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.

It would be a disservice to expose the novel’s dénouement. Not, unfortunately, for the usual reason that readers would be cheated of an excellent finale, but that any knowledge of the finale is liable to cheat readers out of many excellent intermediate effects. It is not that a reviewer should not mar the ending, but that he probably should not let the author’s marring the book do more harm than it has to. This is a painful matter, especially for anyone who admires Angus Wilson’s novels very much, and who believes that it is with the best of intentions that he plotted and plaited what turns out to be a nouement. But the road to this particular Hell Fire Club is paved with good intentions, and the primrose path is made no less facile by the careful planting of what, when you look back, can be seen to be primrose clues.

The novel is much occupied with an understanding of the contrasting claims of the professional and the amateur, but there is (unusually with this novelist) some failure of professional execution. Granted, the explosion of the hideously unanticipated is to be the point: but it is the novel’s fabric, not the social fabric, which creaks under the strain. For me, the book signally failed to make real a crucial character: Marina Luzzi, ‘heiress of a very wealthy Turinese financier’. I cannot hear a word she says, and she says a great many, including the reiterated ‘’ow you say?’ I suspect that Sir Angus never really got to hear her either. As the book proceeds, suspicions shift away from her, the baffling character, to him, the baffled creator.

Audacious, even-handed, and good-naturedly witty in its mingling of historical facts and imaginative feats, the novel offers a great many incidental pleasures, penetrations and adjudications. It has some subtle recrudescence of the old Angus Wilson, notably in the scenes where family skeletons are rejigged in a dance of death; and it has gleams of sombre majesty. Yet it seems to me substantially a failure or a defeat. Some of the reasons may perhaps be glimpsed in what the novelist said to Jonathan Raban (the New Review, 1974):

I believe that this charade-quality of society has been present since the 18th century. Ever since society has been so poised on the cataclysmic edges, there’s been a sense that people have been consciously doing little dances. Of course, the only thing you can do when you can’t be sure whether the ice is going to crack or not is to hope that you’ll be putting on a rather pretty dance when it does crack, you know?

These are among the thoughts which went to the making of Setting the World on Fire. ‘Whether the ice is going to crack’ is from the start the reiterated cold fear which is the complement to the hot one: ‘If it wasn’t for them’, the sober men, the non-Phaethons (Tom’s uncle tells steady Tom), ‘the ice would break, the flames would fly up into the sky.’ Again, the ‘charade-quality’ is a persistent, variegated and telling preoccupation of this novel. ‘Always remember these grand scale amateur shows can so easily turn into dressing-up-box charades.’ It is true that the novelist has long pondered such things: the school-play performance of Look back in anger in Late Call; the realising of Malvolio within No Laughing Matter, by virtue of a new experience or a new understanding by the particular actor; the mime-play ‘Batteries’ in As If By Magic. But what this new novel gathers to itself, what it makes so much of and asks so much of, to the point at which questions not just of genre but of medium become too much for it, is the especially taxing mode of masque.

