Angus Wilson has always been a paradoxical writer, assiduously concerned with the niceties of humanist behavior, but naggingly interested in the cruel and the sinister. This was very evident in his early short stories—such as the notorious “Strawberry Jam”—and fairly implicit in his novels. When The Old Men at the Zoo appeared four years ago it was admired by some readers, but others, including this one, found it a dismaying work. In it Mr. Wilson abandoned his natural talents for a portentous essay in fantastic allegory, culminating in a phantasmagoria of violence—with England at war with the Common Market countries and political prisoners sacrificed to the animals of the London Zoo in an attempted revival of the gladiatorial shows of Imperial Rome. Its obsessive quality suggested that it was the kind of novel that every now and then a writer feels he has to write, but this didn’t make it any more of a success. One now sees, however, that it was something of a necessary blood-letting for Mr. Wilson’s imagination: he faced his own inner fantasies with clarity and courage and, for the time being at least, subdued them. As a result, his new novel seems to me to have a serenity and a concentration on its subject, without the deflections that indicate the pressure of the author’s hidden private concerns, that is new in Mr. Wilson’s fiction and indicates a large development in his talents.
One must be careful, of course, about describing Late Call as “positive” or “affirmative,” though it is. Didn’t Bernard Sands, the tormented novelist hero of Hemlock and After, read with sardonic enjoyment the eager though presumably uncomprehending reviews that described a book of his in such terms as “Refreshing, if unexpected, source of renewed hope and affirmation in living” and “a sadly needed testimony to the endurance of the human spirit”? “And all this, Bernard reflected with amusement, proceeded from an irrational preoccupation with evil that was probably the result of nervous anxiety.” Mr. Wilson has not lost his own sense of evil, but instead of allowing it to run to fantasies at the margin of his main narrative, like the grotesque neo-Dickensian figure of the procuress Mrs. Curry in Hemlock and After or the richly corrupt Irish youth Larry Rourke in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, he has now been able to integrate it with his principal strength as a novelist, his impeccable sense of social fact. The result, in Late Call, is a desperate picture of the bleakness and flatness of life in a New Town on the edge of the English Midlands, where the gimmickry of affluence has become a way of life rather than an aid to living. American writers, investigating a wide range of air-conditioned nightmares, have been on to such subjects for years, but they are still new in English fiction.
Into this modish but hollow setting Mr. Wilson inserts his truly heroic heroine—the vehicle of his positives—Sylvia Calvert, now in her sixties, who has retired after a lifetime spent as the manageress of small, unsmart hotels. Accompanied by her sponging idler of a husband, Arthur—a wonderfully drawn character—who cares only about playing cards and reliving the days when he held a temporary commission during the First World War, she goes to live in the New Town of Carshall with her recently widowed son Harold. He is a progressive headmaster, a writer of highly profitable textbooks and works of educational theory with titles like The Blokes at the Back of the Class, and an active citizen of Carshall and upholder of the New Town’s ideals. Harold waves his filial feeling like a banner and warmly welcomes his parents to his fine house with its super-modern decor. How, and why, the Calverts cannot live with Harold and his three teenage children forms the substance of Mr. Wilson’s story.
Placing it against the previous novels, and leaving out of account the anomalous Old Men at the Zoo, Late Call has immediate affinities with The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot. In that admirable work, which appeared in 1958, Mr. Wilson made a number of important discoveries. One of them was that a carefully structured plot or contrivance wasn’t necessary for the kind of fiction he wanted to write. Hemlock and After was wrapped around Bernard Sands’s pet scheme for a government-sponsored residential home for young writers, the weighty improbability of which is a serious drag on the story. In Anglo-Saxon Attitudes Mr. Wilson based his narrative on the discovery, in 1912, of the tomb of an Anglo-Saxon bishop which also contained a priapic idol of unmistakably pagan origin. Mr. Wilson deals skillfully, indeed fascinatingly, with the way in which this remarkable discovery affected the personal lives and academic reputations of a large number of people some fifty years later. But the core of the novel is his exploration of the mind and sensibility of the retired professor of history, Gerald Middleton, and the efficient complexity of the novel’s plot seems to have been erected around Middleton’s situation rather than to have grown out of it. With The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, Mr. Wilson found that it was sufficient to show what happened to his refined, complacent, and prosperous heroine when she was suddenly widowed and reduced to poverty. Plot, as Henry James once indicated, had become character in action. Though even here Mr. Wilson indulged himself with the strange horticultural menage of Meg’s homosexual brother David, who is thematically necessary but whose little world is an over-developed irrelevance to the central topic of the novel.
