage, and makes desultory conversation with her. He apparently prefers his aloneness to other possible lives. His life appears to him a failure, but he is used to it. He sees himself as a failed actor and an unsuccessful writer who has retired early from active participation in life. Although he has a certain security, nothing he has is really his, or himself: “A room contains a life. This contained not my life but the salvaged remains of other lives,” he comments.

When on the small black-and-white television he keeps for his cousin’s visits he watches his former lover, Dodie Rich, act the part of Margaret of Anjou in a Shakespearean play, Julian is forced to remember the last night in his “real” life. During this night about eighteen years before, he made love to Dodie for the last time. Julian had been ambivalent toward sex and had difficulties with it in the past, but his relationship with Dodie was satisfying to both of them; still, he was not able to commit to her. After the lovemaking, he spent a long night wandering through London with Kit Mayfield, visiting with people from his past and strangers in the city’s high and low places. During this odyssey, he kept making calls to Leman, the woman who took care of the property at Staithe, the estate owned by Julian’s patroness Victoria Amt. He was infatuated with Leman, whose earthiness and directness were so unlike Julian’s character. She also contrasted with the attractive bachelor Kit, whose sexuality is questioned. (In fact, the whole London foray has parallels with the story of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which so intrigued Julian.) This long evening resulted in devastating revelations about the Lampitts, the family he had been researching, and about himself. Although nothing actually happened to Julian, he would never be the same again.

Julian’s past achievements, in both love and literature, had been marginal and hard-won. He could not seem to pin down the truth about the Lampitts, and his play about Shakespeare’s sonnets had been butchered by Gorley Swallow and others. He identified with the Shakespeare of the sonnets and was emotionally invested in this play. Moreover, the successful writer Raphael Hunter seemed throughout Julian’s life to have been always on the scene and able to take whatever he wanted: Julian’s women, friends, and projects. Julian compared himself frequently with Raphael, who was a grabber and doer rather than a sensitive restrained observer like himself. The extent and nature of Hunter’s voracious approach to life became evident during Julian’s night of enlightenment. Julian’s restraint, however, did not profit him, at that time or ever.

The multinovel story of generations of Lampitts has some similarities with William Faulkner’s sagas of the American South, except that the Lampitt family secrets have nothing to do with miscegenation and blurred family lines, but rather with politics and sexuality. History and politics, social issues and ideas of honor play a part in the Lampitt story as they do in Faulkner’s tales of Yoknopatawpha County, and if for the American reader the British events and issues are not so familiar, they are presented provocatively. Attitudes and behavior related to the war are hinted at in such a way as to suggest a lot about the British national character as Wilson sees it.

Julian Ramsay is a classic British passive hero. Like John Marcher in Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle, he watches his life unroll, crouched beneath a burden of oppressive self-awareness that permits him neither to give to life nor to take from it. Throughout the novel, the reader develops an impatience with Ramsay, as with the main character in James’s story. One wants Ramsay to move, to take charge of his life, to connect. His failure to do so is not adequately explained by the circumstances. His final contentment with crumbs that fall from others’ tables does not seem justified by what happens to him, although it does seem consistent with his character. A major accomplishment of this novel is to sustain interest in such a person, someone who seems drawn along by the pressure of events, unwilling or unable to...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)