A House and its Heads

Christopher Ricks

  • Setting the World on Fire by Angus Wilson
    Secker, 296 pp, £6.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 436 57604 X

An ambitious novel about ambition and ambitions, Setting the World on Fire is in two minds. It embodies the minds in two brothers, Piers Mosson and Tom Mosson: the one with his head in the clouds, fated to become a red-carpet knight of the theatre, sure of his direction and of his directing; the other, with his feet on the ground, ready, steady, and going to be a lawyer. Each has sense and sensibility but in different proportions. These proportions, antagonistic and complementary, are built into the great house, hard by Westminster Abbey, which is likely to be theirs or at least the elder brother’s: Tothill House, which was begun by the sober genius of the architect Pratt and was completed or wrested by the intoxicating genius of Vanbrugh. The loving rivalry of the brothers flashes and bickers in their championing the competing claims; Tom finds himself in the ordered regularity of Pratt’s handiwork, and so is nicknamed ‘Pratt’; Piers, whose identity exists to stage and shape that of others, finds his freedom from self in the dramatic energy of Vanbrugh, and so has the name nicked down to ‘Van’. The great house is sparsely populated by their great-grandfather, by his daughter-in-law (their grandmother), and by their pompous circumstantial uncle. Their widowed mother, brave and tearful and intermittent, threatens the decorum of it all. Behind the contrasting frames of mind and styles of architecture, there loom the twined ancient families: the Tothills, who had been flamboyant and had even perhaps figured in the heated antics of the Hell Fire Club, and the Mossons, whose fires had been securely banked.

Setting the World on Fire: the theory and practice of catastrophe find their focus in Phaethon. For Vanbrugh’s great hall has charted upon its ceilings and walls the headlong career of Phaethon, whose hideous ruin and combustion had thrilled the young Piers and had terrified the young Tom. Then it is discovered that in 1697 there had been a decision to perform in the great hall the opera Phaethon, by Louis XlV’s composer Lully, but that the performance had been cancelled because of the royal displeasure of William III. Piers is fired to produce it now, or rather then, in 1957. But the performance is delayed by family catastrophe. From the prologue of childhood (1948), the novel takes 21 years to come of age; the aspirations and setback form the central arch of the book (1956-7), and it is 1969 when what had at first been proposed as an amateur production of Phaethon is instead professionally realised.

Phaethon’s rashness is the emblem of one way of setting the world on fire. The art of Lully’s opera, of Verrio’s painting, of Vanbrugh’s hall, or even of Piers Mosson as impresario and director, can constitute another way. Then there is the shallower way of social réclame: even in childhood, Piers is a victim-beneficiary of that too. ‘ “ln the theatre you would set the world on fire.” “Oh, I shall,” he said. “It’s my intention.” ’ More unexpected, there is the incendiary eruption of revolutionary politics. More expected, there is the repudiation of all such talk by everyday love, which sings instead: ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire.’ Not that the book just wants to start a flame in your heart.

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