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Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

December 31, 2015

ASAsOne of England’s first openly gay novelists, Angus Wilson relished the sleaze of daily life. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes features a vivid cast of characters that includes scheming academics and fading actresses, big businessmen toggling between mistresses and wives, media celebrities, hustlers, transvestites, blackmailers, toadies, and even one holy fool. Everyone, it seems, is either in cahoots or in the dark, even as comically intrepid Gerald Middleton struggles to maintain some dignity while digging up a history of lies.

This was back in 1956 when homosexuality was illegal but the gay charactersvare ijn your face and revolting.

Gerald Middleton is a sixty-year-old self-proclaimed failure with a conscience.” As a young man, he was involved in an archaeological dig at the Melpham site that turned up a phallic fertility idol unearthed from the tomb of a seventh-century bishop, Eorpwald, and scandalized a generation.

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. 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.

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. 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.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is full of side-plots and coincidences and contains a host of eccentric characters. Some of these characters are Gerald’s family. Robin his eldest son, is a womaniser who cannot decide whether to leave his wife or his mistress. 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 is a grotesquely deluded woman who cannot bring herself to acknowledge her younger son John’s homosexuality or her daughter’s physical disability.

By the novel’s end, Gerald achieves a measure of peace with 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 begin a platonic friendship. He gives up on achieving good relations with his family.

“Anglo-Saxon attitudes” is a phrase spoofed by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass (1871):

“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!’

(For the Messenger kept skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)

‘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.

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From → Film, Sexuality

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