Clothes in Books: Angus Wilson

The Clothes in Books blog is  featured in the Guardian books podcast this week, and is described by the books editor there as 'a delight'. The discussion covers fashion/lit issues, including Bret Easton Ellis, Waugh, Dickens and Mitford. 

The blog entries discussed in the podcast include those for Don’t Look Now, David Copperfield, Brideshead Revisited, Romance & Love in a Cold Climate, Cold Comfort Farm, and Rules of Civility.

Learning's Little Tribute
by Angus Wilson

short story from the collection Such Darling Dodos

published 1950

As soon as the clergyman had murmured his last words over the coffin, Miss Wells was scuttling with almost unseemly haste down the yew-lined avenue toward the cemetery gates. It was one of her misfortunes that, though well equipped with the proper rules of conduct in life, she too often spoiled their effect in her anxiety to show her knowledge of them. It was right, of course, to leave the relatives to their private grief, but not perhaps at the double…

Miss Wells was above everything delicate. In part also she was genuinely moved to tears… The little bows and ribbons with which she was decorated shook and trembled, the lucky charm bracelets and semi-precious necklaces jangled as she searched among the debris of memo notes, lipstick ends and loose powder for her lace-bordered handkerchief.

observations: Angus Wilson: so very highly thought of in his day, and so very much forgotten now. DJ Taylor did his best in this recent Guardian article to offer a retrospective, and did inspire me to re-read these short stories. They divided neatly into two halves: some of them were too drearily miserable – full of horrible domestic and psychological prisons, stiflingly unpleasant, with people quietly hating each other and driving each other mad. But others, like this one, were hilarious and very enjoyable. This one is symbolic, because there is a funny picture of academic bitching and politicking (Wilson’s Mastermind subject), but then a breath of fresh air bursts in as the widow from the funeral above walks in and coolly takes them down, dismissing their patronizing views and offers of help with the children: ‘what with Vera always winning scholarships and Ronnie never winning them, we’ve spent a fortune on their education.’

Miss Wells is a keen observer of all this: and as she is ‘inclined to rich living [she] ordered a second Ovaltine.’

There are very clever lines in all the stories: Thea in Christmas Day in the Workhouse ‘had worked up a special vulgar manner’ in her job in a wartime office, and when things go wrong ‘there she was left with it on her hands.’ In one called Totentanz, it would seem to be Cambridge where ‘the dons and their wives formed a phalanx against spontaneous gaiety that would have satisfied John Knox himself.’ That one takes a quite spooky turn, and also features a rather good fancy dress party – always a Clothes in Books favourite. There are others where mental illness competes with supernatural possibilities, but not to any very admirable effect. I can’t see much chance of a Wilson revival any time soon (for a start, the name is too much like AN Wilson’s) but might take a chance on reading one of those dusty long-lost novels.

The picture is of opera singer Geraldine Farrar, in costume - she had a blog entry to herself earlier this year. This picture of modern dance pioneer Ruth St Denis would have done nicely: 

-- if we hadn't already used it up on this entry, where she is described as having 'an appearance like a composed salad'.


  1. Ordered! Next collection (A Bit Off the Map) looks good too, starring "a mentally subnormal teddy boy who drifts around cafes, infatuated with an untalented, artistic crowd". Loved the 1949 one, The Wrong Set.

    1. I can quite see I'm going to end up reading the oeuvre, the Teddy boy (in a drape coat?) is such a come-on. Wrong Set is stories again, right? I don't know which to go for next...

  2. Moira - I like Miss Wells already! :-) Interesting isn't it how some stories an author does can be disappointing and others hilarious. This one sounds well worth the read, and I love that hat in the 'photo!

    1. He seems to be good at creating characters on details, and I'm looking forward to reading more by him.


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