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Angus Wilson (1913 – 1991)

To my mind the most perceptive observer of British society in the period after the Second World War was Angus Wilson, a writer of enormous skill who has not received the critical recognition he deserves. In addition to writing fiction of great distinction, he was also a perceptive critic and biographer, and his The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling is one of the most illuminating accounts of that complex character. He wrote too about Dickens and the 19th century naturalist French writer Emil Zola, which indicates the wide range of his sympathy as well as his knowledge.

He was born in the same year as Orwell, but took a long time to publish, beginning only just after the war with a couple of short story collections. These, The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, carried sharper versions of the critiques of literary and genteel society that Anthony Powell had already engaged in, in his earlier work.

Wilson’s skill in exposing pretensions as well as commanding sympathy for weakness was evident here, but he really came into his own only in 1952 with Hemlock and After, a vivid account of a married homosexual writer dealing with shortcomings in his own personality. The turning point in his understanding of himself comes when he sees a man being arrested for soliciting in Piccadilly, one of his own haunts, and finds himself baying for blood along with the rest of the crowd. The revelation of his own defensive instincts causes him more anguish than the possibilities of exposure through blackmail and outside enemies.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2010
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