Wilson, A(ndrew) N(orman)
WILSON, A(ndrew) N(orman)
Nationality: British. Born: Stone, Staffordshire, 27 October 1950. Education: Rugby School, Warwickshire, 1964-69; New College, Oxford (Chancellor's Essay prize, 1971; Ellerton Theological prize, 1975), 1969-72, M.A.; studied for priesthood, 1973-74. Family: Married 1) Katherine Duncan-Jones in 1971 (divorced 1990), two daughters; 2) Ruth Guilding. Career: Assistant master, Merchant Taylors' School, London, 1975-76; lecturer, St. Hugh's College, Oxford, 1976-82, and New College, 1977-80; literary editor, the Spectator, London, 1981-83. Presenter, Eminent Victorians television series, 1989. Awards: Rhys Memorial prize, for fiction, 1978, for biography, 1981; Maugham award, 1981; Arts Council National Book award, 1981; Southern Arts prize, 1981; W.H. Smith Literary award, 1983; Whitbread prize, for biography, 1988. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1981. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF. Address: 21 Arlington Rd., London NW1 7ER, England.
The Sweets of Pimlico. London, Secker and Warburg, 1977; New York, Penguin, 1989.
Unguarded Hours. London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.
Kindly Light. London, Secker and Warburg, 1979.
The Healing Art. London, Secker and Warburg, 1980; New York, Penguin, 1988.
Who Was Oswald Fish? London, Secker and Warburg, 1981; New York, Penguin, 1988.
Wise Virgin. London, Secker and Warburg, 1982; New York, Viking Press, 1983.
Scandal; or, Priscilla's Kindness. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1983; New York, Viking, 1984.
Gentlemen in England: A Vision. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1985; New York, Viking, 1986.
Love Unknown. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.
Incline Our Hearts. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988; New York, Viking, 1989.
A Bottle in the Smoke. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1989; New York, Viking, 1990.
Daughters of Albion. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1991; New York, Viking, 1992.
The Vicar of Sorrows. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993; New York, Norton, 1994.
Hearing Voices. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995; New York, W.W. Norton, 1996.
A Watch in the Night. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996.
Dream Children. New York, W.W. Norton, 1998.
Lilibet: An Account in Verse of the Early Years of the Queen until the Time of Her Accession. London, Blond and Briggs, 1984.
Other (for children)
Stray. London, Walker Books, 1987; New York, Orchard, 1989.
The Tabitha Stories. London, Walker Books, 1988; as Tabitha, New York, Orchard, 1989.
Hazel the Guinea-Pig. London, Walker Books, 1989; Cambridge, Massachusetts, Candlewick Press, 1992.
Hilaire Belloc. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Atheneum, 1984.
How Can We Know? An Essay on the Christian Religion. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Atheneum, 1985.
The Church in Crisis, with Charles Moore and Gavin Stamp. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.
Landscape in France, photographs by Charlie Waite. London, Elm Tree, 1987; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Penfriends from Porlock: Essay and Reviews 1977-1986. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988; New York, Norton, 1989.
Tolstoy: A Biography. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Norton, 1988.
Eminent Victorians. London, BBC Publications, 1989; New York, Norton, 1990.
C.S. Lewis: A Biography. London, Collins, and New York, Norton, 1990.
Against Religion. London, Chatto and Windus, 1990.
Jesus. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1992.
The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor. London, Sinclair Stevenson, and New York, Norton, 1993.
Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. New York, W.W. Norton, 1997.
God's Funeral. New York, W.W. Norton, 1999.
Editor, Ivanhoe, by Scott. London, Penguin, 1982.
Editor, Essays by Divers Hand 44. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Boydell and Brewer, 1986.
Editor, The Lion and the Honeycomb: The Religious Writings of Tolstoy. London, Collins, and New York, Harper, 1987.
Editor, John Henry Newman: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations. London, SPCK, 1989; New York, Crossroad, 1990.
Editor, The Faber Book of Church and Clergy. London, Faber, 1992.
Editor, The Faber Book of London. London, Faber, 1994.
Editor, The Norton Book of London. New York, Norton, 1994.* * *
A. N. Wilson is a prolific writer who has produced seventeen novels, biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Milton, Hilaire Belloc, Tolstoy, and C.S. Lewis, controversial accounts of Jesus and St. Paul, studies of religion, and many polemical articles. As a novelist, his territory is a familiar one in British fiction; the world of the English middle and upper middle classes, as represented primarily by Oxbridge graduates, London intellectuals, and Anglican clergymen. To some extent, his technique resembles the satire and black comedy of Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Firbank but he is generally a gentler, more affectionate writer with a capacity to evoke both love and, in his later work, the depths of despair. By his own account, he is a one-draft writer, who does not spend time revising; and this sometimes shows in the prose of his fiction; but he nonetheless has the ability to bring scenes and characters vividly and economically before the reader and he can be very funny; as some of his nonfiction books might suggest, however, he is also concerned to explore in his novels serious ethical and theological issues.
