Blood Relations

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Diversity and Depth in Fiction: Selected Critical Writings of Angus Wilson edited by Kerry McSweeny
    Secker, 303 pp, £15.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 436 57610 4

‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The second part, at least, of Tolstoy’s celebrated dictum is borne out by Angus Wilson’s fiction, which deals largely in families, and this with a rich diversity through a long series of books. Sir Angus shuffles the cards brilliantly, but Unhappy Families remains the name of the pack.

There is a good deal in the present volume about the art of Ivy Compton-Burnett, that dogged mistress of domestic infelicity. In the opening essay we are told that she ‘has used the Biedermeier novel, the domestic family tale, and inverted it, she has taken the family ... and revealed every kind of hideous implication that it could contain. She has taken Cranford, so to speak, and wedded it to the house of Atreus.’ Another essay justifies the element of melodrama – incests and murders and the like – in her novels. ‘She has ... stated that she believes them to be real ingredients of a great deal of family life – sometimes as skeletons revealed, sometimes as skeletons for ever hidden. This view, I entirely accept. It has been my experience that most middle-class families have some “secret” of this kind in their midst.’

Ivy Compton-Burnett had published ten novels before the 33-year-old Angus Wilson sat down one Sunday and wrote ‘Raspberry Jam’ – to which he then added seven other short stories at successive weekends. In these, collected as The Wrong Set, and in two succeeding collections, some affinity with the Compton-Burnett world may be detected. Blood relations are pestiferous tyrants as in ‘Mother’s Sense of Fun’, or perform in an insidiously disruptive role as in ‘Sister Superior’. It is when Angus Wilson turns novelist, however, that families begin regularly to face disagreeable surprises. Father, so eminent and so lofty in his aims for literature, proves awkwardly to have changed his sexual orientation; grandmother, although she has managed a hotel, turns out to have started off in domestic service; a girl who has taken to tripling produces a baby with two fathers (an over-endowment excelled only by Mr Salman Rushdie’s recently created Omar Khayyam Shakil, whom fate has provided with three mothers). But although Sir Angus’s skeletons are occasionally bizarre they are seldom strictly Aeschylean or melodramatic after Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fashion. Only in the latest of the novels, Setting the world on fire, does the Mosson family discover, in some huddled final pages, that it nurtures in its bosom three atrocious criminals intent upon exploiting the theatricals at Tothill House in the interest of blowing up, not as we might briefly suppose the mere Houses of Parliament, but the Ministry of Defence itself.

This is uncharacteristic. Most of the unhappiness in the novels is of commonplace origin Sibling jealousy, marital incompatibility and infidelity, drink, debts, gambling, snobbery: these breed constant rows and occasional disasters. People sulk, shout, hurl abuse as they storm out of the house. ‘You ruddy cow. I wish to God I’d never seen you,’ husband bawls at wife. ‘What a ghastly little piece of nothing you’ve turned into,’ wife says to husband. ‘The old bastard is an absolute fake from start to finish,’ daughter says of father. ‘I’ve always thought you were a rotter,’ sister tells brother. ‘I wish that you and my mother were both dead,’ says son to father. ‘It’s all a thick fog. I hate them. They hate me,’ father says of his children collectively. ‘If you wanted to make another household miserable,’ one character flings at another in As if by Magic, ‘you’ve succeeded nicely.’ We may be inclined to murmur this to Sir Angus.

But the families remain families, however many the wounds given, the nasty points scored. Compunction and affection creep in, if only in a brief glance or a muttered word. The bond may be a fetter, but an obstinate sanctity inheres in it nevertheless. It is a particular in which we are brought closer to nature than we commonly are by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

In this volume as in the earlier The Wild Garden and several minor places (notably a collection of essays by divers hands called My Oxford) Sir Angus has much to say about himself in a personal vein, since he believes that knowledge of ‘some of the ways in which experience can be transmuted into fiction’ must be valuable in literary criticism. The biographical approach has its hazards and embarrassments, but the common reader is always likely to go along with it. Even in that ‘Association of Professors of English’ to which Sir Angus in a lecture offered a good deal of Wilson family history there were probably a few who judged that they were gaining something relevant to their studies by attending this unfashionable exercise.

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