At the end of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, an obtuse woman novelist comments that Gerald Middleton has obviously led an easy life. After the stormy events of the novel, all of which affect the medieval history professor in one way or another, the statement is highly ironic and typical of the almost invariably wrong conclusions formulated by the novelist who makes the remark. Certainly, Gerald has had a habit of retreating from life. His scholarly career never lived up to its early promise; his romantic life has deteriorated into vague lusts, while he lives alone, unable to make the decision to divorce his tiresome wife, yet brooding over the memory of his much-loved mistress; he has only a superficial relationship with his children. As Christmas approaches, he dreads the family gathering. As his fellow scholars gather, he is almost resolved to refuse the editorship of a learned journal. Life is simply too much trouble.
Yet the reluctant professor finds himself drawn into a serious academic mystery. The idol of his youth (and the father of his mistress) built his reputation by discovering a priapic god buried in the tomb of Bishop Eorpwald, a seventh century Christian missionary. Although this amazing find occurred in 1912, no doubt was cast upon its validity until forty years later, when Gerald finds himself compelled to investigate the mystery and to arrive at the truth, whatever damage might therefore be done to the reputations of those involved. To make matters worse, Gerald remembers a conversation with his drunken friend Gilbert Stokesay, the son of the professor who made the discovery, in which Gilbert insisted that it was a hoax. For years, probably because it was simpler not to believe Gilbert, Gerald repressed his suspicions. Now he must turn detective to discover the truth.
At the beginning of the novel, Angus Wilson lists thirty-seven onstage characters. One of the pleasures of reading Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is the fact that the novelist interweaves the present and past lives of these characters in the tradition of the...
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