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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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Sir Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson (1913-1991)


British writer who portrayed middle-class English life, its manners and characters from snobs and aristocrats to bums. Angus Wilson was one of England's first openly gay writers. His first book Wilson published at the age of 36.

"He's so good-looking," Clarissa said, "and a charmer. He hasn't done much, has he? It's awfully dangerous really for people with brains to have money and good looks. They´re practically born to waste their talents." (from Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, 1956)

Angus Wilson was born in Bexhill, East Sussex, into an elderly, upper-middle-class family. William Johnstone-Wilson, his father, was Scottish. Wilson's mother, Maud, came from South Africa; she died in 1928. In his childhood, Wilson spent a short but important period in South Africa. The family lived in hotels and boardinghouses and moved from place to place depending upon the father's gambling luck. Wilson's siblings played transvestite games, in which he also participated. Later Wilson depicted his rootless hotel life in the autobiographical work Wild Garden (1963).

After graduating from Merton College, Oxford, where he studied medieval history and developed his acting talents, Wilson pursued a number  of jobs. He joined the British Library and worked there as a book cataloger, and eventually became deputy to the superintendent of the Reading Room. This time he also met Tony Garrett, another employee of the library, who was 16 years his junior. They settled in the Suffolk countryside, where Wilson spent with him the remainder of his life. During World War II Wilson was a codebreaker at Bletchley, like the writers Henry Reed and Mary Wesley. Wilson worked at the library until 1955.

"The one thing that matters, Gerald, with the children," said Inge, "is to be consistent. We want their little bodies to grow straight and fine like the birch trees on the mountains. But that is not so difficult. They are good strong little animals without blemishes." (from Anglo-Saxon Attitudes)

Wilson started to write in the 1940s on his psychotherapist's advice after he had some kind of nervous breakdown. His paranoidic fears were not completely groundless - his sexual inclination made him a target of gossips and he could run in the risk of being blackmailed. His first stories were published in Horizon. By the end of 1946 he had recoved sufficiently and had returned to the library, writing during the weekends, and replacing books lost in the blitz during working hours.

As a writer Wilson established his reputation with his two collections of short stories, The Wrong Set (1949) and Such Darling Dodos and Other Stories (1950). The title story of the latter book told of a rightwing homosexual named Tony, but Wilson himself was a supporter of liberal social causes. The influential American critic Edmund Wilson saw him as a possibe successor to Evelyn Waugh. Hemlock and After (1952), in which Wilson drew upon his homosexual experiences, featured a bisexual novelist.

The Mulberry Bush, a full-lenght play, was first performed by the Bristol Old Vic Company, including Eric Porter and Mary Hinton, in 1955. A slightly revised version was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1957. There was also a television performance. The Times Litetary Supplement wrote that "Mr. Angus Wilson's first play suggests clearly that he is one of the younger novelists who should be encouraged to help meet the theatre's rather dismaying lack of new plays." However, Wilson returned to the novel at the time.

Gerald Middleton, the sixty-year-old protagonist of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), knows that he has been involved in an archaelogical hoax as a young man, but revealing the truth has disadvantages. "In any case, who was he to drabble in truth-telling when he had evaded the truth, past and present, for most of his life?" The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) was a novel about the "near future," not very different from the present. In the story England is at war with an alliance of European powers. Wilson's criticism of the middle-class did not arise excessively debate in the 1960s when the "angry young men" - such as Kingley Amis, John Osborne, and Alan Sillitoe - dominated the literary scene.

Late Call (1965) explored the spiritual desolation of life in the English Midlands, and was narrated from the perspective of a retired hotel manager. Sylvia Calvert, the protagonist, comes to the New Town of Carshall, finding there that people are strangers in their own life. No Laughing Matter (1967) was a long, ambitious works, tracing the fortunes of the Matthews family from 1912 to 1967.

From 1966 to 1978 Wilson was a lecturer of English literature at the University of East Anglia. He traveled much and participated in all kinds of literary events. Although he had become a highly visible character, his reputation faded in the late 1970s. His final novel, Setting the World on Fire (1980), was a disappointment for critics. In 1985 he left his Suffolk home and Thatcher's England and moved to France. After returning to England Wilson had a pension from the Royal Literary Fund and also his friends supported him. His last years Wilson spent in a nursing home, where he died of a stroke on May 31, 1991. Wilson's Collected Stories  came out in 1987. He was knighted in 1980.

