Mark Davies on Angus Wilson, ‘one of Britain's greatest late 20th-century writers’

A don’s wife said to the novelist Angus Wilson one day in the 1970s: “I hear you spent most of your time in Oxford dressed as a woman. What fun those days must have been!”

Well, not entirely, because Wilson (1913-1991) was gay, and “those days” were the early 1930s, when homosexuality was, of course, still illegal. Wilson mentioned the comment in his contribution to a 1977 collection of essays called My Oxford as an example of “how legend overtakes the original”.

In fact, he had once, and only once, borrowed some clothes from a Somerville undergraduate to pretend to be the stepmother of a fellow student in order to enliven a tea party attended by some conventional, middle-aged parents.

The Somerville girl was Sally Graves (niece of the poet and historical novelist Robert Graves), who became Principal of Lady Margaret Hall in the 1970s.

This incident, while revealing both of Wilson’s sense of fun and his acting ability, is not exactly typical of his years at Oxford, particularly the first one, when he “could as easily have confessed my loneliness and alarms ... as a warthog can communicate his fears of lion to a herd of zebras”.

This shyness stemmed partly from the necessity of suppressing his homosexuality while at the same time finding it difficult to disguise in view of his distinctive, high-pitched voice, and being self-consciously “very ‘pansy’ in manner”.

On commencing a degree in history at Merton College in the Michaelmas term of 1932, it took only one or two meals in hall to put him on his guard.

Seeing “people throw bread at each other” had led him to anticipate “that before term was out this would have ended in bodily assaults”. He was also wary of the small clique of wealthy boys at Merton, who “made a great deal of drunken noise on many nights” which “seemed the blood-curdling prelude to heaven knew what roastings and defenestrations”. In addition, Wilson had been accustomed to a high standard of cuisine as a result of his father’s ill-advisedly extravagant tastes and an unorthodox ‘rentier’ upbringing (living in Kensington and South Coast hotels, with no permanent home). Merton’s meals, therefore, seemed to him “vile, worse than that served at my brother’s prep school, which was the nadir of my father’s scale of feeding”.

So he tolerated the Merton dining hall for two or three weeks, and then, in contravention of college rules, ate consistently at restaurants. One favourite was Fuller’s tearoom in Cornmarket, but “the best food was at the George”.

This was a restaurant which used to be at the corner of George Street and Cornmarket, and which in the previous decade had been a favourite of another ‘aesthete’ who never dined in hall, John Betjeman. When it came to clothes, Wilson, able for the first time in life to purchase items of his own choosing, exercised this choice mainly at Hall Bros in the High Street, from where he purchased “a good number of canary-coloured woollen waistcoats with brass buttons, a lot of foulard spotted scarves, and a pleasing selection of bottle green, maroon and dark crimson velvet ties”.

Otherwise, apart from the cost of smoking daily 35 to 40 “very costly small flat Turkish cigarettes called Malachrino”, the “rest of my money went on books from Blackwell’s”.

With time, Wilson’s natural gregariousness, “finding communication with all I met not only easy but unavoidable”, enabled him to look back on his undergraduate years with pleasure.

Of note, he joined the Oxford University Dramatic Society and was accepted into one of those many mysterious Oxford University dining clubs, The Myrmidons, “who wore special violet evening coats and violet ties”.

His great regret was that he failed at the time to appreciate the architectural grandeur of the city. Later in life, Oxford struck him as “a continuous visual delight”, but at the time, apart from “a visual excitement in seeing The Queen’s College, ... moments of transported joy in combined architectural and natural scenery, walking in the Botanical Gardens [sic], in Addison’s Walk, ... in general, Oxford’s visual beauty passed me by”.

During the Second World War, Wilson was recruited to the now famous code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park, and it was during this period that he suffered the nervous breakdown which would, in effect, unlock his talents as a writer.

Advised to write as a form of therapy, his first two collections of short stories marked him out as “a brilliant, distinguished literary figure”, to quote the Dictionary of National Biography, in the mould of Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster.

He went on to write many acclaimed novels, of which his first, Hemlock and After (1952), is of note as being one of the first gay novels of the post-war world — it would be another 15 years before homosexuality was decriminalised — and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), a name borrowed from Lewis Carroll, and, with flawed academics at the heart of its plot, may possibly have been influenced by his time in Oxford.

In 1962, Wilson tutored a unique contemporary writing course at the new University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Three notable graduates were the novelists Margaret Drabble (who remained a lifelong friend and published a posthumous biography of him), Rose Tremain, and Ian McEwan, who includes a brief cameo of Wilson in his most recent novel, Sweet Tooth. Angus Wilson was knighted in 1980, but later that decade suffered rapid mental and physical deterioration due to a disease of the brain, and died in 1991 as “one of Britain’s greatest late 20th- century writers”, to quote the Dictionary of National Biography.

Yet today his name is virtually unknown.

The novelist Susan Hill, writing in the Guardian in 2008, had this explanation: “He and the period about which he wrote best, the 1940–60s, went out of fashion, as did his sort of realism, his brand of perception, his kind of wisdom. “Wilson’s novels are as good as they ever were. It is we and our literary taste that moved on.”

Mark J. Davies is an Oxford local historian and Angus Wilson’s great-nephew. The Royal Society of Literature is holding an event in London on Monday, November 25, to commemorate 100 years since Wilson’s birth. Margaret Drabble and Ian McEwan will be among the speakers: