When you can buy the first edition of a novelist's most famous work, in its original dust jacket, for £1.99 in a charity shop, you know he has fallen thoroughly out of fashion. So it is with that once towering literary figure Angus Wilson, CBE, knight of the realm, professor, whose Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) I snapped up recently for that paltry sum (slightly foxed, and the Ronald Searle jacket a little tatty, but even so...). I snapped it up because I've never read it - nor any of Wilson's novels, only some short stories and a rather good critical study, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. I don't know why I hadn't read more - his books were everywhere for years, and the novels achieved critical as well as popular success, some (including Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) even being televised. I had had it in mind for some while to catch up with Wilson, see what I had been missing, and perhaps even get some clue as to why his reputation has faded so fast.
Well, now I have read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and I can report that I found it an immensely enjoyable experience, richly satisfying in a decidedly old-fashioned way. It's a big book, ample and spacious but shapely too, with a cast of characters so large that they are listed In Order of Appearance at the start of the book. There are nearly 40 of them (excluding those already dead or off-stage) and virtually all of them are interconnected in complex ways that tend to lead back to the long-ago event that is at the centre of the novel. This interconnectedness is on a positively Dickensian scale (almost on a par with Bleak House), and I found myself referring often to the list of characters to remind myself who's who and how they link in to the others. Some of the characters are decidedly Dickensian too, notably the glorious Mrs Salad, former cloakroom attendant and charlady with a picturesque turn of phrase and grand ideas.
The character at the centre of the novel is Gerald Middleton, distinguished medieval historian and wealthy man, and the event around which everything revolves is the excavation in 1912, in Suffolk, of the tomb of the Anglo-Saxon bishop Eorpwald (a real historic figure) and the sensational discovery therein of a phallic pagan idol. Middleton has good reason to believe that this idol was planted as a deliberate hoax by the son of the lead archaeologist, who was killed (the son, that is) in the (Great) war, but not before Gerald and the son's fiancée, Dollie, had fallen in love and had an affair. It is the tangle of guilty feelings around these events - complicated by his continuing feelings for Dollie - that the troubled Middleton strives to resolve in the course of the novel.
Around this focal point, a mass of side-plots and coincidences spin merrily away as different characters - some fully rounded, others more sketchy, some (notably Gerald's estranged wife) grotesque - come into and out of focus. The novel is topped and tailed by two sharply comic set-pieces - one a blow-by-blow account of an excruciating meeting of a distinguished learned society, the other an equally wince-inducing account of a grand party getting badly out of hand. Both these long chapters are bravura stuff, as, in its different way, is the long central chapter in which Middleton, enduring a Christmas get-together of his largely dysfunctional family, looks back over his life as he drifts in and out of sleep.
In the end, Gerald does achieve some kind of resolution, and is certainly in a far better state of mind than he was at the beginning. It's a satisfying conclusion to a hugely readable, beautifully crafted novel - one that surely doesn't deserve to disappear into obscurity. No doubt Wilson - like that other neglected giant Ivy Compton-Burnett - keeps a toehold in the fashionable field of Queer Studies (Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is peppered with gay characters), but that's really not good enough, for either of them. I'll certainly be scanning the charity shop shelves for more Angus Wilson, and hoping I enjoy others as much as I enjoyed this one. If anyone has any recommendations, please let me know...