If The Whistle Blower (1987) is the kind of film—a mystery—that only the British can do well, as reviewers have pointed out, then Love Unknown, A. N. Wilson’s eleventh novel in as many years, is the kind of novel that only the British can do, or, some would say, that only the British would want to do. It is a decidedly dry comedy, its dryness compounded with a liberal dose of references to local products, customs, and places that will please the native reader and puzzle the foreign-born. In considering the rather limited scope, perhaps even the provincialism, of this novel, one is reminded of not only Jane Austen’s “little bit . . . of ivory,” as she described her fiction, but also of Mark Twain’s American impatience with what he regarded as the pettiness and narrowness of her work. “Just because everything is demure on the surface does not mean that underneath there isn’t a swirling tempest,” warns one of Wilson’s characters. She may be right, but not, certainly, about Love Unknown, for what swirls beneath the surface is no tempest but is instead the author’s careful and at times brilliant undermining of such rhetorical posturing and all that it implies. Working within the long tradition of the English comic novel, Wilson has managed to write a work which is at once a satire and a sad comedy, one in which the traditional form of the comic novel undergoes a subtle but nevertheless significant modification as Austen’s bit of ivory comes under the pressure of postmodern process.
The doubleness of Love Unknown manifests itself in the very first sentence. “Once upon a time, some twenty years ago, there were three nice young women, who lived together at 73b Oakmoor Road, London N.W.2.” Wilson plays the formulaic opening and the “three nice young women” motif from traditional fairy tales against a Dreiserian realism of setting, and in this way, he introduces the conflict between romance and realism—both as narrative modes and as modes of thought—that will figure so importantly throughout the rest of the novel. The opening sentence suggests as well a certain satirical skepticism on the author’s part (or, alternately, on the authorial narrator’s) concerning the modern age, one for which a period of only twenty years constitutes a gulf separating present reality from mythic past, an age so trapped in its own present moment and point of view as to be unaware of anything older and perhaps more enduring. Significantly, the novel begins not with the first of its twenty chapters but instead with a thirteen-page “Prehistory,” covering the period from the time the three women room together to “the day before the action begins” twenty years later. It is a period about which the memories of the three women are not to be trusted insofar as they have used omission and distortion to turn facts into myths, unconsciously revising reality to fit their versions of past events. Because their memories are faulty and their stories—or histories—not entirely to be trusted, Wilson has a narrator step into his “Prehistory” “to record that happy time on their behalf.” This narrative voice—half-solicitous, half-condescending—will subsequently efface himself, surfacing only indirectly in the ordering and editing into a more or less unified account of the various stories that concern the novel’s five or six major characters, each story told in the third person but employing a quite different center of consciousness—a technique which keeps the reader off-balance and on his interpretive toes. This is precisely where he or she should be, for Love Unknown is very much a novel about the incompleteness of all stories (and all interpretations), including those fictions the characters call their lives.
At first, the three women appear as nearly allegorical figures. Linda, later called Belinda and also Lady Mason, is the Promiscuous Woman, the fool for love who always rushes in where her less oversexed roommates would never think to tread. Monica Cunningham, on the other hand, is intelligent and solitary, a seemingly self-reliant woman who has spent the past fifteen years in Paris, where she has adopted the feminist stance that enables her to continue to live her “spare, uncluttered” existence, as Lady Mason gently describes it. (Monica wonders if her friend really means that her life is “empty”; the reader is inclined to agree, seeing in Monica’s desire to master each new foreign language a way to avoid having to deal with real people in any sort of truly human relationship.) Richeldis, the last of the three, is the romantically and then later the conventionally happy one who, in the “Prehistory,” has married “the Man of her Dreams” and, as in a fairy tale, “lived happily ever after,” which in this novel means until the end of the “Prehistory.” Richeldis is a walking cliché, a fairy-tale princess in the Disney mold whose very essence (which is the essence of her mauvaise foi, her Sartrean “bad faith”) is embodied in her “coo-ing, sweet, even-tempered voice.” First a wife and then a mother,...
(The entire section is 2094 words.)