Phaethon, like most late-17th-century operas, is the child of the masque, not just because of its machines, its music, and its political urgings (dangerous then and dangerous now, this book reminds us), but because of its relation to a setting, an occasion, and an audience who may themselves constitute part of the action, even as some of the actors may be at once their real-life selves and their imaginary roles. Early in the book we hear the French-master’s reminder: ‘Ils ne sont pas des vrais opéras, ces pièces de Lully, plutôt des masques ou des pièces de théâtre avec musique.’ A dozen pages later. Piers has pruned this: ‘the Lully operas are all pièces de théâtre avec musique.’ And then within earshot of the ending of the central section, he can say: ‘Phaethon’s a tragédie en musique.’ Yet the novel needs to hold obdurately to what this sequence jettisons, the word ‘masque’ – even if holding to it would do no more than bring home the exceptional challenge which the novelist is here presenting to himself in the matter of media. For it is hard enough to incorporate within a novel such literature as exists in a different medium. ‘The medium of drama,’ said Ezra Pound, ‘is not words, but persons moving about on a stage using words.’ It is even harder to incorporate such literature as exists in a medium which compounds the difference – not because of music and machines, but because the medium of a masque is not persons moving about on a stage using words, but particular known persons doing so in a particular setting on a particular occasion, and where the unique artistic opportunity is constituted by the interplay of their on-stage and their off-stage selves. But the word ‘unique’ will do only if you join it with ‘artistic’. For the value of Sir Angus’s insistence on charades (‘this charade-quality of society’, ‘It’s as good as saying that it’s all a charade’) is exactly its understanding of this dual response. When the original audience heard and saw Comus, they heard and saw a relation between a known reality and an imagined one, between, say, Henry Lawes as a musician of this world and as a spirit from the other world. Whereas it is no part of the strictly dramatic medium that it should precipitate this particular dual sense. The greatness of Gielgud’s Richard II is not a simultaneous sense of an off-stage Gielgud and an on-stage Richard, but the transparency or dissolving of the particular actor’s fringe contingencies, even if an impersonal actedness remains part of the dramatic effect.

Sir Angus needs to be told none of this. The force of the word ‘charade’ (as against T. S. Eliot’s ‘histrionic’ or ‘self-dramatising’) is its acknowledgement of this particular dual response. If the family and friends can’t act at all, charades are empty – but so they are if acted by strangers. What must inform the enterprise is an interplay of the new role and of the old person. Or of the young person. For the school-play is the other surviving (though puny) great-grandchild of the masque. The school-play would not do if all sense of the actors’ off-stage selves were to dissolve. Hence the crucial choice within this novel of a school-performance of Richard II as the first move towards the performance of Phaethon – not just because of what the King says about Phaethon (‘Down, down’ I come, like glist ‘ring Phaethon ...’), but also because a school-play is the nearest we now get to the duality of the masque, even though the school-play is usually lopped of political topicality. (Yet Richard II itself had just such topicality, as Queen Elizabeth fierily insisted.) The performance here of Richard II makes much of the parents’ dual vision of their child-actors. ‘Do you prefer Robert on the throne or at the wicket?’

It is this, too, which underlies the prolonged, though thwarted, movement toward an amateur performance of Phaethon. ‘What was a mere amateur production of adolescent amateur singing and acting and playing could soar at least a little like Phaethon in his borrowed divine chariot.’ But there is only one thing that can save an amateur production from being a mere amateur production, from being a less than professional production, which is its being something other than a professional production, its using its amateurness. Which means using the fact that the professional disappears within the part whereas the amateur co-exists with it.

Much of the pathos of the end comes from the sense of loss which is felt when what had been planned as an amateur celebration becomes a matter of professional celebrities – a loss which is hard to understand except within a tacit sense of that particular celebration of the amateur itself which was the masque. At the same time, a shocking twist is given to this whole amateur/professional emulation by the grim fate of one of the novel’s principal characters, a fate memorably attributed to his falling into the hands of amateurs. Moreover, the play which is performed at the very end of the book, after the success of Phaethon, is a new work by an amateur playwright about the history of Tothill House itself.

In the interview with Raban, Sir Angus spoke of ‘the mask we’ve got to work behind’ and of a character’s doing ‘something within that mask’: but what he has done is engage with the strangeness, not of being behind or within a mask, but of being alongside a mask. As in the masque. Yet such an engagement is monstrously difficult, and not all the novelist’s experienced capacity has been enough to stage it without stageyness, this dual reality or relation of a real-life (yet here imaginary) person to imagined roles – within a world of such complexity, detail and time-span. ‘Sometimes the machinery made such a noise that nobody could hear the singers.’ I still wish he would write the forked compact thing, a masque. Meanwhile he has built something as doubly odd as Tothill House. ‘We do not have the wonderful dome of Vanbrugh’s next work at Castle Howard, but this magnificent painted ceiling and our lovely lantern, Vanbrugh’s tribute to Pratt, have a special beauty, I think.’ So, at times, does this novel about two families and a loved home, this Castle Howard’s End.