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.
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.