GENTLEMEN IN ENGLAND: A Vision. A novel by A.N. Wilson. Viking. 311 pp. $17.95.
HAD A.N. WILSON actually been intended by Fate to write a Victorian novel, then, doubtless, he would have been born in some suitable year of the last century and died, rest in peace, long ago. Poor fellow, he'd now be remembered and discussed proprietarily by just the sort of academics he skewers in his other (contemporary) comic fiction.
But, alas, that tidy scenario must be relinquished in favor of reality. It is 1986 and Gentlemen in England, the relatively youthful Wilson's new book, is a fresh invention for 20th-century readers -- an audience made familiar by Masterpiece Theatre with the trappings of British life in the years of Queen Victoria.
This "vision," however, as the novel is subtitled, is a peculiar thing. If the Cheshire Cat was a grin without a cat, then Wilson's tale of the Nettleship family and its domestic troubles is a cynical grimace which also lacks overall shape. This isn't to say that there's no activity; on the contrary, the characters eat, flirt, move about London and the countryside, quarrel, pose for portraits, even find and lose religion.
Pretty Maudie Nettleship -- who, along with her mother Charlotte, forms the heroine contingent -- manages to cough her way through scene after scene in highly anti-romantic fashion. Only she doesn't get any sicker and never "livens" things up by dying.
It's not that the reader is disappointed, exactly, when Maudie emerges hale, if still hacking, at the close; it's just one of many instances when Gentlemen in England seems on the brink of "happening" and doesn't. Longing for definiteness, one gets enormous doses of temporizing conversation instead.
Charlotte Nettleship herself hovers on the brink of something, namely rebellion. Fortyish and married, with two grown children, she's bored silly with her dry-as-dust geologist husband and fixates on a love affair with a handsome young artist, without realizing he harbors a passion for Maudie.
Her son, Lionel Nettleship, meanwhile, is off at Oxford, being infected with high Anglican fervor, much to his rationalist papa's disgust. And, as if this weren't bad enough, he falls briefly under the spell of the charismatic Father Cuthbert, a theatrical little "monk" who gathers about him Cockney urchins for purposes decidedly unspiritual. Lionel's experiences at Cuthbert's Welsh retreat -- a comic episode with overtones of Dickens -- are enough to send him back into the unsettled bosom of his family.
Meanwhile, watching all the Nettleship goings-on with amusement is Marvo Chatterway, an aging dilettante and longtime friend of Charlotte's family, who lives up to his name with teeth-aching facetiousness.
Most likely, of course, is that the intended effect is tedium, the dramatis personae all unlikable to satiric purpose. For A. N. Wilson, a former literary editor of The Spectator, is nothing if not clever. He's masterly at creating fiction both showy and hollow. Yet his previous novels, while sharing the sour tone so pervasive here, are more certain in their direction and reveal his malicious wit to better advantage.
In Gentlemen in England, even his talent for the elegantly nasty turn-of-phrase is too often lost in the thick -- if often virtuosic -- verbiage which adorns the thin plot.
Perhaps it's Wilson's intention, then, to create an antidote to our infatuation with Victoriana? Certainly, he himself appears to revel in certain aspects of the period's ugliness, like Maudie's wretched cough and occasional snigger which mar her beauty, or the dauntingly gloomy Nettleship abode, so inappropriately called The Bower.
This, along with Wilson's fondness for words like "bricky," "puddingy," "fudgy," and "smudgy," and the way he describes so many dark rooms and indigestible meals, weigh down each page like the heavy draperies we see hanging everywhere. "Human entrants, no less than the sun, might find The Bower forbidding, or at any event be struck by how fiercely it hid itself from itself, how generously it was swathed."
As a metaphor for the age, this isn't difficult to spot. What's unfortunate is how it sets the tone for the novel's own off-puttingness, making Gentlemen in England a "vision" too unpleasant to recommend.