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Wilson, Sir Angus (1913-1991)  

Whereas one can accurately predict a number of things about a new novel by certain authors, one was never able to predict what kind of novel Sir Angus Wilson would write or where his career would take him. He was a true man of letters, following a path quite unusual for a British writer.

On the one hand, he published studies of Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Rudyard Kipling, and technique in fiction, held visiting appointments at fifteen American universities, and was active in the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Royal Society of Literature, activities that helped earn him a knighthood in 1980.

On the other hand, he authored eight novels and numerous short stories, treating subjects as varied as scholarly fraud in Anglo-Saxon archaeology, the nonhuman milieu of the New Towns, the London zoo as futurist fable, a sweeping anti-Galsworthian survey of an English family, and a terrorist attempt to blow up Parliament.

Scattered throughout these works are a number of gay characters, presented from a decidedly nonapologetic gay viewpoint. Indeed, describing his work, Wilson singled out his "open statement of the possibility of homosexual happiness within a conventional framework" as a defining feature of his fiction.

Wilson, whose satire and wit led Kingsley Amis later to call him "our Thackeray," was born Frank Johnstone, educated at Westminster and Merton College, Oxford, where he took an honors degree in history in 1936.

He worked for the British Museum (1937-1955), where he became deputy superintendent of the Reading Room (1949-1955) and was also responsible for replacing the books destroyed in World War II. In 1966, he was appointed professor at the University of East Anglia.

Between his first novel, Hemlock and After (1952), published when he was thirty-nine, not an unusual age for a British novelist to debut, and his last, Setting the World on Fire (1980), Wilson gradually moved from realistic social satire done within a traditional form to modernist myth and literary pastiche, all the while trenchantly critiquing liberal humanism.

He was driven, he admitted, by "deep distrust of money, property, and the sort of responsibility that goes with them." In many ways, his 1952 book on Zola taught him how to write a novel.

In Hemlock and After, Bernard Sands, a famous and gay novelist, confronts the problems of exercising authority in both private and public worlds--the recurrent Wilson problem--as he attempts to found a haven for young writers and to deal with his paranoid wife. Sands's affair with Eric causes him to begin to question his motivation in both areas.

Similar questioning of motivation also informs Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1952), in which Gerald Middleton, a retired history professor, confronts the possibility that a key discovery relating to Anglo-Saxon culture may well have been faked by his mentor; and in The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958), Meg Eliot's husband is killed by an assassin in an Oriental airport, and she attempts to piece together a life while living with her brother and his companion.

These novels are enriched by the secondary characters, often the keenly observed butts of satire, depicted with Dickensian laughter and censure.

Indeed, wit and satire join with Wilson's general pessimism and rigorous depiction of themes as he delineates an individual's capacity for self-delusion and those rare moments of enlightenment, as when the Mosson family in Setting the World on Fire confronts the intrusion of terrorists into their seventeenth-century mansion with its famed Phaeton ceiling in an attempt to light a fire that will destroy a world through the immediate destruction of Parliament and its members.

David Leon Higdon


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Conradi, Peter. Angus Wilson. London: Northcote House, 1997.

Cox, C. B. The Free Spirit. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Drabble, Margaret. Angus Wilson: A Biography. London: Secker and Warburg, 1995.

Faulkner, Peter. Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist. New York: Viking, 1980.

Gardner, Averil. Angus Wilson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Gransden, K. W. Angus Wilson. London: Longmans, 1969.


    Citation Information
    Author: Higdon, David Leon  
    Entry Title: Wilson, Sir Angus  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 19, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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