Wilson, (Sir) Angus (Frank Johnstone)
WILSON, (Sir) Angus (Frank Johnstone)
Nationality: English. Born: Bexhill, Sussex, 11 August 1913. Education: Westminster School, London, 1927-31; Merton College, Oxford, B.A. (honors) in medieval and modern history 1936. Military Service: Served in the Foreign Office, 1942-46. Career: Staff member, British Museum, London, 1937-55: deputy superintendent of the reading room, 1949-55; Ewing lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, 1960; Bergen lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1960; Moody lecturer, University of Chicago, 1960; Northcliffe lecturer, University College, London, 1961; Leslie Stephen Lecturer, Cambridge University, 1962-63; lecturer, 1963-66, professor of English literature, 1966-78, and from 1978, professor emeritus, University of East Anglia, Norwich; Beckman Professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1967; John Hinkley Visiting Professor, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1974; visiting professor, University of Delaware, Newark, 1977, 1980, 1983, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1978, 1986, Georgia State University, Atlanta, 1979, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1979, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1980, University of Pittsburgh, 1981, University of Missouri, Columbia, 1982, and University of Arizona, Tucson, 1984. Member of the Committee, Royal Literary Fund, 1966; member, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1966-69; chairman, National Book League, London, 1971-74; president, Dickens Fellowship, London, 1974-75, and Kipling Society, 1981-88. Awards: James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1959; Foreign Book prize (France), 1960; Yorkshire Post award, for nonfiction, 1971; Focus award, 1985. D.Litt.: University of Leicester, 1977; University of East Anglia, 1979; University of Sussex, Brighton, 1981. Litt. D.: Liverpool University, 1979. Hon. Dr.: the Sorbonne, Paris, 1983. Honorary fellow, Cowell College, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1968. Fellow, 1958, Companion of Literature, 1972, and beginning 1982 president,Royal Society of Literature; commandant, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1972; honorary member, American Academy, 1980. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1968. Knighted, 1980. Died: 1991.
The Wrong Set and Other Stories. 1949.
Such Darling Dodos and Other Stories. 1950.
A Bit off the Map and Other Stories. 1957.
Death Dance: Twenty-Five Short Stories. 1969.
Collected Stories. 1987.
Hemlock and After. 1952.
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. 1956.
The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot. 1958.
The Old Men at the Zoo. 1961.
Late Call. 1964.
No Laughing Matter. 1967.
As If by Magic. 1973.
Setting the World on Fire. 1980.
The Mulberry Bush (produced 1956). 1956.
After the Show, 1959; The Stranger, 1960; The Invasion, 1962.
Emile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels. 1952; revised edition, 1965.
For Whom the Cloche Tolls: A Scrapbook of the Twenties, illustrated by Philippe Jullian. 1953.
The Wild Garden; or, Speaking of Writing. 1963.
Tempo: The Impact of Television on the Arts. 1964.
The World of Charles Dickens. 1970.
Dickens Memorial Lecture 1970, with Kathleen Tillotson and Sylvère Monad. 1970.
The Naughty Nineties. 1976.
The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works. 1977.
Diversity and Depth in Fiction: Selected Critical Writings, edited by Kerry McSweeney. 1983.
Reflections in a Writer's Eye: Travel Pieces. 1986.
Editor, A Maugham Twelve, by W. Somerset Maugham. 1966.
Editor, Cakes and Ale, and Twelve Short Stories, by W. SomersetMaugham. 1967.
Editor, Writers of East Anglia. 1977.
Editor, East Anglia in Verse and Prose. 1982.
Editor, The Portable Dickens. 1983.
Editor, Essays by Divers Hands. 1984.*
Wilson: A Bibliography 1947-1987 by J. H. Stape and Anne N. Thomas, 1988.
Wilson by Jay L. Halio, 1964, and Critical Essays on Wilson edited by Halio, 1985; Wilson by K.W. Gransden, 1969; Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion by James Gindin, 1971; Wilson: Mimic and Moralist by Peter Faulkner, 1980; Wilson by Averil Gardner, 1985; Angus Wilson: A Biography by Margaret Drabble, 1995; Angus Wilson by Peter J. Conradi, 1997.* * *
Angus Wilson began his career as a writer almost by accident. Recovering from a nervous breakdown after World War II, he was advised by his therapist to try writing. He decided to try short stories, which could be conceived and written during a single weekend spent in the country and away from his regular job as assistant superintendent of the reading room in the British Library. "Raspberry Jam," his first story, was soon followed by others, and before long he had enough for a collection. The Wrong Set was the first volume to be published and contained several stories that had already appeared in literary magazines such as Cyril Connolly's Horizon. Widely acclaimed, this volume was followed by another, Such Darling Dodos, which became a Book Society recommendation. Wilson's career as a fiction writer was launched.
