Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot and more by Angus Wilson

Photo: Cineraria, Gap Photos 

Darkly hilarious, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes show-cases Angus Wilson as a master of trenchant social comedy. An intellectual descendant of Ford Madox Ford and fictional forerunner of Ian McEwan, he was enormously talented.

I discovered his work by accident while doing research on Bletchley Park for my novel-under-construction. Walking on Charing Cross Road, I saw Sinclair McKay's book in the window of Blackwell's. Angus Wilson, I learned, was one of the WWII codebreakers who later became a novelist.

On a friend's recommendation, I read Margaret Drabble's biography of Wilson. Strangely, I perused this lengthy but fascinating opus before reading any of his work. As I remedied that omission by reading my way through his works, I found The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot to be my favourite.

In this novel, (originally published 1958) we meet Meg, a woman whose life has been influenced by a her father's abandonment of her mother, brother and herself, leaving them in genteel poverty.

However, Meg has made a fortunate marriage. Twenty years later, she retains a deep love for Bill, her hard-working lawyer husband, who has gladly conferred wealth and status upon her. Meg's financial affluence leaves her free to bring her considerable perceptiveness and intelligence to bear on her life of entertaining, collecting expensive porcelain, and voluntary charity work.

The couple have no children; presumably Meg is unable to get pregnant, but even this does not appear to have seriously interfered with their happy married life.

Meg has some regret about drifting away from her pacifist brother, to whom she felt very close as they grew up. He seems to have the life he wants at the Sussex plant nursery he has established with his partner, Gordon. But this rural world and Meg's London social whirl seem poles apart.

Everything changes when Meg and Bill set off on a six-month tour of the Far East and Australia. No sooner have they paused to change planes in a small fictitious Asian nation than they stumble upon a political drama in the airport restaurant. The trip is cut brutally short. After two weeks at the home of the local consul, Meg returns to England a shocked and grieving widow.

On her return home, she discovers that she now has very limited financial resources. It seems Bill relieved the pressure of his legal work by gambling. First, Meg faces the reality that she must sell her fashionable house. Once this is done, she begins to map out her future, and this means getting some job training. Meanwhile, she plumbs some old but problematic friendships, faces her loneliness, and builds a bridge back to her solitary and grieving brother, who is losing his beloved Gordon to cancer.

This reader, never doubting that she would somehow manage the inner and outer transformation, was plumping for her all the way. Meg Eliot was completely real and sympathetic.

As a bonus, her story plunges the reader headlong into the still-postwar London of the 1950s. Wilson's choice of detail is telling. Meg's fellow-widow Jill has put her life on hold and alienated her adult daughter in an effort to cling to the memory of her RAF husband and assuage her marital guilt. Meanwhile, a surviving RAF pilot and his wife earn a living by arranging tulips and cinerarias in the shabby rooms of the once more genteel hotel where Meg stays awhile.

Gentler than some of Wilson's more sharply observed social commentary, this is a wonderful read, not least because of the gleam of such heartbreaking human truths as Meg's valiant willingness "to accept his cocksureness because she could detect the swamps of self-doubt over which it had been constructed."

Wilson's description of David's awareness of his own motivations in his attitude toward his employee's family is no less than brilliant: "...he wanted above all to get on with Tim's wife, for a hundred mixed reasons -- preventive, defensive, apologetic, identifying."

No wonder so many consider this Wilson's best work. Meg Eliot is so real that the reader would hardly be surprised if she sat down, ready to employ her charm for helpful purposes, and asked a drawing-out question.

Originally published by Secker and Warburg (London) in 1958, the book was reissued in 1961 and 1992 by Penguin. The themes, and the writing, are as fresh and relevant today as when the book first rolled off the presses 54 years ago.

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