Angus Wilson: A Biography

Overview

Angus Wilson (1913-1991) led one of the most remarkable and, until now, uncharted lives in the annals of twentieth-century literature. Here in this long-awaited biography, acclaimed novelist Margaret Drabble portrays Angus Wilson as one of the most brilliant writers of his time, on a par with such literary greats as Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, and John Osborne. In this first full biography, Drabble traces Wilson's meteoric career as novelist, critic, lecturer, and man of letters. At first an assistant ...
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Overview

Angus Wilson (1913-1991) led one of the most remarkable and, until now, uncharted lives in the annals of twentieth-century literature. Here in this long-awaited biography, acclaimed novelist Margaret Drabble portrays Angus Wilson as one of the most brilliant writers of his time, on a par with such literary greats as Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, and John Osborne. In this first full biography, Drabble traces Wilson's meteoric career as novelist, critic, lecturer, and man of letters. At first an assistant cataloguer at the British Museum, Wilson burst onto the literary scene like a blazing comet in 1949 with a collection of short stories called The Wrong Set. This stunning debut was followed by such memorable books as Hemlock and After, The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, The Old Men at the Zoo, and his most enduring and famous novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. At once painfully insecure and highly narcissistic, Wilson both captivated and repelled many of the great literary figures of twentieth-century England, inspiring Rebecca West to exclaim nastily that Wilson reminded her of Jane Eyre. Yet Angus Wilson also served as a great influence for many of today's writers including Martin Amis, Jonathan Raban, V S. Pritchett, and Margaret Drabble herself. His satiric, often grotesque, but in the end sympathetic portrayal of his female characters also endeared him to millions of female readers. What makes Wilson particularly extraordinary to a new generation of readers is his decision to live life, even as early as the 1940s, as an open homosexual through his lifelong relationship with Tony Garrett and his public opposition to discriminatory homosexual laws. Above all, Angus Wilson is the portrait of an artist of enormous courage, a man who confronted challenge to the end.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Drabble's biography (her only previous one was Arnold Bennett) has the dubious virtue of being the longest life of the late novelist (1913-1991) that readers are ever likely to encounter. Almost as many names are dropped in these pages as populate the London telephone directory. Yet the chatty but encyclopedic English gossip may be as entertaining as Drabble's glib ignorance of the U.S. is appalling (flamingoes in North Carolina, typhoons in Iowa?). Few details evoking the texture of Wilson's picaresque social, literary and openly gay life are omitted, from his early years in the British Museum to his globe-trotting as literary lion. Where this works is in the camp account of the once-secret Bletchley Park cryptographic center, in which Wilson spent WWII, and where the local shrink, hooked on his patient's dream-diary, suggested he was a born novelist. The backgrounds to Wilson's writings unfold amusingly, from his satirical masterpiece, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) to money-spinning prefaces to paperbacks of Dickens. The biographer, an esteemed novelist who turns up in Sir Angus's circle as early as 1969, materializes on some pages as "Drabble" and elsewhere as "I." Whether or not she makes her case that Wilson is as significant a novelist of his generation as Graham Greene, he emerges as a colorful character. Photos. (May)
Library Journal
British novelist Drabble Gates of Ivory, LJ 3/15/92, a friend of her subject, offers the first full-length biography of Wilson since his death in 1991. Drabble's extensively detailed work chronicles Wilson's birth in 1913 to improvident parents, childhood in South Africa, return to England for an Oxford education, and willingness to give up the security of a position in the British Museum to pursue a literary career. Despite some attention to Wilson's fiction, Drabble focuses on her subject's long homosexual relationship with Tony Garrett; the celebrity he won with Anglo-Saxon Attitudes 1956; his self-exile from Thatcher's England; and his decline into poverty and ill health. Her study of Wilson is also a panorama of literary England in an era of conferences and guest lectures. For literature collections.-Charles Crawford Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, Mo.
Kirkus Reviews
As with many ploddingly obese biographies, there is a thin, sprightly work here aching to be set free.

Angus Wilson was one of the last gasps of breath in the British novel's slow, asymptotic death. In novels such as Anglo- Saxon Attitudes and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, he combined the waspishness of Evelyn Waugh with the social commentary of E.M. Forster, adding a dash of baroque Firbankian campiness for good measure. Though he was one of England's first openly gay writers, his work is more concerned with the foibles and fallibilities of English society than specifically homosexual themes. A friend of the novelist's, Drabble seems concerned with returning him to his proper place in English literature. Like many of his characters, Wilson was a colorful personality, effortlessly erudite, a great talker, but his life was usually unremarkable: He lectured and went on long holidays. And Drabble (The Gates of Ivory, 1992, etc.) feels obliged to record it all. Right to the brink of parody, list follows list as she notes seemingly every party, conference, and dinner Wilson ever attended; she even throws in the occasional menu, as well. And why not detail Wilson's slightest jaunt—from a day trip to London to a grand Indian tour? At times it's more like reading an engagement calendar than a biography. The writing tends to be bloodless, enervated, but is redeemed somewhat by her novelist's insight into Wilson's psychology. She also writes with professional understanding of Wilson's money troubles, the ceaseless Faustian necessity of teaching, lecturing, attending conferences, reviewing books, all in order to stay afloat. Such is the sad, ironic state of literature these days, that when Wilson died in 1991, much honored, even knighted, he was practically penniless, and many of his books were out of print.

