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Confessions: A life of failed promises by A. N. Wilson

25 November 2022

Richard Harries reads painful tales but awaits the next instalment

A. N. WILSON is one of the very best novelists and biographers of his generation. He is also the most intriguing of them all. If a lecturer asked the real A. N. Wilson to stand, the audience would look around to see who it might be, and then six people would stand up. This book lays out with great frankness who these contradictory bedfellows are.

What is also clear is that they are not just contradictory: they are ceaselessly jostling for pre-eminence in his life, first one and then another taking control. First, there is the serious novelist. But Wilson is also a fast and fluent writer, giving him a successful career as a journalist. At one time, besides writing several books, he was writing three columns a week for the newspapers. As he says, writing a book is satisfying, “But it does not give that heady buzz which still comes upon me if a national newspaper has rung up for an article, and I see it in print the next morning.”

Unfortunately, that propensity to achieve journalistic shock is even in the present book, when he repeats the canard from his earlier Spectator article that David Jenkins described the resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”. In fact, Jenkins had said just the opposite “It was not a conjuring trick with bones.” At the same time, Wilson describes the New Testament scholar Dennis Nineham as “a self-confessed atheist”, which I very much doubt.

Wilson admits that his family believe that he has dissipated his talent with this kind of journalism. Wonderful novels, such as The Healing Art, of 1980, suggested that he could produce something of real greatness. Allied to this desire to make a splash is a certain resentment that contemporaries such as Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis get more publicity, and presumably sell more books, than he does. I hope that he takes comfort from the many of us who would much rather read him.

At least up to the time of his father’s death, and the publication of his biography of Tolstoy, which is where this book ends, Wilson’s life was painful. His parents, sometimes crammed together in a small house, were totally estranged. His mother had an “unrivalled capacity to extract unhappiness from any situation however neutral or cheerful”. His father, a militant atheist, lost his job and spent decades endlessly repeating stories about the Wedgewood family, for whom he had worked.

Yet, in their way, each loved him, and he says that he thinks about them every day. When sent away to prep school, he wept all the time. There was much to weep about. The headmaster regularly caned the boys, openly masturbating as he did so. The head’s wife was no less cruel. Forcing a boy to eat his porridge even when as he was being sick into it, the young Wilson got up, strode over to her table, and threw the bowl of porridge and sick into her face. I cheered as I read it. It was a sign of the boldness/recklessness that, for good and ill, has marked his life, including getting him sacked as the Literary Editor of The Spectator.

© Ruth Guilding© Ruth Guilding

Wilson was married at 20, while still an undergraduate, to his tutor, who was ten years older: the distinguished scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones, and they had two children before he was 24. For the first two years, “we spent hours and hours weeping and wishing we had not married.” This marriage, which lasted 15 years, left him with a deep sense of resentment that his best years had been stolen from him, until, as Katherine was declining into dementia, he visited her regularly and was reconciled.

As Wilson has multiple personalities, so there are many roads he did not take. His original plan was to go out to Africa to work with the Community of the Resurrection before going to art school. For a period, he was at St Stephen’s House, where everyone at the time was given a female name, about which he wrote in Unguarded Hours. He was offered a good academic position.

Especially noteworthy is Wilson’s capacity to fall intensely in love — not just with people, but places, especially Oxford. Like the American intellectual the late Susan Sontag, he has a great capacity for adoration. In a cynical age, it is an endearing quality to see in someone, even if it so often leads to disillusionment, as it has done for him with both Anglicanism and the Roman Catholic Church at different periods of his life. For in him it goes with a sharp scepticism, a sense of mischief, and a delight in the comic absurdity of life, especially some of the people he has mixed with. So, not much happiness; but a life lived with great intensity and a great deal of fun. We can’t wait for the rest of the story.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His autobiography,
The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise, is to be published by Christian Alternative Books

Confessions: A life of failed promises
A. N. Wilson
Bloomsbury £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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