Angus Wilson’s novels are usually perceived as falling into the tradition of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and E. M. Forster, but No Laughing Matter, considered by many to be his greatest novel, is experimental along the lines of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. His debt to Joyce is made clear in the 1919 section, which takes place over twenty-four hours, like Ulysses (1922), and, in showing how a family deals with a long period of social change, Wilson recalls Woolf’s The Years (1937). More important, Wilson is influenced by these writers’ disregard for plot, their juggling of time sequence, their stream-of-consciousness style, and their psychological insight into human behavior.
Among the self-conscious, modernist devices in No Laughing Matter are the short plays interspersed throughout the novel in addition to the Matthewses’ performances of The Game. These plays include parodies of W. Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov, Terence Rattigan, and Samuel Beckett, through which Wilson comments on the various ways in which reality has been presented in twentieth century literature. The plays also help the reader maintain necessary, ironic distance from the characters. The theatrical motif is appropriate since the protagonists are forever assuming roles, striking poses for protection and self-deception.
No Laughing Matter is full of references to John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1922), including its famous 1967 television adaptation. Since Wilson has described the novel as an anti-Forsyte Saga, these allusions are ironic commentaries on the passing of the traditional, conventional English novel. With its vast social and historical scope, however, No Laughing Matter owes as much to the great Victorian novels as it does to modernism.