On these shores, and despite some 20 novels, Andrew Norman Wilson is mainly esteemed for his biographies and works of popular history. “Tolstoy” (1988) won the Whitbread Prize, while “The Victorians” (2002) exhibited both a commanding mastery of its vast subject and an utter lack of reverence for sacred cows. (In it, Wilson speculated that Queen Victoria might have been illegitimate.) He himself contends that “God’s Funeral” (1999), about the dying of religious belief during the 19th century, is his best work of nonfiction, closely followed by “Dante in Love” (2011). Scholarly, prolific and compulsively readable, Wilson is obviously another of those outrageously gifted British overachievers.
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“Confessions” opens with a sorrowful portrait of Wilson’s ex-wife, Oxford don Katherine Duncan-Jones, as she gradually descends into dementia: “It is hard to see how you can still believe in a soul when you have seen unraveling on that pitiless scale.” As an undergraduate, the 20-year-old Wilson married the decade-older Elizabethan scholar because a baby — the future translator of Homer — was on the way. Each was actually in love with someone else. “In the first two years we were married, we spent hours and hours crying, and wishing we hadn’t been married.” Nevertheless, the couple stayed unhappily together until Wilson reached his late 30s, when this memoir ends.
During his Oxford days, Wilson began wearing his hallmark uniform — a three-piece suit, which he wryly refers to as his “AN Wilson outfit.” It was Duncan-Jones, he writes, “who urged me always to wear a suit, all those years ago, citing [classicist Maurice] Bowra, his eye darting up and down the gray flannels and sports coat of a Wadham Fellow, barking, ‘Why are you dressed as an undergraduate?'” Consequently, throughout the 1970s and ’80s Wilson was viewed as a Tory, a young fogy . That he was exceptionally thin — for a period he suffered from anorexia because of stress and “marital sadness” — only contributed to this conservative image. Yet he was hardly a fan of Margaret Thatcher:
“The paradoxes of political upheaval make the Muse of History appear to be the eternal satirist. … The so-called Conservatives far from conserving, carved up Britain with motorways, polluted its farmland with dangerous chemicals and, in their avarice, destroyed all that had made up Britain’s wealth in the first two generations of the Industrial Revolution, namely technical skills, exercised in innumerable fields.”
One of those fields was ceramics, in which his own family had been prominent for generations. His father, Norman Wilson, who rose to become managing director of Wedgwood, could produce dinnerware and pottery of consummate loveliness. “The nicest of his commercial designs, from which I still eat most of my meals, had a glaze of his invention called ‘Summer Sky.'”
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To describe his parents’ marriage, Wilson recalls “some Victorian wag” who declared: “How kind of God to make [Thomas] Carlyle married to Mrs. Carlyle, thereby making two people unhappy instead of four.” In Wilson’s case, his mother, Dorothy, “taught me to fear my father … just as, later, he taught me to sympathize, deeply, with his being married to a neurotic killjoy,” one with “a greater capacity than anyone I ever met to squeeze discontent from the happiest of circumstances.” Later in life, however, Wilson came to recognize his father’s artistic and corporate achievements — even judging them far greater than his own successes as a writer — and to enjoy his elderly mother’s company.
In his teens and 20s, young Andrew was strongly drawn to a career in the church. The most remarkable teachers in his life tended to be devout Catholics or Anglicans, starting with Sister Mary Mark (granddaughter of the actress Eleonora Duse). Her humility, even in recollection, chastens him with “the true absurdity of almost all the ambitions which coursed through my younger self when I wanted to be a famous writer.” He continues to argue with himself about religion throughout these pages, noting that in his middle years he was a complete skeptic but is now again an attendee at Church of England services.
At the young age of 30 Wilson became literary editor of the Spectator, during a time when the magazine’s staff was “drank on a positively Slavic scale, for one reason or another.” He now holds mixed feelings about his time on Fleet Street, “deemed a dissipation of talent by both my wives, and probably by all my children.” As he recognizes, “Writing bad novels, and thinking they might pass as good novels because they have been made into TV shows; going to early evening drinks parties; sleeping with people not one’s wife; gossiping and chattering … it was all too enjoyable, and it numbed the capacity, not merely to create, but to hear the messages sent to us by great art.”
In 1983, Wilson was nonetheless honored as one of Granta magazine’s “Best of Young British Novelists.” Following a group photograph of the 20 elect, he recalls Martin Amis coming up to say hello, though “there was a definite sense that he did so as capo di tutti capi and that [Ian] McEwan, [Julian] Barnes oath [Graham] Swift, huddling behind him like schoolboys, were a gang that I was not going to be asked to join.”
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With forgivable schadenfreude, he confesses that “the old man — that is me — looking at that group photograph now feels a wistful sympathy for them all. They had possessed the hubris to set up as rivals to the giants, to Joyce, to Nabokov, to Balzac, and the great Hegelian tide of history was against them. There have been some brilliant crime writers in our lifetime, but no ‘literary’ novelist to match the giants.”
Even if you aren’t a confirmed Anglophile, it is impossible to resist Wilson’s storytelling, whether he’s detailing the horrors of Hillstone School, where the headmaster sexually abused his pupils; recalling his friendship with the medievalist Christopher Tolkien (son of JRR); or simply praising the elegant prose of that much-married man of letters Peter Quennell, whose fifth wife, he notes, “was known inevitably as Quennell Number Five.” Of a future TV star, Wilson insists that “all the time I knew her well, Nigella [Lawson], destined to be famed as a gastronomic genius, never ate anything except mashed potato and never mentioned the subject of food.” Coincidentally, Wilson’s second daughter with Duncan-Jones is the food writer Bee Wilson.
Looking back over the years, the self-critical, gimlet-eyed AN Wilson sees “a life of failed promises.” This book, however, is not one of them. From its very first pages, “Confessions” promises to be terrifically entertaining, and it doesn’t fail in the slightest.
A Life of Failed Promises
Bloomsbury Continuum. 320 pp. $30
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