It is hard to pinpoint when the English first became English. Some time after Shakespeare but before American independence is probably right. Empire – the maintenance and eventual loss of it – seems to have something to do with what we think of as the English temperament. Here were a people determined to do right by the world while also subjugating it. The contradiction between a code of conduct based on honor and a policy of colonization was reinforced at home with the servants. Everyone would be treated fairly if everyone kept to his place. If you were born a footman, you invariably died a footman. Gentlemen could be penniless and feckless but they were still gentlemen. It’s an important distinction. The English gentleman is one of literature’s most essential features. Through him, we get the Prince Hal notions of duty, along with the Felix Carbury model of waste. But what happens to a ruling class when you deprive them of objects over which to rule? Do the gentlemen disintegrate along with the empire? Well, the clubs are still there and so are the estates, the manor houses, the portions of London untouched by the Wehrmacht. After the war, England’s indebtedness may have been unprecedentedly large, but debt was not unprecedented. What was new was the country’s geopolitical irrelevance. New too was the kind of gentleman that emerged from these straitened circumstances, chastened and defensively satirical. Honor and duty survived, but they had to be siphoned through a new layer of acerbity. Self-critical ironies were necessary to ventilate what remained of one’s ego.
The protagonist of Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, a retired professor named Gerald Middleton, is afflicted by disappointments more personal than post-war wreckage. His sourness has mellowed with age into fatalism. Here is how Gerald describes himself:
A man with large enough private means to scorn complaints against taxation as vulgar and irresponsible; a family man who had neither the courage to walk out of the marriage he hated, nor the resolution to sustain the role of father decently. An ex-professor of medieval history who had not even fulfilled the scholarly promise of studies whose general value he now doubted. A sensualist who had never had the courage of his desires; an aesthete who could not even add to his collection of drawings without pangs of conscience about his money or neglected historical studies. A sixty-year-old failure, in fact, and of that most boring kind, a failure with a conscience.
The novel opens with the convergence of two events: the Christmas holidays and an annual lecture given by a historical society of which Gerald is a kind of co-chair. The interplay of personal and professional interests is thematic in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes as well as structural. Wilson gives us a London out of Dickens, where minor characters have a tendency to reappear with major impact later on, and where everyone seems to know one another. Implicit in all this is the idea that Gerald’s private affairs keep extending into his public life in ways he can’t control or even make sense of. As one of his colleagues puts it, “For a man of your years you have a curious expectation that life runs smoothly.”
Wilson divides his book into two parts of roughly equal length. Part One contains four chapters; Part Two, only three. The longest chapters are Chapter 4 in Part One (69 pages), and Chapter 2 in Part Two (71 pages). I mention this only to highlight one of the hurdles this book presents to reader orientation. For a novel whose narrative focus is fairly straightforward, there is something misleadingly sprawling about these long, un-enumerated sections. Given the number of scene changes each chapter contains, they might have been more rationally divided a dozen times or more. For the first fifty pages it is hard to tell what the book is about and who it concerns. Before their significance is divulged, a montage of characters is presented. What is meant to be sweeping and intriguing comes across as diffuse and challenging, particularly since Wilson’s writing tends to be less vigorous whenever Gerald is offstage.
Gradually the story comes into focus. Fittingly, for a book that concerns a historian, it begins in the past. In the 1920s, when Gerald was a university student, he visits an archeological site in a town called Melpham where an early Christian tomb has been discovered. The tomb appears to contain the remains of a bishop named Eorpwald, who died in 695 and whose burial place has long been a historical mystery. A scandal ensues: interred with the bishop’s bones is a pagan fertility idol. At a stroke, Eorpwald’s standing as an early Christian exemplar is shattered. The Melpham dig haunts Gerald into the present day. He alone knows the truth about the discovery, which is that it was a fraud. The obscene article of paganism found in the bishop’s tomb was planted there. Gerald is apprised of this by his friend Gilbert Stokesay, a poet whose father led the excavation, and who was himself the prankster who planted it, regarding it “as a genius’s joke on the dead world of scholarship.”
