Setting the World on Fire

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The tension between order and chaos often forms the basis of art. This tension is the theme underlying Angus Wilson’s novel Setting the World on Fire. This story of two gifted and sensitive brothers during the decades since World War II explores with subtlety and grace this conflict which has inspired so much literature since the ancient Greeks.

This conflict represents the eternal struggle between the classical and the romantic, between the politically conservative and the politically liberal. The conflict also positions the importance of tradition, roots, family, and cultural history against the need for fresh air, change, and new blood. Stability is necessary if a civilization is to rise and flourish and produce a culture worth passing on to succeeding generations. Too much stability, however, may also be stifling and crushing to the very forces which are necessary to nurture the creative individuals who produce the culture upon which the civilization relies.

Perhaps there can be no resolution to this conflict, but it has been intriguing thinkers since the days of Pericles. Friedrich Nietzsche and other modern writers have been obsessed by the potential violence underlying this philosophical (and often moral) dichotomy. In Setting the World on Fire, Angus Wilson uses the structure of social comedy to analyze this conflict as it appears in twentieth century Britain. Perhaps some of the examples which appear in the novel are representative only of British society, but beyond these strictly social conventions lie some basic truths which have meaning for all civilized human beings.

In many of his novels over the last several decades, Wilson has turned his attention to the apparently universal desire for power. Taken to the extreme, this quest can lead to a Hitler or a Napoleon, but in everyday terms, this quest can be witnessed in relationships in the business world, in marriages, in scholarly or artistic worlds, in families, and in romantic liaisons. In one sense, this quest for power can be seen as part of the desire for order in the world, but it can become perverted when the desire swells into a blind quest for “my order” as opposed to anybody else’s order. With wit and sharpness, and often with tenderness and understanding, Wilson has painted this lust for power, in its many sizes and forms, in books such as Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and The Old Men at the Zoo. With Setting the World on Fire, he shows how the power can almost imperceptibly change hands, as the structure of a society evolves. The change may be so gradual and so subtle that even the people who have held the power may not realize that they have lost it. Then, suddenly, the order that they knew and cherished, the order which guaranteed their power, has vanished, and they see only chaos, not realizing that a new order has evolved, an order which has left them behind.

England, for many years the ruler of an empire “upon which the sun never set,” has, like Phaëthon, fallen from the sky. The image of the sun falling from the sky dominates this book, as it dominates the vast hall in the great London manor house of Tothill. As Richard II saw himself as a “blushing discontented sun” forced from the sky, so modern England grumbles and complains about its lost glory—or, in some cases, simply closes its eyes and refuses to acknowledge that it no longer is riding the chariot of empire across the heavens. Great Grandfather Mosson and Lady Mosson, his daughter-in-law, are two individuals who conveniently have refused to recognize that the world has changed, and that they no longer are the sun around which everything else revolves. They are able to be so blind because they have the insulation of a great fortune and a splendid estate which supports a rich history of its own. The newer generations, however, do not have the protection of money and position and are forced to stand on the very real earth and look for practical paths which they can follow. They can only wish to steal Apollo’s chariot and ride across the sky, as Phaëthon forever seems to be doing on the ceiling of the great hall at Tothill House.

“Down, down I come, like glistering Phaëthon,” cries Richard, when he is dethroned, and down fall the mighty and the complacent as the social structure which supported them vanishes. Only by transfusions of new blood can they expect to survive. At turn of the century, American money in the form of an American heiress saved the Tothill-Mosson world of privilege and position, just as generations before, the Mosson money saved the Tothill position. The most recent transfusion comes from an Italian heiress who brings money from her industrial family in Turin to reinforce the fading line. Yet, can injections of new money save a civilization, or will the influence of the nouveau riche inevitably coarsen and alter the old ways? Will the values which are being protected necessarily be changed—for better or for worse—by bringing these new influences into the fold? Might order be threatened more by these subtle changes than by the more violent changes threatening from outside? Angus Wilson poses the questions and explores them, but he does not draw clear-cut...

(The entire section is 2141 words.)