A Fallen Idyll

Margaret Drabble, subject of last week’s review, and no slouch of a novelist herself, believed that the subject of this week’s review was of the same stature as Graham Greene. In her attempts to argue this point, she wrote a biography of him in 1997. The biography exceeded 700 pages, a length generally acknowledged to have also exceeded the patience of many readers.

Whether Angus Wilson (1913-91), a prolific writer with a searing and satiric vision of the English middle classes, was in the same class as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, now seems more academic. But on the strength of his work, Wilson clearly earned a biography – even a long, chatty one. Drabble had done one other literary biography, of the late Victorian author Arnold Bennett, and was invited to edit “The Oxford Companion to English Literature.”

A preternaturally bright and humorous man, Angus Wilson could be equated to the English literary circles of his time with the same mixture of waspishness and mischief as Truman Capote (1924-84) to his circles. Arguably his most noteworthy and finely constructed novel, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes,” came forth at a time when anthropological and archaeological hoaxes had the scientific community responding to discoveries with great caution. Fearful of being had by another Piltdown Man hoax or worse, academicians trod gingerly at the hint of a rumor that the famed Elgin Marbles had been cleaned too strenuously while in English custody.

Just before the beginning of “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes,” archaeologists have exercised great caution when an extensive excavation, the Melpham site, reveals the tomb of Eorpwald, an Anglo-Saxon bishop. Trouble is, along with the bishop’s remains, there is also a grotesque figure, a fertility god, unmistakably phallic in nature.

As the novel begins, the protagonist, Gerald Middleton, a medieval historian now in his early 60s, is increasingly convinced that the phallic statue is a hoax. Gerald’s career has been anything but spectacular and he is now at the stage where it would give him not merely satisfaction but the digging up as it were of a stature lost to intellectual laziness if he were to ferret out the confirmation of his suspicions.

A major figure in the Melpham site excavation was Gerald’s best friend, Gilbert Stokesay, who was an assistant to Gilbert’s archaeologist father at the excavation. Professor Stokesay was Gerald’s mentor.

Gerald falls in love with Dollie, Gilbert’s fiancée, after Gilbert is called up to fight in World War I. Gerald and Dollie embark on some amorous excavations of their own until the shattering news reaches them that Gilbert has been killed in action. At this point, Gerald wants very much to marry Dollie, but she refuses the offer, although she continues to be Gerald’s lover after he has married Inge, with whom he has three children.

It would be a spoiler to reveal the outcome of Gerald’s suspicions about the provenance of the statue in the bishop’s tomb, but I can say straightaway that it is no mere plot-driven surprise but instead a very plausible surprise in what you will already have noticed as a complex-but-satisfying series of related events.

“Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” begins some 40 years after the discovery of the bishop’s tomb and the pagan fertility fetish; as Gerald confronts his late middle-aged conscience and the growing sense that he has been in the wings at one of the more spectacular scholarly hoaxes of the 20th century, his marriage with Inge has long since ended and his relationship with his three children more or less drifted into a mutually tolerant benignity.

Gerald Middleton was a man of mildly but persistently depressive

temperament. Such men are not at their best at breakfast, nor is

the week before Christmas their happiest time…

Thus launched into the world he has settled into, Gerald engages the unearthed relics of his own life, the might-have-been as affected by his allowing the constraints of his profession as a historian and his overly extended conscience as a person to hold sway. (In a long essay written at the time his notebooks and papers were acquired by the University of Iowa, Wilson acknowledged how the name Middleton evolved, intending to serve as a constant reminder to the reader of Middleton’s middle-ness, his perfect reflection of England’s Anglo-Saxon traditions and heritage.)

In the many years between my readings of this remarkably inventive novel, I have gone through a personal calculus, come to a deeper regard of Oscar Wilde, whom I believe Angus Wilson more closely relates in spirit and intellect than he does to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Taking that calculus to the point of digression, I can posit – without proof – that Truman Capote had Wilde in mind over much of his later years.

Rereading “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” now is like revisiting Wilde. The dramatic encounters do tend to turn dramatic and confrontational. A splendid example of this is the confrontation between Middleton and his closest friend, Gilbert Stokesay, in which Gilbert calls Middleton out on his lust for Gilbert’s fiancée, Dollie, then proceeds to castigate Middleton for being too nice, too constrained by his Anglo-Saxon heritage, then delivers the coup de grace by having at his father, Professor Stokesay, who is Middleton’s much admired mentor. A powerful scene, it shatters Middleton, and Middleton’s response to it ratifies our reader’s growing admiration for this person who has been set before us as our man.

Angus Wilson was one of the very first openly gay writers in England, giving some critics a chance to take off on his female characters as being more archetype than real, but as a tribute to Wilson’s dramatic eye, his women often emerge as having a dimension or two more than his male characters. And nowhere, neither in his real life nor his fiction, was Wilson given to propagandizing the gay or the straight life. A lovely proof of this is demonstrated in the resolution Gerald effects with Dollie.

Wilson amusingly uses an epigram from “Alice in Wonderland” to play off of the title of this rich, rewarding novel. The most promising and readily available edition of “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” is the trade paper edition from “The New York Review of Books” Classics Series, featuring a helpful introduction from Jane Smiley.