Writers for Conservatives, 67: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Angus Wilson (1913-1991), who emerged as a leading British novelist after the war, was an admirer of Victorian literature (he wrote books about both Dickens and Kipling), and it shows in his wonderful second novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), which is crowded with colorful characters closely observed and intricately connected. There’s a happy ending and what’s more, a moral one, completely believable. It is a remarkable novel, ingeniously plotted, filled with memorable scenes and characters.
The book opens with a newspaper account from 1912 of the discovery of a Saxon bishop’s tomb from the 7th century in which a pagan fertility figure anomalously turns up. This is the central incident of the story to which all the later incidents are related. The hoax (for it is a hoax) perpetrated there starts a trail of falsity that runs throughout the book. The protagonist, Gerald Middleton, must expose the lie in order to confront and conquer his own moral weakness. Nor is this only his own problem; moral weakness and dishonesty is manifest in other characters.
The theme of moral weakness is sounded at once at the beginning of the first chapter as Gerald reads the newspaper column of his son John who, unwittingly, is championing a man whose father-in-law was involved in the original hoax and whose wife blackmailed one of the people involved. Gerald does not know this at the time, but he dislikes his son’s “histrionic, self-deceiving temperament,” and there follows this sentence: “Never, after all, had he himself been prepared to face the truth in life, either in his family or in his profession.” He knows himself as a
“. . . family man who had 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.”
On the evening of that day there is to be a meeting of the association of medieval scholars, and all the chapter’s incidents are pointed in that direction. Gerald reads a letter from the head of the association, Sir Edgar Iffley, about the editorship of the new medieval history (a multi-volume work) which nearly everyone wants Gerald to assume, but which he is determined to avoid. The narrative then shifts to a luncheon meeting of an eccentric scholar, Rose Lorimer, with a third-rate novelist, Clarissa Crane, who, planning to write a historical novel, has induced Dr. Lorimer to bring her as a guest to the evening meeting. The scholar is batty on the subject of the influence of paganism on the early Church (the Melpham “discovery” would be a key piece of evidence), and the luncheon is pervaded by misunderstanding as each character pursues her own thoughts in a comic contretemps that neither understands, another instance of self-deception. This is followed by a brief scene between Professor Clun, a nasty narrow-minded scholar, an antagonist of Gerald Middleton, and his browbeaten wife, as he sets out for the meeting. Next is a scene between two younger scholars discussing how to persuade Gerald to take the editor’s job. Finally we get to the meeting to be addressed by a German scholar, Professor Pforzheim. This is the annual Stokesay lecture named after the well-known historian who supervised the Melpham excavation. Hints that Stokesay went off the rails in the 1930s introduces another aspect of the theme of dishonesty: the men of Munich, the appeasers of Nazis, of which Stokesay was one. As the lecture is about to begin, Gerald whispers to Sir Edgar “There’s not a chance in a hundred that I’ll take the editorship.” So ends the first chapter.
I have described this chapter at length because I want to show how cleverly the book is plotted, each piece fitting together to advance the themes. I also want to show how the author advances the plot by showing the connections between the characters at the same time that our interest in them grows. I shall not continue in such detail, but I must show how the novel works.
The scene in chapter 4, Christmas celebrations at the home of Gerald’s wife, Ingeborg, is crucial because in it we learn about the past. Ingeborg is horribly sentimental, encroaching on everyone, but at the same time ensuring that her children, three sons and a daughter, fall under her sway. Gerald reflects, as he observes them:
“It recalled too vividly the whole pattern of his family life: a world of indulgent sweetness and syrupy intimacy. He had done nothing to reform it all these years: he could do nothing now. Nevertheless, the failure of his family life added to his preoccupation with his professional death and closed him round in a dense fog of self-disgust. It seemed to him that his whole life had grown pale and futile because it was rooted in evasion.”
Then he drowses in his armchair and hears phrases from the others in the room (who are arguing about some of the issues in the book) and what he overhears kindles memories, and in a series of flashbacks we observe revealing scenes which tell us more and more about the relations of the characters and the moral problems they raised in the past and are still raising. Gerald recalls the vivid scene when Gilbert Stokesay, the nasty son of the scholar, told him that he filched the fertility figure from a nearby pagan site and planted it in the bishop’s tomb. Because Gilbert is offensively drunk it’s easy for Gerald (and for the reader) to believe it’s “another of Gilbert’s aggressive drunken jokes.” The last flashback is about Gerald’s visit to Melpham on the day of the discovery, and the result is to invigorate him to face the truth. In fact, the others in the room have been discussing the nature of the truth, and when Gerald gets up from the chair, Ingeborg says:
“‘You know all about the truth, don’t you, Gerald?’ ‘Yes, my dear, I think I do,’ he answered, ‘but I’m going off to bed.’”
“When he got upstairs to his room, he sat down and wrote to Sir Edgar, accepting the editorship of the History.”
That chapter concludes the first half of the book, the elucidation of the past events that have led to the present; the rest of the narrative is about Gerald’s efforts as he works to discover the truth about Melpham, urged on by some of the characters. Working out the intricacies of the characters’ relations to him, to each other, and to the truth is fascinating. To symbolize Gerald’s personal triumph, at the end he accepts Sir Edgar’s proposal that he become chairman of the Historical Association.
I cannot praise this book enough. I’ve probably read it three or four times, and as I was writing this, looking up passages, I became so absorbed in my reading that I stopped writing altogether! *