Such Darling Dodos by Angus Wilson, 1950
SUCH DARLING DODOS
by Angus Wilson, 1950
Angus Wilson began his writing career with the short stories of The Wrong Set in 1949, followed the year after with Such Darling Dodos. Once he started on his novel-writing career, however, the flow of short stories rapidly fell off, the only further volume being A Bit off the Map in 1957. Nevertheless, the short story is a form that suited his exuberant and disturbing talent particularly well, and this is brilliantly exemplified in the comic observation and satiric bite of "Such Darling Dodos."
The story does not depend on its action, which is minimal. Tony, an aging Roman Catholic, has come to visit his cousin Priscilla in Oxford, having received her letter telling him that her husband Robin is mortally ill. What is important is the contrast in values between the two characters, which Wilson conveys through his vivid mimicking of their respective voices and his careful descriptions of their appearances and possessions. Tony employs an imitation Jane Austen speech to address his academic relatives, which gives him a pleasing sense of social superiority. Priscilla and Robin, left-wing intellectuals whose heyday was the 1930s, speak in a less affected manner. At the age of 55 Tony keeps up his looks by means of hair dye and cold cream, while Priscilla looks "like a giant schoolgirl" and has the capacity to make whatever dress she wears "seem like hand-woven djibbahs." Details like these give a clear sense of the opposing ways of life represented by the characters. No doubt Tony is the more obviously satirized, but the slightly self-righteous high-mindedness of Priscilla and Robin does not escape.
Moreover, Tony's visit to Oxford, which is actually an embarrassment to his secular-minded hosts, is an act of genuine concern on his part in response to Priscilla's panicky letter. He wants to offer the possible comforts of his Catholic faith to the dying man and the wife who will survive him, and he is allowed to put forward his ideas at some length, even describing the house in which he is staying as "a very dark corner of pagan England." But Priscilla certainly feels that he has taken advantage of her distress to introduce religious ideas in an entirely inappropriate way, and she stands up vigorously for her own view of life. While they are arguing, Robin himself arrives and attempts to conciliate them both. When Tony refuses to respond, Robin forcefully asserts his socialist ideas: "I'm afraid though, Tony, I remain satisfied not with the amount of what I have done, God forbid, but with the kind." And he refuses to rise to Tony's characterization of his concerns as "drains and baths and refrigerators."
Wilson's stories usually have a sting in the tail, however. A young couple, postwar undergraduates, are coming to lunch, and they bring the contrasting values to a striking focus. Tony is surprised to hear Priscilla describing the young people as "awful," but at lunch he comes to see why she feels this way. For Michael and Harriet Eccleston, recently demobilized from the army and the Wrens, respectively, prove to be very different in political outlook from their hosts. Michael does not find chapel a bore, and Harriet wonders whether "freedom was quite the issue when one looked at India, after all responsibility was important." And neither of them is in favor of the abolition of the death penalty. The political gap becomes ever wider, and it takes a good deal of social effort "to end the occasion on an easier note." Tony walks with the young couple as far as St. Giles and assures them that not all of his generation think like Priscilla and Robin. Tony agrees with Harriet that they are living in the past, and, feeling himself very "modern," he makes the final judgment that gives the story its title: "'They're dodos, really, but,' he added more kindly, 'such darling dodos."'
This is extremely neat and amusing, and it is certainly characteristic of Wilson's short stories. But it also makes serious social observations and raises important issues. Do human beings need religion? Can we live by "drains and baths and refrigerators" alone? Were the left-wing thinkers of the 1930s too austere or humanly unaware? Another question might concern the accuracy of Wilson's social observation. After all, it is generally argued that the ex-soldiers of 1945 put into power the Labour government that tried to change British society toward real democracy. How representative are the Ecclestons of the new generation at Oxford? Literature is better suited to raising questions than to answering them, and the success of the story is that it makes us see vividly two contrasting ways of life and encourages us to judge both. But it does this in a way that is consistently entertaining. Wilson's brilliant accuracy of social observation expresses itself in relevant details. When Michael Eccleston addresses Tony as "Sir," the narrator comments, "He loved old-world manners." Wilson's method is to make us look carefully into what manners of all kinds reveal.