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Angus Wilson: The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot

Many have hailed this as Angus Wilson’s masterwork which may be the case, painting, as it does, a complex portrait of a woman trying to reinvent herself as a woman. Meg Eliot is the well-to-do wife of a well-to-do lawyer. She is happily married (though childless). Her free time is occupied with friends slightly worse off than she and with being the Chair (they still call it Chairman) of a charity called Aid to the Elderly, where her penchant for doing good with a bit of control thrown in is put to good use. Her husband has to go to Singapore on business and they decide to make a grand tour of it. While in transit in the (fictitious) country of Badai, Meg goes to the toilet and, while there, her husband is shot dead while trying to protect a minister from an assassination attempt. Her husband had been a gambler and while she is not left destitute, she is not well off either and is forced to sell her house and adjust her lifestyle.

The rest of the story is how Meg Eliot adjusts to her changed circumstances and, more particularly, how she struggles from being Bill’s wife (and then Bill’s widow) to being herself. It isn’t easy. She lives on her own and takes a secretarial course. She moves in first with the impoverished dowager with whom she worked on the Aid to the Elderly Committee. This doesn’t work out because Lady Pirie is in love with her useless wannabe novelist son who almost rapes Meg. She then moves in with her friend Jill who had never recovered from her husband’s death and who is so wrapped up in her married daughter that she wages virtually open war with her son-in-law and when Meg tries to intervene, she has to leave but not before she has a nervous breakdown.

Her brother has hovered around in the background all the time. He is an academic but has given up academia to run a garden nursery with his friend. (We later find out that they were gay lovers but because the friend was a committed Christian and, therefore, considered homosexuality a sin, they were now only partners and not lovers. Interestingly, the friend dies of a mysterious disease but, as the book was published in 1958, we must assume that it is not AIDS.) He now leaps into the breach and, with his partner dead, Meg moves in with him and it is he that helps her recover and, finally, find her independence and find herself.

Of course, this is only one reading of the book. You could also view it as a thoroughly misogynistic tract. All the other women are horrible – dependent, clinging, inept, useless without a man. Even Meg can be seen as controlling, spoilt, arrogant. Indeed, there is a very good case for claiming Wilson as an unrepentant misanthrope, as none of the characters in this book is particularly admirable or worthy and, I imagine, few people would wish to befriend them, much less be related to them or marry them. Lady Pirie and her son Tom, Jill and her daughter Evelyn, Meg and her husband Bill, her impoverished friend Poll, Meg’s brother, David, his partner, Gordon and their petty squabbling employees, all leave much to be desired. But let’s give Wilson some credit and that is the portrait of Meg Eliot. She does not compare to Emma Bovary as has been suggested but she is still a pretty interesting woman.

Publishing history

First published 1958 by Secker & Warburg