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Angus Wilson: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Another comedy of manners with gay undertones from Wilson, this one has an archeological mystery to it. The key event, which happened well before the book starts, is the (fictitious) discovery of the grave of a seventh century bishop, Eorpwald, at Melpham. Involved in that event are the archeologist, Professor Stokesay (dead before the book starts), his son, the writer, Gilbert Stokesay (also dead before the book starts), the medieval historian, Gerald Middleton, narrator of this book, best friend of Gilbert Stokesay, who arrives at Melpham the day of the discovery of the grave but injures his foot so takes no part, Canon Portway (also dead before the book starts though his sister-in-law and granddaughter are important characters), Dollie Stokesay, Gilbert’s wife and later Gerald’s lover and three local characters, Mr Blake, his daughter Alice and Frank Rammage. The entire book is devoted to the complex relationships between these characters and their relatives as well as the mystery of Melpham.

The Melpham discovery is clearly based on the famous Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, which revealed, intact, the burial of a Saxon king (not bishop) who may have been King Eorpwald. However, unlike Sutton Hoo, which is the burial of a pagan king, Melpham is the burial of an early Christian bishop who may have relapsed as he seems to have been buried with a pagan idol. Wilson toys around with the idea of the Celtic v. Roman influence and brings in the influence of the Synod of Whitby. But while the history of the early church and the archeology involved in Melpham clearly fascinates him, he is far more concerned with the relationships between his characters. For virtually all the main characters are failures. They are failures as spouses/lovers, professionally, as parents and children, as human beings. Of course, it is Eorpwald who is the first failure with his relapse back to paganism but he merely sets the tone for the other characters.

The main focus is on the family of Gerald Middleton. He himself is clearly a failure as the husband of Inge, the father of John, Robin and Kay and the lover of Dollie. Even though successful in his profession, at least initially, he seems to want to stand aside. Inge is over-doting and tolerates her husband’s affair, to the detriment of her children. John was a Labour M.P. but gave up to become a TV advocate of downtrodden victims of the government but backs the wrong horse and gets involved in a messy gay relationship. Robin messes up his job, his love affair and his marriage while Kay messes up her marriage to the pompous ass, Donald. And this is just the Middleton family. When we add in the ten or so other main characters, we get a picture of total failure. Of course, as it is a novel, most of them sort of come out all right in the end, even Eorpwald. But the messy nature of middle England – the failures, the compromises, the hypocrisy – is left as a clear aftertaste.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Secker & Warburg