Wilson was a fellow and subsequently president of the Royal Society of Literature, chairman of the National Book League and a member of the Arts Council. His non-fiction works include biographies on Charles Dickens (1970) and Rudyard Kipling(1970), in which he examined the relationship between a writer's life and art. Wilson once said that Dickens was the novelist whom he most admired and who had the greatest influence on his own approach to writing fiction.

As an essayist Wilson became familiar for the readers of The Times Literary Supplement, Encounter, and The Listener. In an essay in The New York Times (March 1, 1981) he examined two works (The Decoding of Edwin Drood by Charles Forsyte and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, concluded by Leon Garfield) dealing with Charles Dickens's novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which the ending was left open. Dickens died before he finished the story and it has puzzled many mystery readers ever since. Wilson states that "endings" were not Dickens's strong suit, but the two writers are in a sensible direction insofar they accept Jasper as the murderer.

For further reading: Angus Wilson by Peter Conradi (1997); Angus Wilson and His Works by S.S. Agarwalla (1995); Angus Wilson: A Biography by Margaret Drabble (1996); Angus Wilson: A Bibliography by J.H. Stape ( 1988); Angus Wilson: A Bibliography, 1947-1987 by John Henry Stape (1988); Angus Wilson by Averil Gardner (1985); Critical Essays on Angus Wilson by Jay L. Halio (1985); Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist by P. Faulkner (1980); Angus Wilson by K.W. Gransden (1969)

Selected works:

  • The Wrong Set: and Other Stories, 1949
  • Such Darling Dodos, and Other Stories, 1950
  • Émile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels 1952
  • Hemlock and After: A Novel, 1952
  • For Whom the Cloche Tolls: A Scrap-Book of the Twenties, 1953 (with Philippe Jullian)
  • The Mulberry Bush: A Play in Three Acts, 1955 (play)
  • Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: A Novel, 1956
    - Epäjumala haudassa (suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1957)
    - TV mini-series: Anglo Saxon Attitudes, 1992, teleplay by Andrew Davies, dir. by Diarmuid Lawrence, starring Richard Johnson, Elizabeth Spriggs, Dorothy Tutin, Douglas Hodge
  • A Bit Off the Map, and Other Stories, 1957
  • The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot: A Novel, 1958
  • After the Show, and Other Stories, 1959 (edited, with notes, by Kaneo Kawada)
    - TV play: After the Show, 1959, written by Angus Wilson, dir. by Ted Kotcheff, in Armchair Theatre, prod. by ABC Weekend Television, Thames Television
  • The Stranger, 1960
    - TV play: The Stranger, 1960, written by Angus Wilson, dir. by Ted Kotcheff, in Armchair Theatre, prod. by ABC Weekend Television, Thames Television
  • The Old Men at the Zoo, 1961
    - TV series: Old Men at the Zoo, 1983, dir. by Stuart Burge, starring Stuart Wilson, Robert Morley, Maurice Denham, Robert Urquhart
  • Wild Garden or Speaking of Writing, 1963
  • The Invasion, 1963
  • Tempo: The Impact of Television in the Arts, 1964
  • Late Call, 1964
    - TV series: Late Call, 1975, teleplay by Dennis Potter, dir. by Philip Dudley, starring Dandy Nichols, Leslie Dwyer, Michael Bryant, Timothy Morand
  • No Laughing Matter, 1967
  • Death Dance: 25 Stories, 1969
  • The World of Charles Dickens, 1970
  • As If By Magic, 1973
  • The Naughty Nineties, 1976
  • Writers of East Anglia, 1977 (selected and edited by Angus Wilson; poetry adviser John Holloway)
  • The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works, 1977
  • Setting the World on Fire, 1980
  • Diversity and Depth in Fiction: Selected Critical Writings of Angus Wilson, 1982 (edited by Kerry McSweeney) 
  • East Anglia in Verse and Prose, 1982 (edited and with an introduction by Angus Wilson; research by Tony Garrett)
  • The Portable Dickens, 1983 (edited and with an introduction by Angus Wilson; Viking Portable Library)
  • Reflections in a Writer's Eye: Travel Pieces, 1960
  • The Collected Stories of Angus Wilson, 1987

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