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Angus Wilson: Hemlock and After

Angus Wilson’s first novel could be said to be a typical English comedy of manners, except for one slight twist – its hero is gay. Bernard Sands is a successful, middlebrow novelist, married with two thoroughly obnoxious priggish children (both grown up). He has only realised or, at least, acknowledged his homosexuality later in life (though we later learn that his wife has known all along). When the story starts, he is one of the eminent men of English letters and, as such, is heading up the effort to set up a writers’ retreat, sponsored by the Government. Inevitably there is the clash of lifestyles and points of views and not just involving homosexuality. In fact, the main difference is between the humanist outlook and the more conservative approach to life.

As well as his problems with the writers’ retreat, his wife (who is ill), his horrible children, his gay friends and the petty bourgeois of the neighborhood where he lives, Sands also has to contend with a local woman who is running a dating agency for dirty old men looking for underage girls. More particularly he has to contend with his own ambiguous feelings, brought to the fore when he sees a young homosexual prostitute arrested in Leicester Square and gets a kick out of it instead of feeling sorry for the young man, as he feels he should. Though the book now seems tame, when it was released at the beginning of the 1950s, it was considered outrageous and the American publisher refused to publish it.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Secker & Warburg