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.
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.
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.