Perhaps this biography, in its lumbering, cumbersome way, might bring a few of these elegant, streamlined, ever inventive works back to the bookstores.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312167745
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1997
  • Pages: 716
  • Product dimensions: 5.64 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 1.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble began to write when she was an unemployed actress in England; her stories about independent, Austen-esque heroines are dramatic, but carry the intellectual weight of Drabble's own narrative inventiveness and incisive social commentary.

Biography

With her shrewd, mannered descriptions and dialogue, Drabble can say a lot. Take this line from The Witch of Exmoor: "He bites his nails between grapes, and avoids eye contact. A mother -- but perhaps not his -- would note that he is too thin." The British author, who has been writing surprising and clever novels for some 40 years, tends to remain focused on female protagonists; but she is inventive when it comes to narration, sometimes where you least expect it. The Witch of Exmoor, for example, has a wry, omniscient narrator who begins with a godlike, "Begin on a midsummer evening. Let them have everything that is pleasant." In 2002's The Seven Sisters, the first section of the book is the main character's (often self-critical) computer diary, and unexpected shifts in perspective follow.

Her variations in narrative structure and her injection of political and social commentary into her works makes Drabble a particularly challenging and interesting writer. Her return to fiction after a seven-year gap, 1987's The Radiant Way, became a trilogy (completed by A Natural Curiosity and Gates of Ivory) that veered slightly into international adventure territory. Ivory, for example, flips between psychiatrist Liz Headleand (one of the three women first featured in The Radiant Way) and the writer friend for whom she is searching, a man who has gone to Cambodia for research. Unfortunately, several of Drabble's early and highly praised novels (including the first two books of the aforementioned trilogy) are out of print in the U.S. It's a shame, because those books are the ones that established Drabble as an important writer, and are the templates for Drabble's independent, intelligent heroines on the road to self-discovery.

A few critics who have been admirers of Drabble's since she began writing in the 1960s have gone sour on the author in her later years. On the release of The Witches of Exmoor, a Toronto Sun critic wrote, "I am so sad and sorry to report that Margaret Drabble, once one of the best novelists on earth, is past her best," calling the novel a "rehash." Of 2002's The Seven Sisters, the story of middle-aged divorcee Candida Wilton's experiences as a newly single woman, a critic for Britain's Observer lamented the book's unconventional and somewhat cagey approach toward the end. "Altogether, Candida is alive enough that the novel's truncations ache like phantom limbs," the critic wrote. "The realised heroines of Drabble's magnificent books from the 1960s or 1970s would say to Candida, Tell me what it is like to be you."

Ultimately, part of the push and shove over Drabble's work comes down to a tension between literary invention and reader satisfaction; she has often been criticized for not caring enough about her characters to make them engaging. The New York Times wrote of The Gates of Ivory, "It's about politics and literature, terrorism and atrocities, love and life and death.... But ideas do not make a novel. Characters do. And we need to care about them, deeply." However, consider The Nation's take: "What I love about this novel is what I love about the best of Drabble's works -- it's rich and complex and allusive and textured and intertextual and takes on the big questions: life and art, representation and responsibility, the possibility of political action, the question of human nature. It's a novel of ideas at a time when most fiction seems deliberately lobotomized."

Good To Know

Possession author A. S. Byatt is Drabble's older sister. There was too much competition," Byatt says about her childhood relationship with her sister. "We didn't get on."

Drabble was an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company after she graduated from college, and was an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave; she married fellow RSC actor Clive Swift in 1960. The two divorced in 1975, and Drabble later married biographer Michael Holroyd.

Also a scholarly writer of biography and nonfiction, Drabble has written several forewords to editions of Jane Austen's work as well as lives of novelists Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. The nonfiction includes a 1990 analysis and critique of property law, Safe as Houses.

Drabble has also written several plays including Laura, Isadora, and Bird of Paradise. She adapted her novel The Millstone as the 1969 film A Touch of Love.

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 5, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sheffield, England
    1. Education:
      Cambridge University

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