CAMP FOLLOWERS – On Angus Wilson’s Hemlock and After[1]

By David Hackbridge Johnson


Virtuoso writers and their well-honed craft – and don’t we know it.  We are meant to know it as a confident display.  We will be directed outward – to an Eliotic ‘Bloomsbury lying embalmed in its Sunday death’.[2]  We can sniff if we wish, ‘scarlet and lemon dahlias, the heliotrope carefully tended’[3].  We will be directed inward – to such complexities as, ‘So distant did the care-ridden, dangerous, tight-rope world of her sick life seem to her that it was impossible for Ella not to feel that this was the beginning of the famous ‘cure’, the well-known ‘recovery’ – abstractions which, after years of discussion and contemplation, had become personified as the familiar yet remote personalities in a cause célèbre followed each day in the newspapers.’[4]   So thinks Ella Sands – or rather so thinks the author through her. 

As all of the characters in Angus Wilson’s 1952 novel Hemlock and After get spoken through in the way that Ella Sands does, there is a suspicion that the virtuosity is the platform on which another platform sits – the author himself topping the arrangement with a glittering prize in prose; the reader, this one, swept away by dizzying topographies of a person’s hapless mind – the Wilsonian probes running to deep centres of grey matter; sometimes a delving into the analysand that lasts a page or more – as if the outstretched hand of Henry James were resting on the author’s knee: ‘keep going, keep going’.  Can the characters breathe on that stuffy couch?  When Wilson lets them they can, although when they utter they tend to in as perfectly formed sentences as their narrator.  A performance where a Mandarin style (to follow Cyril Connolly’s term)[5] threatens to crowd out any serious differentiation between the verbally polished protagonists.

More examples of virtuosity abound; we discover that juicy epithets tempt the cherry-picker – just as the over-facile pianist is lured by fleet-fingered filigree divorced from structural or harmonic meaning – to fanciful constructions that tease out pre-echoes of the British Poetry Revival:

albinoid flora
some canting usher
dead mullion
his porty flush
poured into his suit
by machinery[6]

A poetic half Iain Sinclair half Martin Amis; BPR prophetics dropped like shiny pebbles into a far from Mandarin pond.  As might be suspected from an author capable of such coinage, Wilson can approach Firbank (he gets name-checked on page 104) in a seemingly effortless but surely patiently constructed wit.  And he can stage a superbly farcical set-piece, again with Firbankesque overtones – the disasters that unfold at the opening ceremony of Bernard Sands’ pet project, the writers’ retreat at Vardon Hall, are the fruits of emotional exposure – political, social, sexual, and moral.  That such rawness is attended by an almost knockabout humour makes this chapter a triumph of ambivalence.     

Ultimately the novel does much more than present staged antics but its underlying themes (if we can suffer such reduction) come quietly into focus behind the stage props and histrionics.  Bernard Sands, his sister Isobel, his brother-in-law Bill Pendlebury are all writers – Sands the famous author of humanistically nuanced novels, Isobel of tired lecture notes for her English Literature courses, Bill of hack biographies.  Their lives are attended by ‘vices’, the first two are gay (we should remember the societal condemnation of gayness enshrined in law in 1950s Britain), the third a sot and gambler.  As if to symbolise the precarious nature of these hidden lives, Wilson gives us Mrs Curry, a near neighbour and strong objector to Bernard’s plans for Vardon Hall, who spends her time both encouraging the peccadillos of those drawn to her peculiar parties and taking payment for such services as she is able to provide through her network of sexual facilitators, chief among them, sharp-suited cockney-in-the-village Ron Wrigley – a sort of Wildean ‘panther’ perpetually given to ‘feasting’.  As these figures come into view, perhaps seeming dated in their manner and sensibility, we have to remind ourselves that this is 1950s England.  Angus Wilson, himself openly gay, perhaps the first English author to publically declare himself so, presents all the dilemmas of the double life – the gay life forced by law into clandestine arrangements and compromises – and does so in such an outwardly vibrant and witty way as to partially cloak the very real dangers faced by sexual transgression.  The village setting, with all its provincial snobberies and pretentions is really an arena for blackmail and hypocrisy as Mrs Curry ensnares as many as she can in her ‘loving world’ of kitsch furnishings, and parlour games that, ‘went further than strip poker, really, and looked less ludicrous than postman’s knock.’[7]  That ‘really’ with its knowing wink, is the Wilson wit in action. 