When Gerald finds out about this, he is horrified. He reveres Gilbert’s father, a venerable medievalist, and he is further entangled with the Stokesays because of the affair he is having with Gilbert’s wife Dollie. The scene in which Gilbert drunkenly tells Gerald what he did at Melpham is one of the novel’s most memorable. It occurs within days of England declaring war on Germany. Both Gerald and Gilbert face the prospect of conscription. One is astonished to realize that Gilbert is initially talking about the war rather than Melpham:
Can’t you see it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened? We’ve been asking to have our legs pulled for a long time now, with our deadly tame-cat ways and our cheap little suburban civilization. A world that’s come to accept the dyspeptic rumblings of a lot of City business men and political old women for wisdom, a world that buys its painting at a guinea a yard and takes the cheeping of a lot of constipated half-men for poetry, is asking for one thing and one thing only – a mammoth practical joke.
Gilbert is just warming up. His real target isn’t the war or the “political old women” who got us into it, but the hypocritical complacency of fainthearted “gentlemen”: men like his prim, professorial father and the repressed, comme il faut Gerald. Indeed, he is fully aware of Gerald’s affair with his wife and when he calls Gerald out, it is not for betrayal but for lacking the courage to live openly with a woman with whom he is plainly in love: “If only you’d been a little higher or a little lower in the social scale, Middleton, you wouldn’t have minded about adultery.” Unfortunately, Gerald is a gentleman. As far as that’s concerned, Gilbert says, “that’s all over since last week.” At last, fed up with this diatribe, Gerald says he is leaving and that’s when Gilbert makes his move. “I’ll tell you something that’ll keep you here,” he threatens. Leading up to his confession about Melpham, Gilbert says of his father, the acclaimed historian:
You think my guvnor’s a great scholar, just because he reads Carolingian unicals or some other farting nonsense. How could he be a great scholar? He hasn’t enough imagination to come in out of the rain. How could he understand the Middle Ages with his dregs of Darwinism, his Jesus Christ who’s a decent Englishman and his Primrose League politics? He wouldn’t know a Giotto if he saw one, and tell him the truth about a Romanesque carving and his poor little cotton-woolled soul wouldn’t sleep for nights. If he thinks about it apart from his “documents” and his origins of Parliament he probably sees a lot of starry-eyed pre-Raphaelite women with goitre, or else a crowd of red-faced lady dons morris-dancing on the village green. As for the Dark Ages! he wouldn’t know a fraud if he saw one. I know because I’ve caught him out.
The rapid-fire scorn, literate and boozy, is like a cooler form of the snobbery it anathematizes. We have seen this elsewhere, particularly in the Pursewarden passages of the later books in The Alexandria Quartet. The English – at least the post-war English – are peerless self-sneerers. In Lawrence Durrell’s Clea (1960), the character Pursewarden (like Gilbert, a writer), decries the stultifying inhibitions of his countrymen. “I have taken my own precautions against a nation of mental grannies,” he says. “Each of my books bears a scarlet wrapper with the legend: NOT TO BE OPENED BY OLD WOMEN OF EITHER SEX.” In Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Gerald’s scruples are easily mocked but not easily understood. When we first encounter him in the mid-1950s, he is well clear of the events at Melpham and his affair with Dollie Stokesay. But he doesn’t seem free of them. They are the deeper layer over which his manners and reputation extend like armor; below, the turmoil goes on and on.
The way Wilson handles the extensive backstory his present-day panorama requires shows his experience as a successful playwright. He is particularly good at the staging of crowds, always difficult in a novel. Moreover, he possesses the dramatist’s knack for physical comedy. The Melpham dig is related to us in a series of flashbacks which drowsily wash over the protagonist as he drifts in and out of consciousness while his family has their Christmas party around him. On one of the few occasions when Gerald bothers to respond to something his family has said, they react “in surprise, as though it were the armchair that had suddenly spoken.” Later in this chapter, his adult children, thinking him asleep, contemplate his stalled career and premature retirement. With great effort, he tunes them out. “When a man has sunk, he decided, to the level of overhearing the judgments of his dear ones, the least he can do is to act upon the ethics judged suitable for such a clumsy stage situation.” Meanwhile, the memories continue to flow in. All of these recollections have to do, in one way or another, with his affair with Dollie. He recalls a trip they took to France before the war. Standing on the shore of the Carmargue, he tells Dollie that he was thinking about “the few times that I’ve been really happy like this and feeling they were so much more intense than the rest of life that perhaps they were on a different plane of reality. I was wondering if it was only when we were really happy that we knew what was true.”
