This particular reviewer rarely writes a negative review. If it didn’t communicate with me, there’s no need to assume that it will not communicate to you. A positive review has to concentrate on what was communicated, whereas a negative review must live in what was not felt, and that list is infinitely long, so where to start? “I liked it” or indeed “I didn’t like it” say nothing about the work in question, only about the reviewer, and this unknown person, often hiding behind an alias, should never be at the centre of the review.
So when it comes to Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson, why should I begin with “I didn’t like it”? Well at least it gets the opinion out of the way, because in the case of this particular book, it needs to be said. Anglo Saxon Attitudes felt like the longest book I have ever read. It wasn’t, but it did feel that way for most of its duration. But the reason for my opinion is complex and, I suggested earlier, has more to do with me than the work.
Details of the book’s plot are available elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the important element is the fraudulent planting of a pagan erotic sculpture into the grave of a Dark Ages Anglo-Saxon bishop that was excavated decades ago. The apparent authenticity of the find had to be catalogued, described, interpreted. For half a century this practical joke at least influenced thinking, at least amongst interested academics, on the cultural and religious origins of the race that now inhabits the country we now call England. Hence the book’s title, rooted both in the historical relics of the Anglo-Saxons, for whom “England” would have been an unknown label, and for the modern British for whom both the concept of “Anglo-Saxon” and “England” are both reconstructed myths.
Amid the need to keep alive the myth of national identity and culture, a certain person who was involved in the original discovery finds he hast to continue to perpetuate the lie. He has personal and professional reasons. He also might even believe it was true. To some extent he has built his career on the existence of the find and, equally, he built half of his life by shacking up with the girlfriend of the person who played the original practical joke on his father by planting the object in the tomb and then claiming its authenticity. Decades have come and gone. Lives have been lived. Relationships have been severed, remade and broken by death and estrangement. Gerald, who knows the truth about several things, has lived with the deception, but dismissed it as possibly false, gives given the character of the person who admitted carrying it out. Gerald now has decided it is time to come clean and tell the story.
But to whom should he tell it? And how? Reputations are at stake. Water under the bridge won’t flow back the other way. People have moved on. Or have they? Anglo Saxon Attitudes thus inhabits a society with what could be described as a rarefied atmosphere. These people are of a certain social class, attend gentlemen’s clubs, regularly drift into French, for some reason, when English is just not good enough. A single paragraph of the thoughts might refer explicitly but opaquely to five or six of the book’s characters, any of whom might have been encountered during the fifty-year span of these memories. For anyone living outside donnish society of the public school, Oxbridge or academe, these people are barely recognizable as English, as archaeological, perhaps, as something dug up from long, long ago. And yet they are the mouthpieces via which the concepts of contemporary identity and culture are lengthily examined.
A strand that figures vividly in every character’s mind, if not explicitly in the English culture being examined, is sex. The erotic nature of the apparently pagan idol in the Anglo-Saxon tomb places a large ellipsis after every mention of the word sex in the book. We have characters who are openly homosexual in a society that has laws against the practice. We encounter respectable men who put themselves around a bit, and women who express their desires via euphemism. And also some who do not. And there’s a lot more besides. Perhaps too much. Perhaps… For this reader…
Anglo Saxon Attitudes is a complex and ambitious novel. For this reviewer it falls short of all its implied goals because it concentrates too heavily on a narrow, unrepresentative section of the nation, was consistently patronizing to working class attitudes and featured characters who spent most of the time living myths. Perhaps that was the point… Perhaps… Why not read it and see what you think?