The most modestly drawn of the characters is Ella, the neurotic wife of Bernard Sands, who walks on a tightrope of sanity with perils and fears appearing to her as, ‘the tunnels, the caves, the icebound oceans’.[8]  Her breakdown, having taken place some years before the novel opens, is the excuse given for various ways in which she is manipulated by her own family, her husband included – as if they hadn’t wished her to recover so as to inconvenience their way of dealing with her.  Her reasons for neurosis focus on her feelings of failure as a mother, the boredom of her day-to-day tasks, and a sense of disconnectedness with Bernard.  We don’t know until the end of the novel as to her knowledge of Bernard’s homosexuality.

Most immodestly drawn is the group of gay men that Bernard meets when he comes up to London – his intention is to set up his new friend Eric Craddock in a flat there.  Wilson gives us a rather glorious set-piece of camp interactions – the chapter title, ‘Camp Fire Cameos’, is a giveaway.  It is not for nothing that Bernard’s friends gather at the theatre.  The repartee of the men is a tour-de-force of wit, with its innuendo, catty remarks, and dips into cockney – although Polari is not used, we do get a pre-echo of Julian and Sandy from the 1960s radio show Round the Horne.  Might Wilson be giving us a glimpse of his own outward persona?  The flamboyantly dressed effeminate man presenting an essentially humorous outlook to the world?  Bernard Sands doesn’t really fit into this world of fashion magazines and theatre design; his pursuits are rather more to do with – as he tries to put it – the soul.  His feels imperilled.

This imperilment is no more apparent than in the core episode of the book – an episode as far as is possible from the cheery, spiteful camp of the preceding scenes; whilst waiting for Eric in Leicester Square, Bernard is approached, ostensibly for a light, by a man, ‘smiling in confident, sexy invitation.’[9]  When a few moments later, the man is pinioned by a policeman and to be charged with importuning, Bernard for a blind moment finds himself ‘ready to join the hounds in the kill’[10] – gripped by a sadistic desire to beat the terrified young homosexual.  Wilson clinches this short but vital scene with: ‘A humanist, it would seem, was more at home with the wielders of the knout and the rubber truncheon.’ – that telling ‘it would seem’, no longer the pinch of wit but the lance of withering irony.  This internal revelation, so horrific to Bernard, overshadows the whole book, emanating as it does from its centre to all its far reaches.[11]

Bernard’s deeper concerns only really find an outlet in his relationship with his sister Isobel.  Yet here again there is conflict; although they form a compact of understanding in relation to their gayness, they clash over the looming Cold War crisis.  Bernard can’t agree to the political solutions offered by Isobel and her young friend Louie Randall, instead giving only hope and compassion.  A retiring humanist hoping for the best before a political radicalism that, as he teases out of Louie, will not stop short of liquidation as a means to an end.  Try as they might, Isobel and Louie can’t persuade Bernard into fellow-travelling.  

