- Gentlemen in England by A.N. Wilson
Hamish Hamilton, 311 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 02 411165 1
A.N. Wilson is something of an anachronism, and it was timely of him to make anachronism the nub of his new novel about the old days, Gentlemen in England. The title itself, in the England of 1985 where the new right spits even more zealously than the old left on the grave of the gentlemanly ideal, pushes anachronism and dislocation to the point of oxymoron. Gentlemen in England: there has not been so incredulous a title since A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. But then the title precipitates a fourfold chronicity: this novel, to be read in 1985, is set in the England of 1880, recalling a writer who in 1599 recalled the events of 1415:
Vol. 8 No. 2 · 6 February 1986
SIR: Christopher Ricks’s review of A.N. Wilson’s novel Gentlemen in England (LRB, 21 November 1985) mentions some of its anachronisms and savonarolisms, but doesn’t go far enough. ‘Homer sometimes nods,’ he says: but all too often Wilson drops off completely, and the resulting solecisms and somnambulisms make nonsense of the novel’s apparently realistic background. This is especially true of the freethought movement, which plays an important part in the plot. Ricks says: ‘It is crucial that the book, responsibly preoccupied with historical reality … should watch its own sense of fact.’ And he continues: ‘How else could it honourably report a debate between Father Cuthbert and Charles Bradlaugh on whether “Jesus Christ was an Historical Reality”?’ But here, as a matter of fact, Wilson has violated historical reality.
The action of the novel takes place in 1880, and the debate takes place early in the Long Vacation from Oxford, at the headquarters of the National Secular Society, the Hall of Science in City Road, London. Unfortunately, however, the Hall of Science was closed for repairs throughout June, July and August 1880, and Bradlaugh (the president of the NSS) didn’t speak there between 30 May (on Parliamentary oaths and affirmations) and 7 November (on electoral corruption). It is true that he did speak about Jesus several times during June and July, but this was at meetings held at South Place Chapel which were not polemical debates but learned lectures on recent books by French scholars. It is also true that there was a debate on the historicity of Jesus at the Hall of Science that year, but it was held on 24 November, between Annie Besant (a vice-president of the NSS) and the Rev. A. Hatchard (curate of St Saviour’s, Shadwell), the chairman being Bradlaugh himself.
Moreover, in Wilson’s account Bradlaugh is given ‘a faint Birmingham accent’ (although he came from East London), the chairman ‘introduced himself as Mr Jacob Holyoake’ (presumably George Jacob Holyoake, who never called himself Jacob, and who had broken with Bradlaugh, but did come from Birmingham), the meeting is attended by Herbert Spencer and T.H. Huxley (who never went to such occasions), and the debate is conducted in crude and clumsy terms never used by Bradlaugh or Besant.
Nor is this the only absurd episode from the free-thought movement. Bradlaugh, says Wilson, ‘after the late election, had refused to take his oath in the House of Commons on the grounds of atheism’. This time the facts are that, when Bradlaugh was elected in April 1880, he immediately tried to affirm on the grounds of his atheism, but on being rejected he insisted on his right to take the oath despite his atheism; indeed he tried to do so a dozen times from May 1880 onwards, and did so several times, actually being prosecuted for doing so in 1884, and finally being permitted to do so in 1886. The ‘Commons brawl with which the newspapers were full’, mentioned by Wilson, occurred in June 1880, when Bradlaugh was arrested for refusing to leave the House when prevented from either affirming or taking the oath.
Nor are such anachronisms and solecisms confined to the freethought movement. Addison is described as ‘the essayist and hymn-writer’; he certainly wrote many poems – but hymns? The Virginians is said to have been published in the Cornhill: it actually appeared in monthly parts from 1857 to 1859, before the Cornhill began publication in 1869. Mrs Humphry Ward is described as ‘Tom Arnold’s girl’: she was actually his granddaughter. Routh is made President of Magdalen College more than twenty years after his death, and Spooner is made Warden of New College more than twenty years before his appointment.
In the end, it is easy to suspect that Wilson’s anachronisms are so frequent that they may be deliberate. But at any rate Gentlemen in England should perhaps be called an unhistorical rather than a historical novel, and not taken nearly as seriously as many reviewers have done.
Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986
SIR: A.N. Wilson is right and Nicolas Walter is wrong about two things (Letters, 6 February). First, Addison was certainly a hymn-writer (e.g. ‘The Lord my pasture shall prepare,’ ‘How are thy servants blest, O Lord’). Secondly, Mrs Humphry Ward was the daughter of Tom Arnold, one of Dr Thomas Arnold’s sons. Nicolas Walter is also wrong about the Cornhill, which began publication in 1860, not 1869. As he correctly points out, The Virginians appeared in monthly parts in 1857-59, but Thackeray’s Lovel the Widower, Philip and Denis Duval were all serialised in the magazine.
Department of Language and Literature, Polytechnic of North London, London NW5
Vol. 8 No. 6 · 3 April 1986
SIR: Just a brief comment on Donald Hawes’s correction (Letters, 6 March) of my correction of A.N. Wilson. I think there is room for argument about whether someone whose huge output of essays, plays and poems included a couple of hymns may be called a ‘hymn-writer’, or about whether the younger Thomas Arnold was familiarly referred to as ‘Tom Arnold’ like his famous father. And I know perfectly well that the Cornhill began publication in 1860, which is what I wrote: ‘1869’ was a misprint.