I was surprised when I looked at a few review sites and saw that Anglo-Saxon Attitudes wasn’t particularly popular among recent readers.
The plot is at first glance flimsy. Gerald Middleton is a 60-year-old retired historian. He is independently wealthy and well liked by his academic peers, but there is a sense of unfulfilled potential. He lives a comfortable life but is dogged by thoughts of his great unfinished work on Cnut.
Gerald was one of a group of people who were in the village of Melpham forty years earlier when an Anglo-Saxon bishop was apparently discovered with a pagan ornament in his grave. This has caused a major re-evaluation of what was known of the period. However Gerald has reason to believe that the find was a hoax.
It seems that Gerald’s life has a kind of paralysis. He can’t commit to his academic work, because he feels a fraud, but nor does he have the courage to tell anyone about his suspicions. His marriage is long over, but he has not divorced and continues to maintain an ostensibly amicable relationship with his estranged wife, Ingeborg.
Gerald is drawn back into the academic world when he is asked to edit a new history book, not least because the other candidates are so unpopular. Meanwhile he becomes drawn into a number of complicated situations with Ingeborg and his adult children. However events come to a head when a prominent archaeologist discovers a grave with some similarities to Melpham and draws inferences based on both finds. Gerald has to decide whether to speak out.
While the Melpham storyline gives the novel its shape, it is a fairly small part of the novel with no major twists of surprises, which is perhaps why contemporary, more plot-driven readers are disappointed. The book has a profusion of characters, who are all connected somehow with Gerald or Melpham and they are each acting out their own sub-plot, while contributing to the overall arc. (We don’t think of our lives as sub-plots in someone else’s story, so why should they?) It is an elegant and entertaining structure, though the list of characters at the beginning did prove useful once or twice.
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is such fun it’s easy to dismiss it as a light social comedy, but over time the themes creep up on you. Its characters are all, in their own esoteric ways, embroiled in matters of truth and faith. Gerald’s son, John, a former MP turned campaigning journalist, is championing the cause of a man who he thinks has been mistreated by the civil service, while his other son, Robin, who runs the family business, is more sympathetic with the civil servant and attempts to intervene on his behalf.
Then there is an incident in Gerald’s daughter, Kay’s, childhood which he has views about, which, as with Melpham, he has never articulated. There are the conflicting, but entrenched, beliefs of his academic colleagues, which reflect their temperaments as much as their learning.
The title of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is drawn from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The novel plays with what it means to be Anglo-Saxon both in the historical sense of the term and the contemporary popular use. This is a post-war society where the classes are more fluid, where social norms around class and sexuality are being eroded. John is openly gay – among his friends, at least – and socialises with the son of his father’s former cleaner.
There are characters of various nationalities (although they are overwhelmingly white and European) who both highlight and subvert national stereotypes. The most prominent is Ingeborg, the socially liberal Dane, who in her very acceptance of her husband’s affair manages to undermine it, and whose apparent reasonableness exerts a powerful control over her children.
Reading this book feels like being at a party where everyone is just a little more witty and colourful than in real life. I definitely want to read more of Wilson’s work.
I #lovelibraries. Here’s my haul of Angus Wilson novels from the Exeter stack