Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Angus Wilson: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Angus Wilson
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
a novel

I have often thought that the full title of this novel should be Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: A Psychoanalytic Case Study.  Angus Wilson had undergone therapy himself,  after suffering a "nervous breakdown,"  probably the result of the tension endemic to his work at the famous code-breaking institution Bletchley Park during WWII.

I will reveal a significant episode that occurs approximately half way through the novel.  The commentary would make little sense if I did not bring this up.

The novel is structured along the lines of a classic psychoanalytic case.  There are several components to be considered here. 

One is that the patient has unhappy  or dissatisfied with life for a significant period of time.

"Gerald Middleton was a man of mildly but persistently depressive temperament.  Such men are not at their best at breakfast, nor is the week before Christmas their happiest time.  .  . The prospect of speaking to his wife on the telephone and, even more, of the family Christmas party greatly heightened his depression."

Middleton has been separated from his wife for some time now.  Moreover, his children either do not like him or respect  him.  His wife, Inge, has convinced the children that he is to blame for the separation.

Middleton now is sixty years of age and has retired from his university position as a lecturer in history.  Early in his career he had published a book which promised a great future for him, but he never lived up to that brilliant beginning.   At present he still maintains membership in a professional society of historians and is regarded highly enough to be considered for the position of editor for the major publication planned to come out in a few years.  The present editor is retiring at the end of the year and  he, along with other members of the society, wants Middleton  to take on the position and the huge task of editing the work.

Middleton, so far,  had rejected the suggestion, feeling that he hadn't the energy to handle the workload, and used as an excuse his own project,  a definitive work on the life of Edward the Confessor which he had supposedly been working on for years, and had done very little on it for years.  Many believed he would never finish the work while some even doubted its existence.

In the first half of the novel, we follow Middleton in his encounters with friends, family, and colleagues and see the growing disgust with his life.

He sums up his life as follows:  "a family man who had had neither the courage to walk out of the marriage he hated, nor the resolution to sustain the role of father decently.  A ex-professor of medieval  history who had not even fulfilled the scholarly promise of studies whose general value he now doubted."

It is in this state of mind that Middleton travels down to his wife's residence to spend the Christmas holidays with her and his three grown children, two sons and a daughter, and their spouses.  The family squabbling and the disdain shown him only increases his unhappiness.

After the Christmas Day dinner, the family gathers in the drawing room, and Middleton settles down "in a deep armchair. . .hunched up as far as his great height would allow him, and remote.  He seemed even to have barricaded himself form the rest of the family with little tables on which were his brandy glass, his coffee cup, his ashtray."

One psychoanalytic technique is free association, the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any apparent connection. Therapists, especially those of the Freudian flavor,  ask the patient to respond freely and without conscious thought to words uttered by the therapist, and those responses then become the basis for discussions in future sessions.

As the family discussion continues,  several phrases at random stir memories of past events which relate to significant events in his personal and professional life.  As he considers these events, he drifts off each time into sleep in which each of those memories becomes a dream in which he undergoes a complete recall of those memories.

Another standard treatment element in a psychoanalytic session is dream work.  The patient recalls for the therapist any dreams he or she has had since the session.  In psychoanalytic theory, dreams are the repressed memories of past traumatic events which are too painful for the patient to confront.

Up to this point, Middleton has progressed through the various steps of a classic case study: he has recognized that he is extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with his life, he has brought up memories of his past through free association, and he has fully relived those events through his dreams.

One step remains: the gaining of insight, without which there can be no change, no resolution, no escape from his present situation. At the end of his last dream. . .

"So that, he thought, was the whole of it.  Suspicions engendered by the words of a drunkard, and the actions of a hysterical woman.  He had never dared to confront Gilbert with his words again nor face Inge with his suspicions about Kay's hand.  And from these slender foundations it seemed he had woven a great web of depression and despair to convince himself that his chosen study of history was a lie and the family life he had made a deception. . . It seemed to him  suddenly as though he had come out of a dark narrow tunnel, where movement was cramped to a feeble crawl, into the broad daylight where he could once more walk or run if he chose."

The last lines of Part One show how much he has changed as a result of the insight that he has gained into the sources of his unhappiness.

"Inge's voice came to him. 'Now there is your father, who has slept all through our wonderful talk.'

'No, I hear you, my dear,' he said.

'We have been talking about truth.  But you are the one who can tell us.  The great scholar!'  Her voice was sarcastic.  He got up and,  walking over to her, he kissed her on the cheek.  It was an action only little less sarcastic than her words.

'You know all about the truth, don't you, Gerald? she asked.

'Yes, my dear, I do.' he answered, 'but I'm going off to bed..'

When he got upstairs to his room, he sat down and wrote to Sir Edgar, accepting the editorship of the History."

Now that he has faced the truth, now that he has gained insight, all that energy he had expended on repressing those memories, is now freed up.

Psychoanalytic case studies usually end at this point, with perhaps a brief summary of the resolution of the sessions. But, this is only the halfway point in the novel.  What can follow?   What follows is what doesn't get into a case study and is seldom if ever discussed.  The patient has gained insight into the sources of the present situation and needs to change past behaviors and re-establish relationships on a different footing.