As mentioned above, the final set-piece at which all Wilson’s ‘themes’ coalesce is the disastrous opening of Vardon Hall – a mad-cap Carry On movie with the drunken lurchings of Bill Pendlebury, the spitting acrimony of the younger Sands generation, the riotous gallivanting of the gay set as they enter the forbidden upper rooms ‘like so many mating mice’[12], the political row of Bernard and his sister, the final revelation that Ella has known all along about Bernard’s ‘fancy boys’.[13]  Yet these explosions of distaste in what was intended to be a grand formal opening are the ways in which such overly-hopeful events are punctured; Bernard’s idealism is laid out in his bafflingly received speech after which misrule takes hold, almost as a reaction to so many finely-wrought appeals to the moral order, the soul, the immutable values, and so on.  In this kind of satirical performance everyone is a target.  We don’t get the whole text of Bernard’s speech – it is hardly needed, for Wilson can give its flavour through disbelieving reaction to it.  He also tells us what it ‘should’ have been but was not; nothing of ‘what was best in English life to-day’[14], or other such high-minded afflatus.  Instead we learn that Bernard offers such things as: ‘better failure than deception, better defeat than a victory where motive was wrong.’[15]  His speech is somehow made comical by unintentional reference to ‘what one picks up in the Charing Cross Road’ – he presumably means books from the second hand bookshops there but his remark is greeted with screams and titters from the gay guests.  Reflecting perhaps on the Leicester Square incident, he says, ‘that our most heroic self-sacrifice – and the conviction when it comes is a horrible one – may only be a comfortable evasion of duty.’[16]  Wilson remarks that Bernard, seeming to reach a solely personal level, can no longer communicate with his audience.  At his moment of triumph, Bernard only appears as the ‘tattered humanist’.[17]     

In a way Bernard’s removal from the book – he has a heart attack and dies shortly after the opening ceremony for Vardon Hall – gives room for a shift in behaviour in those most close to him.  Ella suddenly seems saner and active in intent to carry on in some way the hope Bernard had for the writers’ retreat.  Eric is bereaved and embarks on loveless encounters before finding in the Rev. Bill MacGrath his most promising companion.  But compared to Bernard he is a limited person who merely gives rein to a potted history of homosexuality from Achilles and Michelangelo to Edward Carpenter and A Shropshire Lad, with much discoursing on the ‘harmony of body and spirit’[18] along the way.  Wilson gives us a glimpse of a readjustment of the moral order – Mrs Curry and Ron are sent to jail; once his paedophilia is discovered, architect Hubert Rose hangs himself in the ‘functional desert of his studio’[19].  Yet too pat an ending is resisted; we soon learn that Mrs Curry and Ron are a success in jail, leaving them in a position to restart their ‘business’ upon release; we learn that as Bernard feared, the running of Vardon Hall is to pass into the hands of those who would plead financial reasons for the undermining of its purpose.  There seems always a way back for evil.  Bernard’s leaving of the world provides no solution to the very problems he wrestled with.  The ending of the novel is ambiguous, like so much else in the novel.  We only have hope for Ella as she embarks on an aeroplane trip to Nice with her daughter Elizabeth, and where clouds, ‘moving above and below like great golden snowdrifts’[20] have replaced the rock and ice-choked seas.  

What emerges from Hemlock and After is the awareness of a great performative art in full swing yet one which despite its virtuosity cannot overthrow the deeper concerns that underpin the novel.  For sure, Angus Wilson has it all his own way – he has style to burn – but the moments of repose where he is at one with a character’s mood without elbowing him or her into it, allow him the sympathy he needs to make a thoughtful, funny, and given the social mores of the time, an important novel.    






[1] All page references are to the Penguin edition, 1956.

[2] p. 67.

[3] p. 67.

[4] p. 47.

[5] See, Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise, Part 1.

[6] Variously pp. 13, 20, 94, 22, and 112.

[7] p. 45

[8] p. 49.

[9] p. 107.

[10] p. 108.

[11] Alan Sinfield tellingly links the spiteful jibes of the gay theatre set with the sadism revealed in Bernard.  See Alan Sinfield, Literature Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain, (new edition), The Athlone Press, London, 1997, p. 76.

[12] p. 156.

[13] p. 184.

[14] p. 153.

[15] p. 153.

[16] p. 154.

[17] p. 219.

[18] p. 241.

[19] p. 233.

[20] p. 246.