Over the last ten years, A.N. Wilson has been compared to the great 20th-century English satirists: Waugh, Amis, and Barbara Pym. Now that he is in the process of writing a trilogy, it was inevitable that some critic would add to these the name of Anthony Powell. Of course, publishers like to compare the work of older, established writers beside that of the young turks whose wares they hawk. As Scrooge might say of them, they are good businessmen.

Yet in this case the comparison is just. True, A Dance to the Music of Time is four times longer than Wilson’s two-thirds-finished trilogy and its pacing is slower, partly because of its greater length and partly too because of Powell’s more deliberate style. But, like Powell’s, Wilson’s purpose is to project images of an age in England now past but the effects of which are still with us. Similar, too, is Wilson’s method of telling the story through the largely introspective camera’s eye of a first-person narrator, a device that necessarily has its limits. We see only what Nick Jenkins or Wilson’s Julian Ramsay sees, know only the people they know. Because such men are not earthshakers and hence do not walk among the great, our glimpse of their England is more private than public.

Experience demonstrates, however, that the private either invigorates or deadens the public. One can read both Powell and Wilson without fear of missing much of the age they chronicle. If the reader doubts whether this is possible, he need only ask himself if he would acquire a better understanding of England’s march toward pragmatic, self-serving collectivism if he read a biography of Atlee or Bevan instead of A Dance to the Music of Time, with its portrayal of the climber Widmerpool.

With results similar to Powell’s, Wilson has created Raphael Hunter, a self-appointed voice of British culture. Hunter first appears in the inaugural volume of the trilogy, Incline Our Hearts, while Julian Ramsay is at a school for boys, Seaforth Grange. Julian, orphaned in the middle of the war, lives between terms in the town of Templingham with his Aunt Deirdre and Uncle Roy, an Anglican priest. Typical of the age, his upbringing is not religious. Aunt Deirdre’s two main interests are her garden and a radio soap called “The Mulberrys.” Uncle Roy’s passion in life is neither God nor his wife. He has spent his days memorizing every available bit of lore concerning an eccentric family of the local gentry, the Lampitts. Sargie Lampitt is Uncle Roy’s dearest companion and favorite topic of conversation. Whether he would bother to help save a soul is an open question; it is certain that he would (and does) buttonhole a complete stranger in a railway station to talk to him about the Lampitts. Not that the family lacks fame: J. Petworth “Jimbo” Lampitt was a famous Edwardian belletrist, much in the mode of Pater. Other Lampitts, all leftist of one degree or another, have held government posts great and small. But the talents and accomplishments of a family that not one in a thousand could identify hardly seems worth the effort Uncle Roy invests in them. That he does anyhow is Wilson’s way of highlighting the rather genial decadence of Roy’s and Sargie’s generation. Moreover, as the story progresses from Julian’s teens in Incline Our Hearts to his early manhood in A Bottle in the Smoke, the Lampitts provide the ground for the alternating friendship and enmity of Julian Ramsay and Raphael Hunter.

Less genial and more decadent. Hunter unthinkingly and unfeelingly brings pain into the lives of Julian and those close to him. The first time the teenager Julian sees him is an embarrassing moment at Seaforth Grange. Coming around a corner he notices in a window the bare back of his art mistress and first love being stroked by Hunter, a man approximately in his late 20’s. The incident might be no more, for Julian, than an insignificant and inevitable instance of adolescent heartbreak. But it proves to be typical of Hunter’s way of life. He leaves the art mistress in the lurch for another whom, rumor says, he will marry. Years later, Julian discovers that Hunter never married her at all. Instead he took what he could from the liaisons with both women, and left without a twinge of conscience. In an almost identical manner. Hunter comes to Templingham to meet Sargie Lampitt. His stated purpose is to write a biography of Petworth Lampitt. Quickly, he enlists the aid of Julian’s cousin, Felicity, gets her with child, and departs with the papers in his care, leaving her at the mercy of a back-street abortionist.

When, on a call to see Felicity, Uncle Roy and Aunt Deirdre press him about his family and education, he says he never went to either Oxford or Cambridge and changes the subject. He is completely and charmingly Machiavellian in his use of people, and, apparently in his own mind, innocent of all wrongdoing. Women adore him, not because he is a passionate lover (he isn’t anything of the kind) but because they want to evoke from him the same kind of passion he makes them feel.

Hunter’s willing victim in A Bottle in the Smoke is Julian’s wife Anne. By a curious twist of fate, she is Sargie’s niece, a fact Julian does not know when he meets and falls in love with her. By this time, Julian is an aspiring novelist and actor—he cannot make up his mind which—and a part-time bartender at a local pub, the Black Botrie. Hunter is now a regular acquaintance and a BBC television celebrity. His fame stems from the first volume of the Lampitt biography, but the second volume remains unwritten. This is partially due to Hunter’s laziness, but also to the Lampitts, who found the book offensive and refuse to let him use the rest of “Jimbo’s” papers. Having an affair with Anne is really a calculated ploy to secure the copyright. By the end of the book, he has succeeded—his reputation, as always, untarnished—and is in a better position than ever to tell the British public what it ought to admire in literature and art. That a marriage has been destroyed is no concern of his. Julian, meanwhile, is not a famous writer but a radio actor on, of all things. Aunt Deirdre’s beloved “The Mulberrys.”

There is no way a short review can do justice to this outstanding novel. For one thing, the trilogy still has one volume to go. What is more, the novel abounds with characters too eccentric to describe here, some of the most interesting of them at the Black Bottle: Day Muckley, the alcoholic failed novelist; Rikko and Fenella, Julian’s landlord and landlady; Cyril, the proprietor of the pub, who looks like T.S. Eliot but has one of the filthiest mouths in London. The meaning of it all is the sum of the events and characters. Possibly the best way to depict Wilson’s dark vision of the country, the people, and the age is through Uncle Roy’s gloss of Psalms 119:83: “For I am become A Bottle in the Smoke.” “It wouldn’t have been a glass bottle,” Roy says. “You’ve got to think of yourself as shrivelling up like an old leather pouch too near the fire.”


[A Bottle in the Smoke, by A.N. Wilson (New York: Viking) 320 pp., $18.95]