is a satirical novel by Angus Wilson
Sir Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson, CBE was an English novelist and short story writer. He was awarded the 1958 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot and later received a knighthood for his services to literature.-Biography:Wilson was born in Bexhill, Sussex, England, to...
, published in 1956. It was Wilson's most popular book, and many consider it his best work.
The novel deals with the continuing significance of two interconnected events that happened, on the same day, long before the opening of the novel. The first was the excavation of an ancient and valuable archaeological idol, a phallic figure unearthed from the tomb of an Anglo-Saxon bishop, Eorpwald, known as the "Melpham excavation". Gerald has long been haunted by a drunken revelation by his friend Gilbert, who was involved with this excavation, that the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated to embarrass Gilbert's father. Gilbert told Gerald that he put the idol there himself. Gerald, while feeling that his friend was telling the truth, pushed the matter to the back of his mind and tried to forget about it. He now feels ashamed that he, a history professor, has never had the courage to try to resolve the matter one way or another.
The second is that Gerald Middleton fell in love with Dollie, Gilbert's fiancée, and had an affair with her when his friend went off to fight in WWI. However, when Gilbert was killed at the front, Dollie refused to marry Gerald. He ended up marrying a Scandinavian woman named Inge but continued his affair with Dollie, who became an alcoholic. Gerald and Inge later separated.
is full of side-plots and coincidences, and contains a host of dysfunctional characters. Some of these characters are Gerald's own family members. His eldest son, Robin, is a womaniser who cannot decide whether to leave his wife or his mistress. His daughter, Kay, has an unhappy marriage and a deeply embittered view of her father, whom she appears to blame for everything that has gone wrong in her life, including her withered hand (which was actually caused by her mother). Gerald's estranged wife, Inge, moreover, is a grotesquely deluded woman who cannot bring herself to acknowledge her younger son John's homosexuality or her daughter's physical disability.
Gerald himself feels responsible both for Dollie's plight and for those of his children. He feels that the knowledge of his own silent complicity over the Melpham affair has drained his morale and made him withdrawn and indecisive. The novel begins with him resolving to make good the 'bloody shameful waste', as he puts it, of his life, by investigating the Melpham affair and making peace with Dollie. He also attempts to develop better relationships with his grown-up children, and even with Inge.
By the novel's end, Gerald achieves some sort of closure on his past. He persuades Dollie to come forward with a letter from Gilbert's father's colleague, Canon Portway, proving that the Melpham incident was a hoax; then he and Dollie reconcile into platonic friendship. He does, however, largely give up on achieving good relations with his family.
Sources of inspiration
The central theme of the novel was suggested to Wilson from several contemporary archeological disputes, most notably the Piltdown man
The Piltdown Man was a hoax in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. These fragments consisted of parts of a skull and jawbone, said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England...
hoax (of 1908-1912) and an accusation that the Elgin marbles
The Parthenon Marbles, forming a part of the collection known as the Elgin Marbles , are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures , inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens...
had been mishandled by the British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...
, later substantiated. However it also alludes obviously to the Sutton Hoo
Sutton Hoo, near to Woodbridge, in the English county of Suffolk, is the site of two 6th and early 7th century cemeteries. One contained an undisturbed ship burial including a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance, now held in the British...
ship-burial discovery of 1939, in a country-house setting near Woodbridge, Suffolk
Woodbridge is a town in Suffolk, East Anglia, England. It is in the East of England, not far from the coast. It lies along the River Deben, with a population of about 7,480. The town is served by Woodbridge railway station on the Ipswich-Lowestoft East Suffolk Line. Woodbridge is twinned with...
. The Melpham discovery is similarly set among the 'East Folk' on the east coast of England. Eorpwald
Eorpwald; also Erpenwald or Earpwald, , succeeded his father Rædwald as ruler of the independent Kingdom of the East Angles...
(also the name of the Melpham bishop) is in reality the unique Anglo-Saxon name of the successor of Raedwald
Rædwald ; also Raedwald or Redwald, was a 7th century king of East Anglia, a long-lived Anglo-Saxon kingdom which today includes the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. He was the son of Tytila of East Anglia and a member of the Wuffingas dynasty , who were the first rulers of the East Angles...
, who was popularly thought to have been buried in the famous ship. That discovery, essentially a pagan style of burial in which Christian artefacts were included, raised many disputes among academics (as Angus Wilson was aware).
The novel was made into a three-part television mini-series in 1992 by Thames Television
Thames Television was a licensee of the British ITV television network, covering London and parts of the surrounding counties on weekdays from 30 July 1968 until 31 December 1992....
subsidiary Euston Films
Euston Films was a British film and television production company. It was a subsidiary company of Thames Television, and operated from the 1970s to the 1990s, producing various series for Thames, which were screened nationally on the ITV network...
. The screenplay was written by Andrew Davies
Andrew Wynford Davies is a British author and screenwriter. He was made a Fellow of BAFTA in 2002.-Education and early career:...
and featured Richard Johnson
Richard Johnson is an English actor, writer and producer, who starred in several British films of the 1960s and has also had a distinguished stage career. He most recently appeared in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.-Life and career:...
in the role of Gerald Middleton. Tara FitzGerald
Tara Anne Cassandra Fitzgerald is an English actress who has appeared in feature films, television, radio and the stage....
played a supporting role as the young Dollie, and there was also a brief appearance by a 16-year-old Kate Winslet
Kate Elizabeth Winslet is an English actress and occasional singer. She has received multiple awards and nominations. She was the youngest person to accrue six Academy Award nominations, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for The Reader...
. The film won the BAFTA award for best serial drama; Davies and Johnson also won awards, from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and the Broadcasting Press Guild respectively.
The phrase "Anglo-Saxon attitudes"
"Anglo-Saxon attitudes" is a phrase spoofed by Lewis Carroll
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson , better known by the pseudonym Lewis Carroll , was an English author, mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon and photographer. His most famous writings are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, as well as the poems "The Hunting of the...
in Through the Looking-Glass
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is a work of literature by Lewis Carroll . It is the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland...
- "All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. 'I see somebody now!' she exclaimed at last. 'But he's coming very slowly—and what curious attitudes he goes into!'
- 'Not at all,' said the King. 'He's an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he's happy.'"
Wilson uses part of this quotation at the front of his novel. Lewis Carroll is referring to a ninth- to eleventh-century style in English drawing, in which the figures are shown in swaying positions with the palms held out in exaggerated positions.
has also been used as the title of several subsequent literary works.
John Maddocks' review of Carleton S. Coon
Carleton Stevens Coon, was an American physical anthropologist, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, lecturer and professor at Harvard, and president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.-Biography:Carleton Coon was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts to a...
's The Origin of Races
for the first issue of New York Review of Books
in February 1963, was headed "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes". History Today
History Today is an illustrated history magazine. Published monthly in London since January 1951, it is the world's leading, and possibly oldest, history magazine. Its successful mission has always been to present serious and authoritative history to as wide a public as possible...
titled its report of the opening of a new museum at Canterbury in Kent, on the site of St. Augustine's abbey, "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes".
was also the name of an historical conference "in pursuit of the English" to define the evolution of the English cultural self-image held at the University of Salford
The University of Salford is a campus university based in Salford, Greater Manchester, England with approximately 20,000 registered students. The main campus is about west of Manchester city centre, on the A6, opposite the former home of the physicist, James Prescott Joule and the Working Class...
on 9 July–11, 1999.