His first novel, The Sweets of Pimlico, is a comic and touching debut that traces the relationship between Evelyn Tradescant, a young upper middle-class Cambridge graduate teaching in London, and the elderly and enigmatic Baron Theo Gormann. It was followed by Unguarded Hours and Kindly Light, highly entertaining comedies that recount the embarrassments and exploits of Norman Shotover, a shy, awkward Cambridge graduate who becomes an Anglican priest, gets mixed up with lots of girls, jumps off a cathedral tower with a hang glider, joins the CIA—the Catholic Institute of Alfonso—and plunges into a host of other improbable roles. Though relatively lightweight, Wilson's second and third novels do raise questions about the nature of modern religious institutions. The vein of comic satire is mined more substantially in Who Was Oswald Fish? which combines strong characterization, farce, parody, and astute observation of social change—the novel runs from the victory of Conservative leader Edward Heath in the British General Election of 1970 to that of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Deeper emotional depths are sounded in The Healing Art and Wise Virgin; The Healing Art presents alternating narratives of two women whose X-rays have been confused at a cancer clinic, so that one of them, Pamela, believes, mistakenly, that she has but a short time to live, and the other, Dorothy, believes, again incorrectly, that she is cancer-free. Pamela, her mind concentrated by the prospect of imminent death, seeks to behave less selfishly and to develop the sort of kindness that comes more readily to Dorothy. Wise Virgin explores the relationship between a medieval scholar, nearing fifty, who has lost his sight, his young female research assistant who wants to marry him, and his daughter, who is herself discovering the possibilities of love. Both these novels demonstrate Wilson's capacity to combine comedy, bleakness, and tenderness in a potent and moving mixture.
Scandal is coarser black comedy, focusing on a prostitute, Bernadette Woolley, and an ambitious politician, Derek Blore, who considers treason and murder in order to save himself from damaging revelations about his masochistic indulgences. But Wilson's excursions into London lowlife in this novel are unconvincing; in particular, he is unable to find an appropriate tone for the portrayal of Bernadette and his representation of her becomes rather heartless and caricatural. Gentlemen in England is an indulgent but enjoyable voyage back to the Victorian era to explore generational conflicts as the cosmopolitan Marvo Chatterway disrupts the Nettleship family, and its younger members are drawn to the religion of art and to apocalyptic Christianity. Wilson returns to the modern comedy of manners with Love Unknown, which follows the fortunes of three women, Monica, Belinda, and Richeldis, who, twenty years before, shared a London flat, went their separate ways, and now find that their different lives are not wholly satisfactory.
Wilson's next novel broke down the barrier between his adult and children's writing: Stray is the vividly written autobiography of Pufftail, an alley cat, and it can be read with pleasure by all ages. It was followed by the ambitious work The Vicar of Sorrows, in which a clergyman who has lost his faith and his love for his wife finds himself engulfed by crisis after his mother dies and he falls for a New Age traveler. Comedy here is combined with somber renderings of emotional and spiritual distress that show Wilson moving further into the dark territory he had begun to explore in The Healing Art and Wise Virgin. The novel that appeared after The Vicar of Sorrows is perhaps his most powerful and disturbing to date: Dream Children takes up the theme of pedophilia in its account of the sexual relationship between Oliver Gold, an admired philosopher who has not realized his potential for greatness, and Bobs, a sensitive, affectionate prepubertal girl. The novel is daring in the way it evokes sympathy for Oliver even as it demonstrates the appalling nature of child abuse.
The novels Incline Our Hearts, A Bottle in the Smoke, Daughters of Albion, Hearing Voices, and A Watch in the Night, which comprise the novel sequence "The Lampitt Chronicles," stand somewhat apart from Wilson's other fiction, although they share its combination of comedy and seriousness. The narrator of the quintet is the orphan Julian Ramsay, who grows up in a Norfolk vicarage, goes through prep school, public school, National Service, and eventually becomes an actor. The novels turn on Ramsay's quest for the truth about the life and death of the Edwardian writer, James Petworth Lampitt, and on the way in which the same facts may be differently interpreted—concerns that link up with Wilson's own biographical writing. The sequence moves through a range of settings in London, New York, Italy and Venice, covers a time-span that stretches from the 1930s to early in the twenty-first century, and deploys a considerable variety of characters, some of whom are thinly disguised versions of actual people. It has been compared to Anthony Powell's twelve-novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, but this comparison is exaggerated; in contrast to Powell, we hear too much of the narrator's voice and other potentially significant characters are not given space to develop. Nonetheless, the series is admirably ambitious and richly interesting.
Wilson has now produced a substantial body of fiction. His gift for comedy ensures that his novels are consistently entertaining; but as his career has progressed, he has also shown a capacity to develop his range, to tackle large and serious themes, and to respond to contemporary social concerns, despite his initial reputation as a "young fogey" opposed to modern attitudes. Although he enjoys a high reputation as a biographer, Wilson feels that fiction can present truths that elude biography and history; and his novels can be seen to constitute an engaging and insightful exploration of the nature of middle and upper middle-class British identity as it encounters the complex pressures of the later twentieth century.
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