Like many 15-year-olds I dreamt of understanding myself better. I knew my background was ‘bourgeois’ and thought I was probably gay. Did this mean that I ‘fitted in’? Or not? My English master lent me a story by Angus Wilson called ‘Fresh Air Fiend’, and this encouraged me to read Wilson’s landmark collections The Wrong Set (1949) and Such Darling Dodos (1950). I felt attracted by his mind: he seemed to have the social world thoroughly mapped and to be writing simultaneously with an insider’s confidence and an outsider’s sharp insights. There was a certain bitterness in these stories that both attracted and disturbed me.
Wilson’s novels, by contrast, deal with the courage needed for the simple day-to-day task of living. He started writing after a wartime breakdown brought on by the strain of working at Bletchley Park, and his best novels concern people whose lives also collapse so that they have to re-invent themselves. This ordinary courage he exemplified himself, as a writer.
Angus’s sympathetic ability to inhabit female characters was impressive. Tolstoy notably succeeded with Anna Karenina – but how many other male novelists really manage it? The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot (1958) is a moving account of the life of Meg Eliot after her husband is suddenly gunned down in an Asian airport. ‘Mrs Eliot, c’est moi,’ Angus would announce to friends, as Flaubert also said of Emma Bovary. Into her he put his own strengths and weaknesses, a depressive with a strong sense of literary tradition and a sense of humour.
Meg’s marriage had been sexually happy and yet – she now, after Bill’s death, begins to understand – in need of repair; and she comes to see how life had gone sour on him so that, unhappy and unfulfilled, he gambled much of their money away. For her part Meg comes down in the world and so learns how she has used her class and sexuality to get her own way in life.
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