Dark Places

John Sutherland

  • Wise Virgin by A.N. Wilson
    Secker, 186 pp, £7.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 436 57608 2
  • The London Embassy by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 211 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 241 10872 1
  • The frog who dared to croak by Richard Sennett
    Faber, 182 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 571 11989 1
  • Vintage Stuff by Tom Sharpe
    Secker, 220 pp, £7.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 436 45810 1
  • Rogue Justice by Geoffrey Household
    Joseph, 174 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7181 2178 3

With Wise Virgin, A.N. Wilson continues his bleak investigation of trauma. The Healing Art (his most acclaimed novel so far) scrutinised human sensibility under the sentence of terminal cancer. Wise Virgin takes the life term and solitary confinement of bereaved blindness. It’s played out with Wilson’s customary geometric neatness of design. Giles Fox, as the novel’s retrospect finds him, was once a fulfilled man – someone who could have represented the happy ending of some other story. He is a librarian and a scholar (his ‘period’ is ‘somewhere between 1213 and 1215’), and the best efforts of his intellectual maturity have been happily applied to editing a Medieval text, the ‘Tretis of Love Hevenliche’, a work eventually destined for the dusty glory of Early English Texts Society publication. It’s not my period, but despite some convincing quotation and an authenticating footnote, this work by ‘Robert of St Victor’ appears to be invented. (Readers of Wilson’s earlier novels will expect highly specialised pockets of expertise on church and university matters.) The treatise celebrates the anchoretic life: or the wisdom of virginity as the path to true marriage with Christ. For all his obsessed attention to his text, Fox had lived the life of its antitype. He was worldly, carnal and atheistic. Happily married, he was prone to flippancy about the ‘much over-rated joiner’s son’. Then, in the way of Wilson’s world, there fell on him a rain of shattering blows. His wife died in childbirth with her baby. He went blind. His second wife, a Moorfields nurse, was run down and killed by a hit-and-run driver (the miseries in Wilson’s narratives are invariably the acts of a God who may perhaps just be an insurance company fiction). Giles remained, a sightless scholar blundering uselessly in his library. As we encounter him, he is attended by two virgins: his luscious teenage daughter Tibba and his dowdy amanuensis, Miss Agar (PhD, failed). With all this wretchedness stacked behind it, the novel opens: ‘ “Marry me,” said Louise Agar.’ Will he?

The monstrously tragic prelude (given in terse and intermittent flashback) permeates Wise Virgin with a kind of post-operative exhaustion. It is as if the writer had aimed at a juicy plot, missed and hit the epilogue instead. But, of course, depression is the level Wilson has chosen for his novel: its mood swings in the narrow range between glum stoicism and the suicidal. The action, slight by comparison with Fox’s earlier trials, revolves around Agar’s proposal. Should he try again for fleshly gratification, or should he retreat into his dark, ascetic cell, tended only by Tibba? Accompanying the dilemma there are some lively scenes: a trip to Cambridge where a preposterous Girton don serves beans (thinking Giles will be embarrassing with a knife in his hand); a raucous Christmas visit to Giles’s aseptic house by Miss Agar’s mum; adventures with a diabolically randy schoolboy, determined to ‘have it off’ with Tibba. Wilson indulges a merry vein of satire with this boy’s public school, where Giles’s sister and brother-in-law live in the teacher’s condition of arrested adolescence: ‘It was years since either of them had used the words lavatory, wastepaper basket, prayers, bath, cane, or, except in a specifically liturgical surrounding, master.’ Pangham’s world of loos, beaks, tosh and Bodger the devious head recalls the tyro Wilson of Kindly Light. (It also echoes the current offering of his Secker stablemate, Tom Sharpe, who is into public schools as well.) Alongside Giles’s extreme plight, the school comedy is discordant. But presumably that is another desired effect in this uneasy novel.

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