The British have had a long and distinguished line of satirical novelists intent upon putting society in its place. It began almost as soon as the novel in the works of Henry Fielding in the eighteenth century, continues in the works of Tobias Smollett, and was carried on in the novels of Charles Dickens. This tradition reached its most elegant expression in the early twentieth century with Evelyn Waugh, who has been succeeded first by Kingsley Amis and second by Andrew Norman Wilson. Wilson carries on the tradition within a much wider career as scholar, essayist, social critic, and sometime religious commentator.
Wilson’s wittily jaundiced eye for the middle to the upper classes of Britain is consistent with his own social background. He was educated at the lower-school level at one of the great English public schools, Rugby School, and went on from there to New College, Oxford. He was a prizewinning student and has had a career as an academic at Oxford University. He has also been rewarded for his literary work, winning the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1978 for The Sweets of Pimlico and in 1980 for The Laird of Abbotsford, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Arts Council National Book Award in 1981 for The Healing Art, the W. H. Smith Annual Literary Award in 1983 for Wise Virgin, and the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography for Tolstoy. Wilson is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is married and has two daughters.
Wilson is also a public personality, partly because of his further career as a journalist, writing for the quality press of England. He has had a long association with The Spectator, the conservative weekly journal of political comment, literary review, and social attack, often of a scurrilously witty stamp. Indeed, it is necessary to understand a peculiar mark of social satire in that it is not necessarily confined to writing of a liberal or leftish bent and can often be at its best in the hands of writers who espouse old social structures and old social values. Jonathan Swift was not a liberal, but he was devastatingly sensitive to the excesses of his society. Wilson, if less powerful than Swift, has strong inclinations to looking upon society as debased and sloppy in its political leanings to the left, but he is also aware of how badly responsible aspects of conservative power misuse their opportunities. A novel such as The Healing Art exposes, with mordant wittiness, the slipshod irresponsibilities of the medical profession, and Scandal looks balefully at the immodest and often stupid behavior of politicians.
Wilson has never been simply one kind of novelist. The early novel The Sweets of Pimlico is hardly satiric at all although it deals with upper-middle-class social life in the center of London. It has a kind of offbeat comic zaniness about it which might have been taken as the beginning of an exclusively comic career, and his two religious novels, Unguarded Hours and Kindly Light (which ought to be read as one), if touched with a scrupulously detailed awareness of the shambles of modern Christianity, are so cheerfully forgiving that the satire might well be missed without too much damage. Wilson also uses black comedy as in Wise Virgin, in which an irascible blind scholar gets what he deserves for being an emotional thug, but in The Healing Art that inclination to run a sick joke into the ground is distinctly unpleasant and upsetting. What is always a pleasure is the way in which he brings his enthusiasms into his art. His deep affection for Anglicanism as it used to be, his general concern for the failing Christian church can produce a sensitive, sensible discussion in How Can We Know? or can be made an integral part of his deliberately old-fashioned fake Victorian work, Gentlemen in England, which is a fond re-creation of London life in the 1870’s, historically accurate and stylistically as bloated as a Victorian sofa.
Scandal and Love Unknown have that easy, sophisticated capacity to scent out the fools and villains of the English class system, but his 1988 novel, Incline Our Hearts, setting out to look like a satire on the misery which the affluent English impose on their children by sending them away to school, turns into a tale of Doppelgänger intrigue in which the narrator begins to explore the nature of his real personality. Wilson returned to this set of characters, with more emotional development, in A Bottle in the Smoke, Daughters of Albion, Hearing Voices, and A Watch in the Night, a series he terms the Lampitt Chronicles. The focal character, Julian Ramsey, makes his way through prep school, public school, the National Service, and ultimately becomes an actor over a time span reaching from the 1930’s to the early twenty-first century. Wilson’s other novels of this period, Dream Children and The Vicar of Sorrows, are more intensively serious. The first deals with pedophilia, portraying the sexual relationship of an adult philosopher and a prepubescent girl, while the second deals with the crisis of faith faced by a married Anglican clergyman after his mother dies and he falls in love with a New Age traveller.
Wilson is also a critic but not a pedant. His essays on literature and his critical biographies fall into a civilized area between the popular works of oversimplification and the barbarisms of academic footnoting and hairsplitting. His conservatism reveals itself as a generous civility tempered by a sense that he would not suffer fools gladly. He would, however, address them with gentlemanly fastidiousness and style.
Andrew Norman Wilson, born in Stone, Staffordshire, England, in 1950, was educated at Rugby, one of the great English public schools, and at New College, Oxford. He won the Chancellor’s Essay Prize in 1971 and the Ellerton Theological Prize in 1975. He was a lecturer in English at New College and at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, from 1976 to 1981. He was then appointed literary editor of The Spectator for two years and later became the literary editor of the Evening Standard. In addition to his fiction, his nonfiction, and his children’s books, he has published in The Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, Daily Mail, Observer, and the Sunday Telegraph. In 1992, he narrated Jesus Before Christ, a presentation by Thames Television Production that presents a demythologized approach to Jesus’ life. His declaration of loss of faith and departure from the Church of England in the early 1990’s ran parallel with events in the lives of a number of major characters throughout the corpus of Wilson’s fiction. His new understanding and interpretation of Jesus and Saint Paul are presented in his biographies, published in 1992 and in 1997, respectively, of those early Christian figures.
During his second year of studies at Oxford, Wilson married Katherine Duncan-Jones, one of his tutors in English at Oxford’s Somerville College and a specialist in Renaissance literature. Early in the marriage they became the parents of two daughters. After the marriage ended in divorce, he married Ruth Guilding, an art historian whom he met in 1989 when filming a television episode of Eminent Victorians, which he was narrating. Wilson was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1981 and is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.