On A. N. Wilson’s “Confessions”

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WITH THE POSSIBLE exception of when flattering a friend, A. N. Wilson is the only living person that I refer to as a “man of letters.” More precisely, I identify him as a novelist and man of letters. The first descriptor is straightforward. Wilson is the author of a couple dozen works of fiction, including Winnie and Wolf (2007), which was long listed for the Booker Prize. The “man of letters” part is meant to cover everything else — his journalism, the popular histories, the biographies, the lurking about on the edges of academia. To mark his 70th birthday, Wilson has written an account of his early decades, Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises, from which I learn that even he thinks of himself as a “Person of Letters.”

Curiouser, even he thinks of himself as “A. N. Wilson.” The book has a running theme: Wilson does not like his publicity-seeking, selfish side. He regrets the “difference between, on the one hand, the inner self, the good self I aspired to become, and, on the other, A. N. and his antics.” Wilson still might have a transformative breakthrough if only some holy person would come along and bestow a name upon this inner self. Instead, he clings to the name on the cover of his books. The first chapter of his Confessions is titled “Ungentle A. N.” and is supposed to reflect the view of his first wife — if one can imagine her thinking of him by his byline initials. Wilson tries to normalize this by referring to her as K (though she went by Kate). His The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible (2016) — which is more of a memoir than its title suggests — is centered upon his relationship with a woman he calls L. I found this approach so sufficiently off-putting that I eventually scribbled in the margin: “What the L.?”

Wilson recounts being a guest on a BBC radio program along with Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury. The presenter is said to have mused: “I realized this evening, you both missed your calling. Rowan should have been the Man of Letters, and A. N. should have been an archbishop.” A novelist must have an ear for dialogue, but it is hard for me to believe that anyone would word that sentence quite that way. Apparently, he does not really want to shed the persona of being A. N. Wilson any more than he wants to shed his signature three-piece suit. (He tells a delicious story against himself. When the women in his office were discussing the possibility of going to bed with him, one of them quipped: “I can imagine tearing off his three-piece suit only to find another three-piece suit underneath.”)

Confessions has four main threads: his parents and their marriage; his education and meandering career path; his first marriage; and his famous or at least interesting friends or acquaintances. Wilson’s search for a vocation illuminates why it is not easy to sum up his contribution in a word. We follow along as he explores becoming a painter (he had planned to attend Saint Martin’s School of Art); a Roman Catholic priest (ideally, in the Oratory, founded by John Henry Newman); a barrister (he joined the Inner Temple at one point); an Anglican clergyman (he became a member of the community of ordinands at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, which he depicts as a Village People–playing, binge-drinking gay bar disguised as a seminary); a theologian (“I was — am — interested in medieval devotional writing”); a schoolteacher (he spent two years teaching at a 16th-century foundation); an academic (seven years lecturing in Oxford colleges and an offer to join the faculty of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland); and a scholar of medieval literature (which is different from the last item as St. Andrews wanted someone who would have the good manners to take up golf and drop the notion of writing books) — all before finally finding his way into journalism as the literary editor of The Spectator — that is, until they fired him.

The title Confessions, of course, evokes St. Augustine. Like the bishop of Hippo, Wilson had a Christian mother and, as it were, a pagan father. His unbelieving parent raged bitterly against “a heartless God, who did not even have the charity to exist.” Wilson describes his mother, Jean, as not just “difficult” but “impossible”: “[S]he had a greater capacity than anyone I ever met to squeeze discontent from the happiest of circumstances, and to find in neutral or sunny prospects the occasion of complaint.” One of her more trying habits was to forbid any discussion of books, which she saw as showing off. Even to allude to the novels of Jane Austen “was verging on the pretentious.”

There is a similar kind of killjoy who censors “name-dropping.” I, for my part, like it when people discuss books, and I like it when they tell anecdotes about eminent people. Wilson unabashedly gratifies readers who agree. Indeed, he got an entire volume out of his friendship with one famous friend: Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her (2003). Very few people here are household names, however, and as I am from a younger generation and a younger country than Wilson’s, I did sense occasionally that I would have enjoyed a story more if I had recognized the name. One of my favorite sections is on Princess Margaret. I was also pleased to learn about the Queen of Denmark, and how reading C. S. Lewis overcame her religious doubts.

Wilson insists that he has only had a modest number of adulterous affairs, and therefore we should not find that side of his life “very interesting.” I agree that his sex life is not very interesting, but I think that about everyone’s. Wilson, contrariwise, has a journalist’s conviction that this is what the public wants. This instinct means that his sketches sometimes slide towards the gratuitous. For instance, the fact that he had no connection at all with the romantic life of the historian A. L. Rowse somehow becomes warrant to recount his sexual history.

Which, I suppose, leads on to Wilson’s first marriage. This is done in the very opposite spirit of “scorekeeping” in the sense of settling old scores — it is the scorekeeping of a referee. It feels like some Victorian headmaster examining his son in front of the whole class and eerily not betraying any temptation toward either greater leniency or greater strictness. The effect is uncanny. It is like having your lover wear a three-piece suit in bed — or refer to you by your byline initials.

Wilson attempts the same with his parents, but here he falters. He strives for a “they deserved each other” kind of even-handedness, but the whole book is, more than anything else, a tribute to his father. Norman Wilson was managing director of Wedgwood. In Confessions, Wilson the younger stops to testify regarding how talented or remarkable someone was, but he does this obsessively when it comes to his father, anxiously eyeing his readers to see if they have accepted this all-important fact. In his son’s estimation, Norman Wilson was “the ceramic genius” and “a designer of distinctive brilliance.” He transformed an entire region of the country — the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent — into an area freed from pollution in which there were plenty of good, fulfilling jobs. Norman revered writers, but the reader surely must see that this potter’s work was more important than that of a mere author: “He clearly was, objectively, a big cheese.” He was forced into retirement in 1962, at the age of 60. The firm’s demise, in 2009, is painted as the inevitable result of its refusing to listen to Norman, almost half a century later. Norman Wilson’s faults are laid bare as unsparingly as those of everyone else. What makes his story different from the others, however, is that A. N. Wilson cannot forgive people for not overlooking them: it still rankles him that they did not have the deference and good grace to humor his flawed father.

The case against Kate is weighty: she was a member of the faculty 10 years older than him. He was a 20-year-old student when she took him away on a trip during which he lost his virginity and she got pregnant. A quick marriage followed, and he became an undergraduate who had never really dated, who was now a husband and a father, tied down for life. Meanwhile, Kate was still in love with — and sleeping with — another man. Wilson raged about all this for years, but you believe him when he says that spending time with Kate as she declined into dementia drained all those old emotions away. Yet, strangely, you feel that he still cannot forgive his deceased ex-wife that she did not let her boring father-in-law tell her the same anecdotes over and over again. Likewise, why could his mother not have at least pretended to be amused rather than annoyed when Norman Wilson got drunk and pranced about, singing music-hall ditties with a tea cozy on his head?

We write, Wilson opines, as a bulwark “against the inevitable consequence of being forgotten.”

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Timothy Larsen teaches at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Christmas.

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