Gerald’s curse is that he knows what is true and he is unhappy. His marriage to Inge was a compromise, a second-best to the first-rate love he had for Dollie. Knowing the truth, however, is vastly different from facing it, and facing it hardly means one is able to change it. The action of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, if it can be called that (Wilson is subtler than the blunt plotline), moves on two separate but related tracks. There is Gerald’s belated determination to set the record straight about Melpham, which energizes him with its promise of renewed scholarship. And there is the attempt to come to terms with the family he’s neglected. It is one of the novel’s ironies that the elaborate pains Gerald takes to inform people about what really happened at Melpham leaves most of his listeners nonplussed. “Does it matter now?” one of them says. Another merely suggests that “the whole thing’s so sadly un-English.” In the end, a few newspaper and journal articles (reprinted by Wilson in an appendix) put paid to Melpham with a dry professionalism which is very English.
By contrast, Gerald’s personal life is not so cleanly concluded. At first, it seems like it might be. His research into what really happened at Melpham leads him to meet once more with Dollie, who he hasn’t spoken to in nearly twenty years. During their estrangement, he has allowed her to assume in his imagination the form of some kind of pathetic monster, an unloved dipsomaniac who is haunted, as he is, by the past. And in fact, he runs into her at one point at the airport looking like “a confirmed drunkard,” not even recognizing him when he waves to her. As it turns out, she is doing just fine. It was fear of flying that made her look ill that time at the airport. When they meet again, Gerald finds that “they slipped into the old, easy relationship of their happiest days.” He even floats the idea of her moving in to his London flat. Dollie dismisses this for what it is: a sentimental trap. “We were in love,” Dollie says. “But to try to build all that up again. Really, Gerald! you’ve got to grow up.” The clichéd side of facing the truth is the implication that facing it is sufficient. For Gerald, it can’t be. What he desperately needs is a way to correct the decisions that led to truths he can’t abide. But there is no way to do this short of time-travel. In the end, he must accept his isolation. He announces to his colleagues that he is going to Mexico. How un-English can you get?
The idea of orienting a social realist novel around the discovery of a historical hoax is particularly inspired. It’s an unusual conceit for a novel and it allows Wilson to capitalize on the inherent comedy of feuding academics, the kind of fierce battles which concern the most negligible and obscure differences. Perhaps it goes without saying that Wilson is exceptionally funny. The dialogue sampled above spoken by Gilbert demonstrates a gift for timing and wordplay, but much of the comedy in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes has to do with the way a person of Gerald’s sour disposition looks at the world. “Despite his English ironic temperament, he had not got the usual English worship of the sense of the ridiculous.” In fact, ridiculousness appalls him. It is a testament to how well-drawn Gerald is that we can anticipate his reactions so clearly that Wilson can occasionally just omit them; all that’s needed is the set-up. In contrast with Gilbert’s lettered exhibitionism, Wilson does a lot with Gerald’s uneasy combination of perceptiveness and restraint. The passage below is a tour-de-force of comedic economy. In it, Gerald runs into a woman with whom he had a brief flirtation:
She looked older and more blowzy. It came into Gerald’s head that a less scrupulous man could turn her growing devotion to him into something less platonic; and immediately there followed the thought, ‘Well, she’d better hurry, if her looks go downhill as quickly as this I shan’t be interested.’ He shut off the thought savagely, and then smiled as he realized that psychologists would probably say it had only come to him through repression.
That last sentence is very Wilsonian in its concision and self-reversal. Gerald’s ironies lack the freedom of movement which a nihilist like Gilbert gleefully flaunts. Here, the jabs are all inward and every thrust is parried by the hand that made it. The surface of gentility remains undisturbed.
In its Art of Fiction series, an interviewer for The Paris Review asked Wilson to respond to what is an apparently common criticism of his work, namely, the widespread sourness of his characters. The author was bewildered by this critique. “I believe,” he said, “that life is very difficult for most people and that most people make a fair job of it. The opportunities for heroism are limited in this kind of world: the most people can do is sometimes not to be as weak as they’ve been at other times.” This is the hope the Middletons of the world have: not to correct past mistakes but to blunder into a better, or at least more honest way of living.