Christopher Ricks

  • 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:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.

The time is ripe and rife, and out of joint. Half the time we all use the word ‘anachronism’ out of joint. The Oxford English Dictionary, as economical as any modern permissivist, knew that it was too late to fret: ‘Said etymologically (like prochronism) of a date which is too early, but also used of too late a date, which has been distinguished as parachronism’. Prochronism and parachronism are widely practised and seldom said; Wilson’s novel has a rich range of both these forms of living anachronism. Charlotte Nettleship, wife and mother, reverts to the unbecoming romanticism of an earlier age, England’s and hers, crushed by a crush. Her son Lionel boards the great leap backward of Romanist ritualism, the charades of the Middle Ages mummed by one Father Cuthbert. Severus Egg, Charlotte’s father, drawls drolly as if the Prince Regent were still queening it. Waldo Chatterway, equal parts of woolly affection and silky malice, is at once prochronistic and parachronistic, an out-of-date beau and a not-yet-in-date subject of the once in a while and future king whom Henry James will christen Edward the Caresser. And at the centre of the novel is Professor Horace Nettleship, banked and glowering, a man whose geological hammer has chipped away his deity, and who is deep-seatedly obsessed with the monstrous parachronism of Bishop Ussher, too late a date for the very earth. But then Nettleship is himself a touch belated, smouldering away thirty years after the publication of In Memoriam.

Wilson, who writes with such easy assurance as must leave him plenty of time to attend to matters other than his wording, has taken trouble with his own chronism. Sometimes you sit up and think that he must have dozed. ‘The illustrious medic’? But no, there it is, ‘medic’, well-established in Victorian English; and the same goes for ‘up a gum tree’, ensconced in Thackeray. It is crucial that the book, responsibly preoccupied with historical reality so that it may then be – in the terms of its subtitle – ‘A Vision’, should watch its own sense of fact: how else could it honourably report a debate between Father Cuthbert and Charles Bradlaugh on whether ‘Jesus Christ was an Historical Reality’? Father Cuthbert is a walking, or kneeling, anachronism: ‘There seemed something particularly bizarre in witnessing a figure who might have stepped out of the pages of Sir Walter Scott or Bulwer Lytton stirring a cup of tea with a spoon. It produced a kind of chronological shock which one would receive upon entering a drawing-room in Mayfair and meeting a Crusader armed to all points, or, the other way about, if one were to discover the brass effigy of a medieval baron smoking a cigarette.’

But still, there are questions that linger. If on page 135 George Eliot has married, the previous week, a young man 25 years her junior, we must be in 1880: but then how, in that case, could young Maudie Nettleship, back on page 74, have had read to her ‘Lord Tennyson’s poem’ about Ulysses? He was no lord until 1884. Some might say that this shows that Wilson only pretends to be a young fogey and is really a mole of a theorist, covertly sapping the bourgeois realist text on behalf of the supreme art of sinking, deconstruction, so that this anachronistic ‘error’ or ‘inconsistency’ of his is a clue that the novel is one of those cute self-consuming artefacts. But this is unlikely. Homer sometimes nods.

Wilson’s nods and becks and wreathed smiles are sometimes harder to take unseriously. In a sentence which is less exactly put than is his way, he has Severus Egg attend to ‘the stamp of his humour, without the perilous and ever to be avoided descent into whimsy’. Yet whimsy is not eschewed. The walk-on part for Walter Pater palters; the attempt to placate the shade of Savonarola Brown is imprudent when it supposes that all you need to do is lay your finger alongside your nose and mention ‘the brilliance of a young poet called Oscar Wilde’, or mount an exchange like this:

    ‘Has anyone ever come across this bearded scribbler called James?’

    ‘A friend, surely, of darling Tourgenieff’s?’ asked Eggy.

    ‘Who spoke enthusiastically of him to me,’ added Chatterway, ‘when we last met at Baden Baden. But I mean, the little fella’s at every deuced house you go to.’

Wilson, who is often better at purpling a passage than at peopling a novel, has no particular gift for that exceptionally risky act of kidnapping, the appropriation of known names. It is presumably a doubt hereabouts which leads him to the arch perversity of having among his dramatis personae Mark Pattison but then having Pattison’s mighty opposite be, not Jowett, but Jenkinson. Oh, it’s Jowett all right, complete with squeak, but why then submit him to the indignity of onomastic antics? And why retain Trinity College and Queen’s College but lodge ‘Jenkinson’ in ‘Harcourt College’? And then have a mention of Balliol too. This is a mere tease. A portrait is being painted: ‘There’s considerable anxiety in the Pattison camp that he should paint Jenkinson with rather more warts than he has and rather more all.’ But then this coyness shows there’s considerable anxiety in the Wilson camp.

Gentlemen in England is very often humorous, often witty, and sometimes poignant. It has its way, and it is only afterwards (as is the way) that you a bit resent this. One of its central impulses, again alert to anachronism and its possibilities, is to reverse the great move of T.S. Eliot’s revolution: Eliot’s conviction being that poetry then needed to avail itself of the novelist’s feeling for life, issuing in poems like ‘Portrait of a Lady’ which preserved the essence of a novelist’s acumen much as the dramatic monologue preserved the essence of drama. Wilson’s enterprise is a deft turn: infusing the current novel, elsewhere so schematic and teachable, with the specificities and energies now more characteristic of the high allusiveness and sharp eye of poetry. A remarkable anthology of Victorian literature, Gentlemen in England ends up being more than compendious, a compendium. As with some Fisher-Price ‘Activity Center’, here is a compacted boardful of every kind of Victorian literary game; happily, chimingly, within reach are Father and Son and Loss and Gain, to say nothing of Modern Love and The Europeans, and – best of all and best used – Browning’s great poem of comedy and sadness, of hopes dished, ‘Youth and Art’. The allusions are child’s play for homo ludens. It is true that the decision to compile a compendium both does and doesn’t help with Wilson’s notorious difficulty in consummating plots. Wise Virgin is his best novel because it has a clean true plot, whereas The Healing Art, which could have been even better, could have been an Iris Murdoch novel that was good, never knew what to do with the situation it so compellingly established. The dramatic monologue, which Wilson has pondered with imaginative pertinacity, is the art of rotatory unadvancing character, and of situation strictly sited, while Wilson’s novel is stringent as situation and acquiescent as plot. Elizabeth Barrett pinpointed the malaise which Robert Browning probed: ‘When a man spins evermore on his own axis, like a child’s toy I saw the other day ... what is the use of him but to make a noise?’ And when a man like Horace Nettleship or a gentleman (perhaps) like Waldo Chatterway spins evermore on his own axis, it is hard to spin a plot about him. Wilson spins some fine, strong entwining sentences, though. He is a natural writer, and even when his nose is in the air his feet are on the ground.