Although he eventually gave up shorter fiction for novels and biographies, Wilson's reputation for many years hung on the vivid impression his stories had made. At first regarded as one of Britain's "Angry Young Men," the soubriquet was unmerited for several reasons. In the first place, Wilson was of an earlier generation than Osborne, Kingsley Amis, and others in that group; secondly, his stories, while often satiric, even bitter, were not "angry." Wilson was more interested in exposing the deceptions and self-deceptions of otherwise well-meaning people, like Lois Gorringe in "A Story of Historical Interest" (the title, like many others, is fully ironic). When Lois finally awakens with a shock to realize that the father whom she has cared for over many years is neither grateful nor deserving of her ministrations, she appears rather coldhearted when the old man lies on the brink of death. But this is only a natural reaction to what she has experienced. Sentimentality might dictate a different response, but Wilson is never sentimental in his fiction. It is his clear-sighted recognition of unpalatable truths that gives his stories their strength—and their undeserved reputation for being brutally misanthropic.
A careful reading of his stories reveals that Wilson does not despise his fellow human beings. If anything, he pities the weaker ones among us, but more typically he tries to show courage in the face of adversity—psychological adversity above all. Hence in "Heart of Elm" Constance Graham exhibits great strength in the face of her children's sentimental attachment to their old nurse, Ellen, who lies dying. She refuses to allow either the children or herself to wallow in mistaken and misguided feelings of affection and insists that all three of them break free at last of the sticky bonds that have fettered them to an actually unlovely past. Similarly, in "A Visit in Bad Taste" Malcolm and Margaret Tarrant face up to the problem that Margaret's brother, Arthur, has brought them. Recently released from prison on a morals charge, Arthur clearly does not "fit in" with the Tarrants' way of life, and Margaret for one is determined to tell him. She does, and in so doing wins her husband's admiration. She also makes him vaguely uneasy, however, as he suspects she has somehow been too strong, too willing to face up to reality. The reader is even more uneasy, recognizing in Margaret's actions a singular absence of compassion for her poor old brother, whom she is quite ready to send off to "the colonies" or even to suicide so that her life with Malcolm—"individually alive, socially progressive"—may remain undisturbed by his presence.
As these stories and others show, Wilson is very much the social critic. He is at his best, perhaps, in satirizing the pretensions and hypocrisies of middle-class people in post-World War II English society, as in "A Flat Country Christmas." There, attempts at hearty camaraderie, earlier developed between Eric and Ray during their army days, break down miserably, as together with their wives the men try to bridge gaps of social class and privilege that hitherto have separated people like themselves—and apparently still do. But if satire is mingled with compassion for suffering human beings in that story, the bitchiness and snobberies of others, like June Raven in "More Friend Than Lodger," come in for largely unmitigated pillorying, as also in the title story of the collection A Bit off the Map, which merges social with political satire. A socialist all his life, Wilson opposed Britain's invasion of Suez in 1956 and mocked the futility of attempts to revive her imperialist past. Those attempts are satirized indirectly in the neo-Nietzschean palaver of the "crowd" in "A Bit off the Map" and dramatized when mad old Lieutenant-Colonel Lambourn unfolds his secret maps to Kennie Martin, a deeply disturbed "Teddy boy," earnestly trying to discover the truth. Their meeting ends in disaster.
Wilson tends to see social gatherings and the interactions of human beings generally in the form of a dance, a "Totentanz" (the name of one of his stories), or "Death Dance" (as a later collection is called). But the interactions are not always deadly, and often they are very funny, as in "What Do Hippos Eat?" Wilson peoples his stories with many colorful types, some of which may seem dated, such as the "Raffish Old Sport" ("A Story of Historical Interest"), the "Intense Young Woman" or "Man" ("Fresh Air Fiend"), and "The Widow Who Copes" ("Sister Superior"). But more often than not, deftly using such devices as the interior monologue ("Et Dona Ferentes"), he penetrates beneath the type to the common core of humanity, so that even as he exposes their follies and foibles, or worse, his characters emerge as people who still deserve some measure of sympathy. Limited or twisted as they may be by class consciousness, social background, or political beliefs, they are still recognizable as human. Thus Wilson no more deserves to be called a misanthrope than does his great eighteenth-century forebear, Jonathan Swift. Whatever they may have thought of the human race generally, their compassion—even love—for the individual remained undiminished.
—Jay L. Halio
See the essay on "Such Darling Dodos."