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Anglo-Saxon Attitudes  
1st edition
Author Angus Wilson
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Secker & Warburg
Publication date 1956
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is a satirical novel by Angus Wilson, published in 1956. It was Wilson's most popular book, and many consider it his best work.[1]


Plot summary

The novel deals with the continuing significance of two interconnected events that happened, on the same day, long before the opening of the novel. The first was the excavation of an ancient and valuable archaeological idol, a phallic figure unearthed from the tomb of an Anglo-Saxon bishop, Eorpwald, known as the "Melpham excavation". Gerald has long been haunted by a drunken revelation by his friend Gilbert, who was involved with this excavation, that the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated to embarrass Gilbert's father. Gilbert told Gerald that he put the idol there himself. Gerald, while feeling that his friend was telling the truth, pushed the matter to the back of his mind and tried to forget about it. He now feels ashamed that he, a history professor, has never had the courage to try to resolve the matter one way or another.

The second is that Gerald Middleton fell in love with Dollie, Gilbert's fiancée, and had an affair with her when his friend went off to fight in WWI. However, when Gilbert was killed at the front, Dollie refused to marry Gerald. He ended up marrying a Scandinavian woman named Inge but continued his affair with Dollie, who became an alcoholic. Gerald and Inge later separated.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is full of side-plots and coincidences, and contains a host of dysfunctional characters. Some of these characters are Gerald's own family members. His eldest son, Robin, is a womaniser who cannot decide whether to leave his wife or his mistress. His daughter, Kay, has an unhappy marriage and a deeply embittered view of her father, whom she appears to blame for everything that has gone wrong in her life, including her withered hand (which was actually caused by her mother). Gerald's estranged wife, Inge, moreover, is a grotesquely deluded woman who cannot bring herself to acknowledge her younger son John's homosexuality or her daughter's physical disability.

Gerald himself feels responsible both for Dollie's plight and for those of his children. He feels that the knowledge of his own silent complicity over the Melpham affair has drained his morale and made him withdrawn and indecisive. The novel begins with him resolving to make good the 'bloody shameful waste', as he puts it, of his life, by investigating the Melpham affair and making peace with Dollie. He also attempts to develop better relationships with his grown-up children, and even with Inge.

By the novel's end, Gerald achieves some sort of closure on his past. He convinces Dollie to come forward with a letter from Gilbert's father's colleague, Canon Portway, proving that the Melpham incident was a hoax; then he and Dollie reconcile into platonic friendship. He does, however, largely give up on achieving good relations with his family.

Sources of inspiration

The central theme of the novel was suggested to Wilson from several contemporary archeological disputes, most notably the Piltdown man hoax (of 1908-1912) and an accusation that the Elgin marbles had been mishandled by the British Museum,[2] later substantiated. However it also alludes obviously to the Sutton Hoo ship-burial discovery of 1939, in a country-house setting near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The Melpham discovery is similarly set among the 'East Folk' on the east coast of England. Eorpwald (also the name of the Melpham bishop) is in reality the unique Anglo-Saxon name of the successor of Raedwald, who was popularly thought to have been buried in the famous ship. That discovery, essentially a pagan style of burial in which Christian artefacts were included, raised many disputes among academics (as Angus Wilson was aware).

Television adaptation

The novel was made into a three-part television mini-series in 1992 by Thames Television subsidiary Euston Films. The screenplay was written by Andrew Davies[3] and featured Richard Johnson in the role of Gerald Middleton. Tara Fitzgerald played a supporting role as the young Dollie, and there was also a brief appearance by a 16-year-old Kate Winslet. The film won the BAFTA award for best serial drama; Davies and Johnson also won awards, from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and the Broadcasting Press Guild respectively.

The phrase "Anglo-Saxon attitudes"

"Anglo-Saxon attitudes" is a phrase spoofed by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass (1871):

"All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. 'I see somebody now!' she exclaimed at last. 'But he's coming very slowly—and what curious attitudes he goes into!'
(For the Messenger kept skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)
'Not at all,' said the King. 'He's an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he's happy.'"

Wilson uses part of this quotation at the front of his novel. Lewis Carroll is referring to a ninth- to eleventh-century style in English drawing, in which the figures are shown in swaying positions with the palms held out in exaggerated positions. [4]

Other works

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes has also been used as the title of several subsequent literary works.

When John Maddocks reviewed Carleton S. Coon's The Origin of Races for the first issue of New York Review of Books in February 1963, the header was "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes". And when a new museum was opened at Canterbury in Kent, on the site of St. Augustine's abbey, History Today headed its report, "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes".

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was also the name of an historical conference "in pursuit of the English" to define the evolution of the English cultural self-image. It was held at the University of Salford, on 9 July–11, 1999.</ref>


  1. ^ "Widely considered Wilson's finest achievement" (Marina MacKay, Washington University in St. Louis, "Sir Angus Wilson," The Literary Encyclopedia 8 Jan. 2001.
  2. ^ Notes by Angus Wilson
  3. ^ The movie was allegedly made primarily because Davies got into an argument with ITV over the quality of their programming, and rather heatedly decided to find a good novel that had not been put on film and adapt it himself with a first-class screenplay.
  4. ^ See, for instance, the Utrecht Psalter, the Easter Tables (British Library MS Caligula.A.XV) or the Psychomachia of Prudentius (British Library MS Add. 24199). (D. Talbot Rice, English Art 871-1100, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1952)).

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