Herein lies the problem: the patient has changed, but the family, friends, colleagues haven't.  While the present relationships may not be ideal, they are at least comfortable and predictable.  In addition, each of Middleton's three children has a subplot in which Middleton attempts to help them.
This, then,  is the theme of the second part of the novel: Gerald Middleton attempts to change the nature of his relationships with others. To change a relationship requires a change in both parties, and change, as we all know too well, is difficult, and frequently impossible.

One of the joys of this novel is Wilson's skill in characterization.  Many of the secondary characters are sketched out: each is unique, each speaks with a different voice, and each has a distinct relationship with one or more of the other characters.  If any cast of characters can be described as Dickensian, the cast in this novel is one.

Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is one of the few novels on my permanent must-be-reread list.


  1. Fred, I hope you will forgive me when I confess that I skimmed your posting/review because I wanted to avoid peeking behind the curtains to see too much of what awaits on the stage. When I reached your final paragraphs, I realize that I have another book to add to my wish-list for reading one of these days. When you say Dickensian characterizations and when you say you will be rereading this one again (and again?), well, you've baited and set the hook, and you reeled me in. Thanks! Now I have to find a copy somewhere.

    1. R.T.--no problem. That's why I inserted the warning. I too prefer to enter a story and let it unfold gradually before me without prior knowledge.

      I hope you enjoy the story some time down the road. I would also be interested in reading what your reactions were.

    2. Fred, my backwater community library has nothing by Angus Wilson, so I will try the nearby university library. And I can always add it to my list for Santa Claus.

  2. R.T.--Does your library have InterLibraryLoan? I have found that to be very useful when looking for older works.

    1. Yes, ILL is available. However, I had bad eyesight, so I eye-ball any book before I check it out from the library. I've gotten some ILL requests and returned them unread because my peepers couldn't handle the pressure. I could get an Amazon Kindle edition, but I will put such an option on my Santa Claus list rather than on my credit card.

    2. R.T. Makes sense. I don't like buying some stuff online because I want to see and touch it in real time--photos don't work.

      Santa Claus lists are always handy.

    3. Fred, I know exactly what you mean by online shopping. I once upon a time ordered a bride from Russia but was sorely disappointed when she was delivered. The return postage was through the roof!

    4. R.T.--got me. Had to laugh out loud at that one. Fortunately I had put my cup of tea down.

    5. Fred: do you think Tim is kidding? i wonder...

    6. Mudpuddle--Would R.T. kid us? I think not.

  3. This sounds very appealing. I tend to like books that dig into people's heads as they explore relationships. The unusual structure that you refer to seems to add a level of interest. It also sounds very original and creative.

    1. Brian--this has that as Middleton tries to figure out what went wrong in his relationships with his wife and children.

      I didn't pick up on that structure until after finishing the work. Wilson didn't make it obvious, but buried it in the narrative. It was an assigned reading when I was in grad school, and I only saw it when I had finished the book and was thinking about doing the paper on it.

  4. Wow! What an interesting book. And how depressing. Yet the protagonist seems to hold his own against his wife's contempt. How horrible to be surrounded by people who don't respect you.

    And I completely agree that you can "solve" your own problems but if the catalyst for those problems (other people in your life) don't change it will be extremely hard not to fall back in to your old ways.

    An example: I have a friend who was wild and rebellious as a teenager. She became such a problem that her parents put her in a home. In the home she got off drugs and learned how to conduct her life in a non destructive manner. She told me that even so, when she returned to her family, her parents personal problems (alcoholic father; domineering mother) had not changed and she soon reverted.

    (Happy ending: she is not that person anymore but I appreciated her insight.)

    Why is it called Anglo Saxon attitudes?

    1. Sharon,

      I find it very interesting also. But, I don't find it that depressing because Middleton does come to grips with his problems and attempts to change his relationships. That the attempt is not successful is not his responsibility, as far as I can see. The failure rests with those who are unable to deal with change.

      The drug rehab community has as one of its main tenets for success the insistence that former drug users must get away from former companions and relatives if there is to be any chance of a long term success.

      The title? Various social and religious issues are presented in the work: sexual preference, Christianity vs. paganism, government vs. the individual, TV exposure of governmental problems vs. exploitation, unbridled capitalism vs. social responsibility. These are presented as actions taken by various characters in the story and the repercussions of such actions.

      These are not really developed to a great depth in the novel (would really have slowed down the pace of the work and would have made for a monstrous tome) but presented as actions with some debate among the characters which then provokes responses in the reader. That's how it worked for me, anyway.

    2. That's very interesting. Thanks for your response. I have looked him up on Amazon. Wilson has written a number of books, it seems.

    3. Sharon,

      Yes, I've read most of them. While I enjoyed reading them, A-S Attitudes is my favorite.

      I still have one of his novels on Mount TBR, _Setting the World on Fire_. I shall have to check a complete list of his works to see if there's still some I haven't read yet. After that, perhaps a reread would be next.

  5. This is a book that has been on my tbr list for a long time. Your review and especially the reference to the Dickensian cast of characters tells me I should move it closer to the top.