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Angus Wilson: Setting the World on Fire

Wilson starts off this novel with a nice conceit – he creates a rich and luxurious stately home right in the middle of London, behind where Westminster Abbey now is and in the middle of where the Home Office now is. The house – Tothill House – was designed by the very real architects John Vanbrugh and Roger Pratt (best known for his design of Kingston Lacy.) The house is richly decorated, in particular with a trompe l’oeil painting of Phaeton‘s descent to Earth, possibly based on the one at Cagnes. At the start of the novel (1948), the house is inhabited by the aristocratic Lady Mosson and her son Hubert. His brother died in the war but his brother’s two younger sons are visiting. They are the brilliant, high-flying Piers and his more pedestrian younger brother Tom. Their behavior is, of course, represented by the Phaeton image – Piers flies close to the Sun, while trembles below. We follow the career of the two boys in four time periods. The next period – 1956-57 – sees them at the expensive and snooty Westminster School, where Piers is already making a name for himself as a theatrical director. Piers is soon determined to put on a production of Lully‘s opera Phaeton, primarily at the instigation of his Uncle Hubert’s fiancée, the wealthy widow, Marina Luzzi. (The introduction of Marina gives Wilson ample opportunity to make fun of the Italians.)

While this is going on, various family activities are occurring. Lady Mosson hates her daughter-in-law, Rosemary, the boys’ mother, and hates her even more when she plans to marry a man with whom she was having an affair while her late husband was still alive. Hubert and Marina break off (we later find out, of course, that Hubert is gay and he eventually dies of a heart attack in a brothel.) Piers – now Sir Piers – has inherited the house and is finally able to stage the opera. His grandmother has become a nicer person, following an illness, and his mother has remarried but, in true Wilson fashion, it all goes wrong in somewhat melodramatic fashion.

At first glance, it might seem that Wilson is doting on the aristocracy and, indeed, there is a certain element of this, though part of it must be put down to the conservatism that comes with old age. However, it seems to me, his point is clearly to show that try as you might, you cannot keep the barbarians from the gate. The Tothill/Mosson family has tried, over the centuries, to preserve its privileges but they are clearly creeping in, as Lady Mosson realises. The war changed some things and now the New Britain is changing things, aided and abetted by her family, culminating in the final terrorist attack and the death of Tom. The aristocracy has tried to set the world on fire and now the world is striking back.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Secker & Warburg