Authors: Angus Wilson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist and short-story writer


Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson was born on the south coast of England in the small resort town of Bexhill, not far from Brighton. He was the last child of William and Maude Johnstone-Wilson. His father was a Londoner but descended from a wealthy Scottish family; his mother came from South Africa. The youngest of six brothers, the next oldest being thirteen years his senior, Angus was reared in adult company and was a lonely, highly imaginative, and even more highly strung youngster. Childhood has always loomed large in his fiction, but it was not until Setting the World on Fire that Wilson wrote a novel that approached a Bildungsroman; it is a story about two brothers growing up in postwar England. Though his heroes are not typically teenagers or young men, his work is very concerned with young people both in his short fiction and in novels such as No Laughing Matter and As If by Magic.{$I[AN]9810000771}{$I[A]Wilson, Angus}{$S[A]Johnstone-Wilson, Angus Frank[Johnstone Wilson, Angus Frank];Wilson, Angus}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Wilson, Angus}{$I[tim]1913;Wilson, Angus}

Although the elder Johnstone-Wilsons had once been affluent, the postwar period saw them, like many others, fallen on harder times. Their shabby genteel existence colored Angus’s earliest years as the family moved from hotel to hotel, often only a step or two ahead of their creditors. If his mother does not appear directly in his fiction, his father often does, especially in the early stories, as a kind of raffish old sport–for example, in the character of Mr. Gorringe in “A Story of Historical Interest” or Trevor in “The Wrong Set.” Wilson’s sympathies with women other than his mother, whom he dearly loved, appear otherwise in extended portraits, such as those of Meg Eliot in The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot and Sylvia Calvert in Late Call. Both of these women confront the bleak emptiness in their lives after being widowed, each in a different way and each successfully when she is finally able to face the loneliness that Wilson views as an essential part of the human condition.

For years before and after World War II, Wilson worked in the British Museum’s Department of Printed Books, eventually becoming assistant superintendent of the Reading Room. He wrote his first short story, “Raspberry Jam,” in his thirties. Before long he attained literary prominence, first as a short-story writer, then as a novelist. His first novel, Hemlock and After, is the story of a man in middle age who faces–and fails–an important crisis in his life. Soon Wilson would face a midlife crisis of his own: As his writing took more and more of his time and he found himself increasingly committed to it, he finally decided to give up his job at the museum, and the pension that went with it, for the much less secure career of a professional writer. The decision came when he realized that he would have to devote more time to the production of his play The Mulberry Bush and to writing his second novel than his job at the Reading Room afforded or than his few weeks’ annual holiday provided. Thus, with a scant few hundred pounds in the bank, he left to embark on his writing full-time.

What Meg Eliot and Sylvia Calvert achieve through courage in the face of loneliness and deprivation is precisely what Bernard Sands in Hemlock and After fails to do and what Gerald Middleton in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes accomplishes only after a long period of dry despair and failure. This achievement lies at the heart of Wilson’s humanism, an attitude and conviction that has often linked him with humanists such as E. M. Forster, despite important and telling differences between them. Wilson was a much greater activist, both in his life and in his fiction, than Forster was, as evidenced by the character Alexandra Grant in As If by Magic and in Wilson’s vigorous participation in Amnesty International, the Royal Literary Fund, the National Book League, and the National Arts Council.

Wilson has also been compared with Charles Dickens, a writer he loved throughout his life and whose critical reputation he did much to restore in the twentieth century. In addition to books on Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Émile Zola, Wilson wrote incisive and perceptive essays on literature, collected in Diversity and Depth in Fiction in 1983. When he was a professor at the University of East Anglia in the 1960’s and 1970’s, his curriculum included Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski, another writer he greatly admired. The Wild Garden clearly shows his love for both reading and writing, as well as offering insights into some of the images and ideas in his fiction.

In addition to Wilson’s humanist concerns, his fiction reflects a great interest in the form and technique of the contemporary novel. No Laughing Matter is a tour de force and perhaps his masterpiece. In it, he utilizes a variety of fictional techniques rivaled only by James Joyce in Ulysses (1922). Wilson never stopped experimenting with the form as well as the content of his novels, and critics were often been puzzled by what came next. For example, his futuristic The Old Men at the Zoo was a radical departure from The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, the Jamesian novel that immediately preceded it. He developed the interior monologue to a hitherto unrealized flexibility and precision, and his acute ear for different voices and accents earned for him the soubriquet of mime (he actually was an excellent mimic). The cinematic opening of No Laughing Matter is difficult reading at first, but thereafter the playlets interspersed throughout the novel lend a liveliness and immediacy few fictions in the twentieth century had attained.