A further discovery that Mr. Wilson made with The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot was that, as a novelist who inclines to use a single central intelligence as the focus of his narration, he is better at women than men. Bernard Sands remained a conflicting complex of worries about power, humanism, homosexuality, his children, his mentally upset wife, without ever appearing as a coherent personality—still less an interesting person. Gerald Middleton is more alive and more interesting, though I can’t feel that he is altogether worth the unending moral seriousness—certainly shared by his creator—with which he regards himself. The dilemmas of sluggishness are less profound than Mr. Wilson seems to imply. But with Meg Eliot we have a triumph of characterization: she is real and so are her problems. And Meg and Sylvia Calvert, for all their differences, could probably have understood each other; they have a common origin in the most authentic regions of Mr. Wilson’s imagination.
But the differences are relevant enough to be worth a moment’s attention. Meg Eliot is unusually intelligent and articulate, and sufficiently if not highly educated. In short, for all her individual vitality and integrity, she has many of the lineaments of other liberal heroines: Jane Austen’s Emma and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, James’s Isabel Archer and E. M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch. Sylvia Calvert, on the other hand, though shrewd, has a limited intelligence and very little education; the categories of her mind and feelings are very dependent on a taste for popular biographies, light historical novels, and sentimental television serials. In achieving so much with a character so far removed from what most novelists would consider proper or useable material for fiction Mr. Wilson has done extraordinarily well. And this achievement is quietly revolutionary, since it overturns a major implied premise of modern fiction; namely, that intelligence is the one indispensable quality for the central consciousness of a novel. With Sylvia Mr. Wilson has calmly and unsentimentally replaced intelligence with a quality rarer in fiction than in life: unselfconscious goodness.
Late Call opens with a beautifully written prologue called “The Hot Summer of 1911” which introduces Sylvia—though we do not yet know who she is—as a child of ten on an East Anglian farm, bullied by her boorish parents and weighed down by the responsibility of looking after a brood of younger siblings; she is first patronized, then victimized by some high-toned summer visitors. Mr. Wilson has always been interested in the pre-1914 era, though it has served often in his fiction as a source of negative or perverse attitudes: in Hemlock and After the corrupter of children, Hubert Rose, affects Edwardian speech and appearance, and Sherman Winter and his degenerate friends misbehave in the bedrooms of Vardon Hall because “it was somehow, they felt, Edwardian.” One of the most important characters in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, though he was killed in the First World War and exists only in Gerald Middleton’s memories, is the poet and essayist Gilbert Stokesay, whom Mr. Wilson shows as a friend and admirer of Wyndham Lewis and T. E. Hulme, an intellectual of the radical right, as it would now be called, with Nietzschean ideas and a strong streak of intellectual sadism. (Wilson is evidently fascinated by such types, no matter how much he may deplore them, since they recur in The Old Men at the Zoo and a short story called “More Friend Than Lodger”). With the prologue to Late Call Mr. Wilson doesn’t show any inclination to idealize the years before 1914: he stresses their snobbery and stupid treatment of children. But at the same time, by showing how Sylvia grew up then, and absorbed, no matter how unconsciously, certain values she has retained throughout her life, he is able to stress her difference from the New Town values and attitudes of Harold and his friends.
Through the medium of Sylvia’s often baffled consciousness Wilson makes a remarkably sharp exposure of those attitudes. In fact, Late Call could be called a reactionary book, though it would be difficult to argue this, since it advances no propositions and is not noticeably unfairminded in its analyses of contemporary British life. Nevertheless, it aims some necessary satire at English “modern living”: a naive love of gadgets, doctrinaire progressiveness, exotic eating habits, cultural status-seeking, and an overall obsession to be with-it, with-everything. Harold tries to explain to his mother the working of the new super-electric cooker: “With this heatview you’ve got a double check—this marker is going up and down the whole time, it’s just as if you had your beloved gas flame.” It is on such things, or rather Harold’s eagerness about them, that his relationship with his mother starts to founder.
One of Mr. Wilson’s keenest shafts occurs when Sylvia is taken on Easter Sunday to a church, which looks more like a lecture hall than a church, to hear the local clergymen preach: the finest thing about him is that he doesn’t sound like a clergyman at all. But he is ill, and the replacement, an elderly Scot, preaches a traditional sermon, with Calvinist overtones, about Grace. Harold and his friends are deeply scandalized, but Sylvia has been touched by the sermon and addresses a word of thanks to the old man after the service. In Mr. Wilson’s earlier fiction religion was regarded as, at best, an evasion of human responsibility; here it is suggested, through Sylvia’s response, that it might be a touchstone for testing various kinds of contemporary insincerity. Mr. Wilson has lost none of the rigorous humanism, so searchingly (or, at times, nigglingly) evident in his earlier books, but he has found fresh orthodoxies as the targets for his sharpness instead of the Anglo-Catholics and brocade-waistcoated Conservative intellectuals of his fiction of the Fifties. All this suggests curious possibilities for the future; for the present, one need only assert that Mr. Wilson has written a fine novel, which is certainly his best book to date.