A former literary editor of The Spectator in London and currently touted as the new novelist of manners, A.N. Wilson was the author several seasons ago of a creditable biography of Hilaire Belloc. But the novels Wise Virgin (1983), Scandal (1984), and Gentlemen in England, just published in this country, remain chiefly responsible for his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. His biography of Belloc, however, is worth the lot of them and any other novels he is likely to produce in his current mode of merely aping his betters.

It has become by now almost standard procedure for the book-chat reviewers to say that Wilson writes very much like Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, the late Barbara Pym, or even that he may be compared to the one and only Evelyn Waugh. But since Evelyn Waugh was the uncontested master of the form that is tediously known as the novel of manners and morals, is it at all necessary that anyone else should aspire to displace him? If there was only one Mozart, do we need other and far lesser little Wolfgangs running up and down the scales of their untoward ambitions?

Gentlemen in England, moreover, purports to be the Victorian novel regenerated. Outlandish proper names are invented by Wilson in order to initiate levels of amusement which are but weakly sustained by the characters who bear these various appellations. Still, there is one who comes rather close to living up to his reputation. This is the patriarch of the Nettleship clan, which, in turn, is the central dramatic entity of the novel itself Head of the family is Professor Horace Nettleship, a specialist in the science of volcanos, whose studies lead him to doubt the story of Genesis and eventually to abandon his Anglican faith altogether. He has not spoken to his much younger wife Charlotte in some 15 years, though they had earlier managed sufficient communication to have produced a somewhat flighty daughter, Maudie, and a virtuous son named Lionel.

There is one scene that either almost redeems or almost destroys the novel as a whole. The reader must decide. This scene recreates one of those public debates which were all the rage in what passed for the intellectual life of the somewhat-less-than-eminent Victorians of the period. The atheist Mr. Brandlaugh confronts the ludicrously self-styled monk Father Cuthbert in the great Hall of Science over the question: “Is Jesus Christ an Historical Reality?” The occasion also becomes the catalyst for a confrontation between Professor Nettleship (who of course supports the atheist Bradlaugh) and his virtuous son Lionel. Instead of following in his father’s secularist footsteps, Lionel has become a disciple of Father Cuthbert’s and an enthusiast of the Anglo-Catholicism rampant at Oxford in the days of the famed Dr. Pusey.

The scene is devastating, heavyhanded, and ultimately destructive. To have written it, Wilson must have been familiar with a novel called The Masterful Monk, by someone named Owen Francis Dudley, very popular among Roman Catholics in the early years of the present century. In Wilson’s latest fiction, however, it is Anglo-Catholicism that is made to look wholly and pathetically inadequate in a Victorian milieu of conventional morality that was at the same time unsupported by evangelical theology. Hence the title, Gentlemen in England, though literally derived from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, seems more like an echo of Sir Leshe Stephen’s Victorian dictum of the Bloomsbury enlightenment: “I now believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality. . . . I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible.”

To the extent that A.N. Wilson has caught the major dilemma of the Victorians—that is, how to be moral without resorting to the underpinnings of theological beliefs—Gentlemen in England may be a more serious and important novel than its first readers realize. A serious dilemma nevertheless remains in the failure of Bloomsbury to have effected some kind of synthesis between mere rationality and the sacred mysteries of a Christianity now reduced to a state of caricature by the enthusiasm of the true believers. The question is whether Wilson, in Gentlemen in England, has in turn reduced the skepticism of the Victorians to the contemptuousness of the moderns.


[Gentlemen in England, by A.N. Wilson (New York: Viking Press) $17.95]