His last two novels, As If by Magic, 1973, and Setting the World on Fire, 1980, were more experimental than their predecessors and attracted less critical and popular attention. Wilson died in 1991, out of fashion and remembered, if at all, for his early stories and novels.

BibliographyBrooke, Allen. “The Mimetic Brilliance of Angus Wilson.” New Criterion 15 (October, 1996): 28-37. In this biographical essay, Brooke describes Wilson’s childhood and youth, his early literary career, his homosexual relationship with Tony Garrett, his disillusionment with communism, and his declining final years.Conradi, Peter. Angus Wilson. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1997. A very fine introduction to Wilson’s work, including a biographical outline, a section on his stories, chapters on his major novels, notes, and a very useful annotated bibliography.Drabble, Margaret. Angus Wilson: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A detailed biography of Wilson in which his friend Margaret Drabble shows the autobiographical sources of much of his fiction in his early years. Drabble describes Wilson’s long-term homosexual relationship with Anthony Garrett and analyzes his obsession with the nature of evil in relationship to his mother’s Christian faith.Faulkner, Peter. Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist. London: Secker and Warburg, 1980. Discusses the satirist’s negative judgment on the patterns of life around him in Wilson’s early stories. Provides summary analyses of many of the stories in Wilson’s first two collections, focusing on his developing satiric style.Gardner, Averil. Angus Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1985. In this general introduction to Wilson’s life and art, Gardner devotes one chapter to The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos. Argues that the central reality of his stories is the world of people; neither nature nor the divine nor the eternal is very important in them. Says that the unity of Wilson’s stories lies in their milieu of personal uncertainty, social precariousness, and emotional ambivalence, which allows people to be funny and pathetic at once.Gransden, K. W. Angus Wilson. Essex: Longmans, Green, 1969. A pamphlet-length introduction to Wilson’s work; argues that the success of his early stories depends on their satirical analyses of people’s vulnerability, failure, and self-deception. Suggests that many of his stories begin realistically and then are pushed to a farcical climax that involves violence or hysteria.Halio, Jay L. Angus Wilson. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1964. Discusses the character types and situations in The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, such as the Raffish Old Sport, the Intense Young Woman, and the Widow Who Copes. Argues that Wilson is primarily interested in the success or failure of people to understand who they are and what they are doing; provides a detailed analysis of “Heart of Elm.”Halio, Jay L. Critical Essays on Angus Wilson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. A collection of reviews, interviews, and criticism covering Wilson’s literary career. Includes influential reviews by Edmund Wilson, V. S. Pritchett, Kingsley Amis, and Anthony Burgess, as well as important essays by Malcolm Bradbury, A. S. Byatt, and Margaret Drabble. Halio’s overview essay is a concise survey of Wilson’s work and a critique of the criticism of it.Mackay, Marina. “Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Woolf: A Camp Reconstruction of Bloomsbury.” Journal of Modern Literature 23 (Summer, 1999): 95-110. An overview of Wilson’s career and works.Stape, J. H., and Anne N. Thomas. Angus Wilson: A Bibliography, 1947-1987. London: Mansell, 1988. This thorough and indispensable resource includes a foreword by Wilson and a useful chronology of his life. Part 1 is a bibliography of works by Wilson, including books, articles, translations of his works, and interviews. Part 2 is a bibliography of works about Wilson.Vanatta, Dennis, ed. The English Short Story: 1945-1980. Boston: Twayne, 1985. In his article on the English short story between 1945 and 1950, John Stinson says that Wilson’s characters cannot come to terms with themselves or the reality of their social situation; argues that in miniature portraits, Wilson captures psychological and social nuance through skillful irony. Dean Baldwin, in his essay on the 1950’s English short story, says Wilson is often classed with nineteenth century novelists such as Charles Dickens; discusses his themes of social cruelty and his eye for detail.
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