Passion in Private

Over the last ten years, A.N. Wilson has been compared to the great 20th-century English satirists: Waugh, Amis, and Barbara Pym. Now that he is in the process of writing a trilogy, it was inevitable that some critic would add to these the name of Anthony Powell. Of course, publishers like to compare the work of older, established writers beside that of the young turks whose wares they hawk. As Scrooge might say of them, they are good businessmen.

Yet in this case the comparison is just. True, A Dance to the Music of Time is four times longer than Wilson's two-thirds-finished trilogy and its pacing is slower, partly because of its greater length and partly too because of Powell's more deliberate style. But, like Powell's, Wilson's purpose is to project images of an age in England now past but the effects of which are still with us. Similar, too, is Wilson's method of telling the story through the largely introspective camera's eye of a first-person narrator, a device that necessarily has its limits. We see only what Nick Jenkins or Wilson's Julian Ramsay sees, know only the people they know. Because such men are not earthshakers and hence do not walk among the great, our glimpse of their England is more private than public.

Experience demonstrates, however, that the private either invigorates or deadens the public. One can read both Powell and Wilson without fear of missing much of the...

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