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Wilson, Angus



  • Existence: 1913-1991

Sir Angus Wilson (full name Angus Frank Johnstone-Wilson) was one of the most renowned English novelists of the postwar 20th century, and one of England's first openly homosexual writers. Born in Bexhill, Sussex on August 11, 1913, Wilson was the sixth child of impoverished upper-middle class parents William and Maud (Caney) Jonhstone-Wilson. He attended public school from 1927-1931 at Westminster School, and went on to read history at Merton College, Oxford. In 1936 he went to work as a librarian in the British Museum's Department of Printed Books. When World War II broke out, he temporarily left the Museum and worked for the Foreign Office as a codebreaker in the Naval Section at the famous Bletchley Park intelligence center in Buckinghamshire.

During the war years, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and bouts of depression. It was at this point in his life that he bgan writing, as a form of therapy. (He would later recall this period in his 1963 critical/autobiographical work The Wild Garden.) After a period of recuperation, he returned to Bletchley where he remained until the end of the war. In 1945 Wilson returned to the British Museum, where he became Deputy Superintendent of the Reading Room. It was here that, on December 31, 1945, Wilson first met Anthony (Tony) Garrett, who was to become Wilson's secretary, companion and partner for the remainder of his life.

Wilson's first short stories and sketches were published in 1949 in The Wrong Set and Other Stories. The book was met with critical and popular success and yielded one of his most controversial and powerful stories, Raspberry Jam, in which a young boy is confronted with cruel and untrustworthy adults in the form of two women who torture a bird in his presence. Wilson published in 1950 his second collection, Such Darling Dodos and Other Stories. The title story, which uses terminal illness to symbolize the death of 1930s liberal ideals, was lauded for keenly portrayed psychological and historical details. Wilson's third collection, A Bit Off the Map and Other Stories (1957), was distinguished by a more softened stance toward his characters, mixing the pathos and comedy that often marks his writings with more subtle satire. His Collected Stories were eventually published in 1987.

In 1952, Hemlock and After, Wilson's first novel, appeared, offering a candid description of homosexual life in post-war Britain. Ernest Jones, reviewing it in the Nation, called the book a brilliant analysis of homosexual society. Soon after the publication of this novel, Wilson left the British Museum (where, as Deputy Superintendent he had been responsible for trying to replace 300,000 books that had been destroyed in German bombings during the war) and in 1955 took up writing fiction and criticism full time.

A spate of criticially acclaimed novels followed. His most famous, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, was published in 1956. Considered by many to be Wilson's finest work, the book is a biting satire of English academic society. The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958) traces the psychological dislocations undergone by conventional wife Meg Eliot in the senseless killing of her husband at a Middle East airport. Wilson received the 1959 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for this novel. In 1961 Wilson published his most allegorical work, The Old Men At The Zoo, about a near-future England opposed to a hostile alliance of European powers. A story of gradual insight into the failures of life, most of the novel's action is set among the strife and machinations of the staff of the London Zoo.

Late Call (1965) explored the spiritual desolation of life in the English Midlands, and was narrated from the perspective of a retired hotel manager. Sylvia Calvert, the protagonist, comes to the New Town of Carshall, in which she finds that people are strangers in their own life. No Laughing Matter, published in 1967, was a long, ambitious work, a mock bourgeois epic that traced the fortunes of the fictional Matthews family from 1912-1967. Wilson published As If By Magic in 1973, a novel about the ambitious and in some ways dubious campaign to overcome third world poverty through biological science and miracle crops. It reflected Wilson's increasing impatience with British literary parochialism. His last novel was published in 1980: Set The World On Fire, which was generally poorly received by critics.

Wilson had a successful and notable career as an academic. From 1966-1978 he was a professor of English literature at the University of East Anglia, where with Malcolm Bradbury he founded the school's creative writing program. He also lectured or served as a visiting professor a number of other institutions, including, among other, Cambridge University, Yale University, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Arizona, California-Berkeley, California-Los Angeles, Chicago, Delaware, Georgia, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh. He was a visiting professor three times at the University of Iowa, in 1971, 1978 and 1986. As a literary critic, Wilson published several important works of non-fiction, including ?mile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels (1952), The World of Charles Dickens (1970), and The Strange Ride Of Rudyard Kipling (1977). He also wrote critical introductions for a number of published literary classics, including works by Austen, Bowen, Dickens, Kipling, and Maugham.

Wilson, a lifelong member of the British Labour Party, was a social liberal who spoke out for a number of important social causes, including the advocacy of homosexual rights. In part due to a growing disgust with Margaret Thatcher's Britain, he and Tony Garrett left their country in 1985 and moved to France. Illness and Wilson's growing infirmities obliged the two to return home a few years later. Wilson's finances were increasingly straightened by this time, and he had to be supported by friends and a pension from the Royal Literary Fund. He was placed in Pinford End Nursing Home in Bury St. Edmunds due to accelerating mental and physical infirmities, and Angus Wilson died there of a stroke on May 31, 1991.

Wilson received a number of honors and awards throughout his life, culminating in a knighthood in 1980. He was made a Commander, Order of the British Empire in 1968. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1958, and served as its President from 1982-1991. The RSL made him a Companion of Literature in 1972. He was also a member of the Society of Authors, PEN, the Powys Society (president, 1970-91), the Dickens Fellowship (president, 1974-75), the John Cowper Powys Society (president, 1970-80), the Kipling Society (president, 1981-88), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (honorary member), and the Athenaeum Club, among other organizations. He was made a honorary Doctor of Letters at the Universities of East Anglia, Leiceister, Liverpool, and Sussex, and the Sorbonne.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Angus Wilson Papers

Identifier: msc0199
Abstract Acclaimed British novelist and scholar. Research files, including administrative material, research materials, and corrected typescripts for her 1995 biography of novelist Sir Angus Wilson.