Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Wilson’s novels offer satiric views of the absurdities of academic, religious, and political life in contemporary Great Britain. The irony, verbal wit, and farcical comedy in these works have earned for him comparisons with Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Joyce Cary, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, Angus Wilson, Paul Theroux, Tom Sharpe, and P. G. Wodehouse.

The emphasis of the satire in Wise Virgin, Wilson’s sixth novel, is on the equally isolated worlds of the academic and the religious. Giles Fox’s spartan, self-absorbed scholarly life is made only slightly more insulated by his blindness. Louise’s Anglican friends at Cambridge speak of religious issues as if unaware, according to Giles, of the Enlightenment, Darwin, Hitler, Stalin, the Holocaust, and the bomb.

Wise Virgin’s similarities to Wilson’s other novels include weaving pertinent literary allusions into the plot and themes. Tibba is reading William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605-1606) as she moves from being a loyal Cordelia to a woman with a mind of her own, and Giles is a combination of Lear, Fool, and blind Gloucester. (The blindness motif is also noteworthy, since Wilson was working on a biography of John Milton, published in 1983, while writing Wise Virgin.) Wilson intersperses commentary from the Tretis of Loue Heuenliche throughout the novel, just as he quotes from the journals of a Victorian architect in Who Was Oswald Fish? (1981). Wise Virgin ends with a pathetic portrait of Captain de Courcy, revealing him to be the opposite of the dashing figure Tibba thinks she has been seeing once a week to learn how to overcome her stammer. This pattern of progressing from farce to more serious consideration of issues to sad, ironic coda was established in Wilson’s first novel, The Sweets of Pimlico (1977).

Wise Virgin stands out from Wilson’s other works in the comparative gentleness of its satire and in its compassionate, hopeful tone. While Wilson is frequently criticized for his bleak view of modern society, in Wise Virgin he makes fun of such an attitude through Giles’s initial pessimism. The novel is also significant in offering believable, sympathetic, very likable female characters in a period when many writers can present the opposite sex only as caricatures.