- Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Woolf: A Camp Reconstruction of Bloomsbury
The novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, and critic Angus Wilson received the comparatively rare honor of a knighthood in 1980, a mark of his public significance then matched by the critical esteem in which his work was held. He was “a darling of the intellectuals” and “the most ambitious novelist in British English since the war.” 1 Nevertheless, despite also being an acute and perceptive observer of literary mores, Angus Wilson has not yet enjoyed the long overdue recovery for his reputation that he was able to hasten for Zola and Kipling. 2 The mistaken identification of Wilson with a post-war revival of traditional forms has undoubtedly contributed to the decline of his popularity, while platitudinous, liberal humanist readings of his fiction have reinforced this perception of Wilson as an essentially middlebrow and reactionary novelist. The publication of his third novel, The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot (1958), seemed to confirm Wilson’s liberal-humanist credentials because, at least on the surface, this was a positively heart-warming study of an upper-middle class woman’s struggle to confront her loss of wealth and status in an incomprehensible society. The novel was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and tremendous critical acclaim. For Kerry McSweeney, this was “the finest of his [Wilson’s] first three novels . . . an attempt to combine nineteenth-century diversity with modernist depth,” while Frank Kermode deemed it “Mr Wilson’s most distinguished performance” and claimed for its author [End Page 95] a place in the “great tradition of moralising novelists.” 3
Wilson is, however, rather more and rather less than this: he is a comic writer who plunders the tradition more than he honors it and whose raids are more carnivalesque than consolatory. Although Wilson claimed that critics viewed The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot as an “attempt to wed Woolf with Arnold Bennett,” the generous appraisal of the reviewers was far from unproblematic, as even McSweeney himself has acknowledged 4 :
[W]hile it is excellent that no false depths are plumbed, no factitious victories won, it can be argued that Meg Eliot is not a person of enough complexity or depth, or her crisis sufficiently profound, to justify such full-scale treatment. 5
It is worth noticing in passing that McSweeney describes the protagonist of the novel as a “person” and not a “character,” demonstrating thereby his commitment to a realistic reading of Wilson’s novels. Rubin Rabinovitz bluntly states an important criticism only implicit in McSweeney’s comment, namely that the novel is “boring.” 6 Certainly, it is curious that critics should have almost universally welcomed Wilson’s apparent growth in moral seriousness, even at the cost of the grotesque satire which lent his earlier work its peculiar vivacity and interest. 7 Closer examination of this novel might, however, demonstrate that it is in subtlety alone that its humor differs from that of the novels and short stories which preceded it. In this novel, Wilson not only satirizes the bogus received ideas of Bloomsburyism, but also uses the same combination of mimicry and mockery in order to debunk the alternative, but equally flawed orthodoxy of a reactionary aesthetic.
Wilson launched his career as a critic on the B.B.C.’s Third Programme and guaranteed that he would make a splash by delivering an essay entitled “Sense and Sensibility in Recent Fiction,” which he opened by announcing his intention to “act as the devil’s advocate against the work of Mrs. Woolf.” 8 In this essay, Wilson creates “Mrs. Green” as a response to Woolf’s Mrs. Brown, “the old woman in the corner opposite,” with whom, Woolf asserted, “all novels begin.” 9 Woolf invented Mrs. Brown in order to illustrate the limitations of Arnold Bennett’s approach to character, chiefly his preoccupation with peripheral material detail; and Wilson responds with Mrs. Green, who embodies all the weaknesses of the typical [End Page 96] Woolfian heroine:
Now please look at Mrs. Green—for so we will call her—her good tweeds, her untidy grey hair, her interesting beauty—for to her friends and indeed to herself she has always...