Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The third novel of one of Great Britain’s most distinguished contemporary writers, The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot is more limited in scope and characters than such works as Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) and the complex family saga No Laughing Matter (1967). Still, partly because of the tightness of its structure and partly because of the successful characterization of Meg and David, it is one of Wilson’s most admired books.

Although his various novels differ sharply from one another, Wilson is preoccupied with the problem of evil, internal and external, but as an agnostic liberal humanist, he cannot suggest the traditional religious solutions. In some of the later novels, such as The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) and As if by Magic (1973), there is a clear conflict between good and evil, in which sides must be chosen. In The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, on the other hand, the evil is unavoidable and external. After death comes to Gordon and to Bill, the question is what David and Meg are to do with themselves. Certainly they must make moral choices; certainly David must defeat his tendency to withdraw from life and Meg must rise above her smug meddlesomeness. Yet, because neither society nor individuals are possessed by evil in The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, and because in this novel triumph over the evil within can come through the classical combination of will and knowledge, this is one of Wilson’s most optimistic works, with one of the most admirable heroines in twentieth century literature.