Category: Fiction – Paperback: 346 pages – Publisher: Penguin (Peguin No. 1311) – Source: Charity shop
First Published: 1956
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes begins with a gathering of medieval historians listening to a memorial lecture that sparks the main character, Gerald Middleton, reminiscing about the part he played in a famous excavation over forty years ago. In Gerald’s world, the Melpham dig of 1912 is famous not only for the tomb discovered but for the artifacts that were found within it. Only Gerald knows that the most famous artifact, the one still being discussed and written about as a key piece of evidence in the 1950s, wasn’t what it appeared to be.
It’s funny how a set of ingredients can be mixed in different ways. Looking at my notes of ‘bevy of older academics, social snobbery, humour in the hierarchical dynamics’ you’d be forgiven for wondering if this book was rather Pym-ish in its set up. And I guess you wouldn’t be far off the truth with such an assumption but it moves at a much slower pace and develops into something with a far more socially diverse cast of characters and more interlinked stories than Pym would juggle by the time you hit Page 100.
In fact, it took me up until Page 100 to decide the book wasn’t for me, something very unusual in my reading life.
I’m a long term believer in the 50 page rule – you’ll know if you like an author or a story in the first two or three chapters and there’s not much point continuing beyond that point if you’re not enjoying it. After all, you can always come back to it another time, in a different mood, with more knowledge or different expectations. Or you can simply try a different book by the author and see if you get along better with that.
What made this book so unusual for me was that by Page 50 I was curious about the characters Wilson was introducing me to and found his writing style interesting. But almost nothing had happened. By Page 50 Middleton had gone to the evening lecture, dodged some awkward questions, been introduced to some new people and that’s about it. There was a lot of background setting about the Melpham dig but none of the truth about its dodgy findings had been revealed and there wasn’t a lot of tension about it either.
Setting the book aside to go and make lunch I found myself rather puzzled. I didn’t dislike it, I still had hope for it. But I can’t remember a book I’ve read recently where I honestly had no instinctive yes or no response after over an hour of reading!
I decided to give it a little more time to woo me and… It didn’t really try to. I’m not sure if the humour appeared more obvious to contemporary readers or I’m being too impatient but it seems as though this is a book that exists without any interest in giving the reader pleasure. It has lessons to offer about context defining an object, person or action. It has things to say about academia and social politics and someone pointed out in another review that this is an early example of campus novels which are now more commonplace. But it has little in the way of dramatic tension and offers no more rapport between the author and the reader on Page 100 than there was on Page 1. It’s not a novel you can sink into or go on a journey with.
In 2008 The Guardian did a piece asking authors which works they’d like to see put back into print and Margaret Drabble (who wrote a biography of him) picked three works by Wilson and said this particular book:
‘analyses a wide range of British society in a complicated plot that offers all the pleasures of detective fiction combined with a steady and humane insight. Each time I reread it, I find a new nuance, another accurate guess about the world we were about to inhabit.’
I admit I didn’t see that level of nuance myself or really appreciate the complexity of the plot. Perhaps this is a book you simply need to read the whole of in one sweep and appreciate afterwards? I’m still interested enough to try another Wilson to see whether he wrote something more to my tastes but I’m setting this one aside for now.
Further Reading:An interview of Wilson in The Paris Review
Buy the book: Book Depository