Gentlemen in England
Although British author A. N. Wilson is still well under forty, Gentlemen in England is his eighth novel and twelfth book, his third novel to be released in the United States. Clearly, the man is a literary prodigy, and if he can mature as rapidly as he composes, he will take his place as England’s greatest living novelist in a very short time. He is not there yet, but this novel shows considerable powers of invention and a flexible, witty style that marks so much of the best British writing of this century.
Set in 1880, the year in which Charles Bradlaugh refused to swear his oath in Parliament on the Bible and in which George Eliot married John Cross, this is more a modern novel set a hundred years ago than a historical novel. The difference is crucial, for Wilson is not so much attempting to re-create the late Victorian era (though he does so brilliantly) as to cast a critical eye upon it and dissect its social, sexual, and religious struggles. His vehicle is the intensely respectable and middle-class Nettleship family, ostensibly headed by Horace Nettleship, a professor of geology whose loss of faith while chipping fossils from a volcano remains the central event of his intellectual life. The most important happening of his personal life was his marriage to Charlotte, many years his junior. Long since emotionally estranged, they are kept together only by the social taboo against divorce and the Victorian passion for maintaining appearances. Charlotte has simply lost interest in Horace, realizing too late that she never loved him and was in effect coerced into the union by relatives determined to see her “well settled.” Indifference turns to passion, however, when she meets Timothy Lupton, the mediocre but socially successful portrait painter who, like every other man in the novel, falls in love with Maudie.
The novel’s title, in fact, is somewhat misleading, since sixteen-year-old Maudie is its central figure. As Wilson observes in the first chapter, “All the world loved Maudie; it was her calling in life to be worshipped and adored.” She accepts the world’s homage as her natural right, though without pride or bad manners. Maudie is a young woman believable only in a Victorian context: childishly innocent about all worldly things and devoted to her brother Lionel. Unlike sixteen-year-olds of contemporary novels, she has no interest in men and no understanding of sex. She finds the hair that grows from men’s faces repulsive, which is one reason why Lionel remains dear to her, without the slightest trace of incestuous feeling. The other man in her life, besides her adoring father, is the frivolous Chatterway, to whom she increasingly turns for advice and consolation. The great turning point in Maudie’s life occurs over one of the family’s painful meals when for the first time she lies to her father, thus becoming “a daughter of Eve.” This defection to her mother’s side is one more blow to her father’s peace of mind.
The thematic concerns of the novel are explored through the conflicts among the characters. Lionel’s embracing of the church and in particular the reform-minded Oxford Movement opens a rift between him and his father by which the claims of science and faith can be explored. One can see in Horace Nettleship’s painful rejection of his once-firm faith the struggles of Victorians throughout the period, but one also...
(The entire section is 1390 words.)