Incline Our Hearts
A. N. Wilson is not yet forty, yet the flyleaf of Incline Our Hearts lists ten previous novels and six works of biography and criticism, including a prizewinning biography of Russian novelist compared Wilson’s novels to those of Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Anthony Powell, and Vladimir Nabokov, but the immediate inspiration for his eleventh novel may well have come from his work on Tolstoy. Wilson’s narrator and protagonist, the lonely, shy, and frightened Julian Ramsay, shares with Tolstoy the misfortune of being orphaned at an early age and hence being reared by well-meaning but emotionally unsupportive relatives. Also like Tolstoy, young Ramsay is educated in an alien system (the “English Gulag,” he calls it), proves to be an undistinguished student, and eventually joins the army. None of this is meant to suggest that Incline Our Hearts is a fictional treatment of the Russian writer, only that the novel may well have been inspired by Wilson’s research into Tolstoy’s life and the attendant problems of writing biography.
This speculation receives further support from the three narrative strands of the novel. The first of these is the life of Julian Ramsay, particularly the period from age twelve to twenty- one. The second is the lore of the Lampitt family, chronicled first by Julian’s devoted Uncle Roy. The third concerns a character who ties together the themes of life and biography: Raphael Hunter, whose study of James Petworth Lampitt is the beginning of Hunter’s literary career and the ruin of Sargent Lampitt, his home (Timplingham Place), and his friendship with Uncle Roy. Unlike Wilson, whose biography of Tolstoy argues no overriding thesis or interpretation, Hunter is the kind of biographer who pretends to explain all by meticulously documenting “the facts.” Wilson enunciates what is perhaps the unifying idea of his novel through Julian, whose own attempts to capture his past result in a manuscript that he eventually consigns to the flames. Of that attempt, Julian says, “I was under the ancient delusion that the mere fact of something having happened was enough to authenticate any narrative about it. I thought that truth was bound to shine through. God knows what I thought fiction was. But I was sublimely unaware that all plausible narratives, whether historical or fictitious, require art to make them plausible.”
The story of Jul ian Ramsay is Dickensian in its plot and characters. Julian is the classic English orphan and schoolboy, emotionally starved, physically maltreated, and initially unpromising. He has an inordinate fear of partings, brought on because his last view of his mother was at a train station. Shortly afterward, both his parents were killed when a stray German bomb leveled their hotel with a direct hit. Like David Copperfield, Julian is unhappy at his school, Seaforth Grange, where the headmaster, Mr. Larmer (whom the students inexplicably call “the Binker”), beats his charges with sadistic delight and, in a touch that is surely too Freudian, fondles them in their baths. In Julian’s account, the English boarding school is depicted as a hellish place, with arbitrary and oppressive rules, bad food, and systematic deprivations and tortures. The horrors of school, however, are not unrelieved; Julian finds a friend in the clever and good-natured Darnley, whose pranks relieve the tedium and provide an outlet for rebellion. Julian presents himself sympathetically, as might be expected, but also fairly, as a wounded but self-absorbed child and later as a rather smug, even priggish, young man.
The gloom and irrelevance of school are also relieved by two young women. One is Vanessa Faraday, whose nightly kisses and animated gossip inject a measure of affectionate humanity into the school’s regimen. The other is Beryl Beach, who teaches art for a short time. A disciple of Henry Moore, she awakens in Julian a love of art and beyond that inspires his first passionate and unrequited love. Miss Beach also provides Julian’s introduction to Raphael Hunter, who is her fiance’ at the time of Julian’s schoolboy passion. Typically, Hunter jilts Miss Beach in favor of Vanessa, but his relationship with the latter, as with all women, is brief and exploitative.
Julian’s Uncle Roy, one of the many thoroughly Dickensian characters in the novel, is an eccentric Anglican priest whose dedication to the history and current exploits of the Lampitt family is less a matter snobbery than of awakened imagination. Like the spuriously medieval rites Uncle Roy performs in his church, the Lampitts provide him with an object for his fancy to play upon, just as Miss Beach’s talks about Henry Moore open doors for Julian’s circumscribed imagination. It is not only in biography and fiction, therefore, that imagination plays an important part, for it does so, Wilson suggests, in life itself. Uncle Roy lives so completely...
(The entire section is 2006 words.)