He was greeted by a huge sign, intended to read 'Welcome Angus Wilson', which had lost its g
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ANGUS WILSON died four years ago after a long illness. During his lifetime and after his death his reputation as one of this century's great novelists has stood firm among those who knew his work. To others, over the last 15 years, his name has become increasingly unfamiliar and his books, until their recent re-publication, were hard to find. Indeed many people today confuse him with A N Wilson. Ironically, part of the reason A N Wilson uses his initials was that it was thought at the start of his writing career he might be confused with the more eminent Angus. Margaret Drabble's bright and loving biography should go far to create a new readership for novels whose power and wit are timeless, and whose recurring themes of wanton cruelty, complacency, "willed ignorance" and self-deception are all too relevant.

Wilson's life was the mainspring of his writing, and his childhood its acknowledged primary source. He was born in 1913, the youngest of six sons; his next brother was 13 years older and his parents already middle- aged. His father came from an impoverished line of Scottish landowners. Willie Johnstone-Wilson was a gambler, a flirt and a man about town who never worked and lived in constant debt. The family moved regularly, between the south coast and Kensington, renting a house or reduced to taking rooms in boarding houses. Angus was a "child among adults, an eavesdropper", later a spy and go-between. Charades, theatricals and family legends fed his imagination; two years in Natal, visiting his mother's family, left him with a lifelong yearning for sun, colour, exotic flora and fauna.

His brothers left home as soon as they could. When Angus was 15 his mother died and he became his ageing father's keeper through schooldays at Westminster, through his three years at Oxford, and on into his working life at the British Museum. This burden of premature responsibility increased his sense of being old while young and at the same time held him in a timewarp, a fledgling who might not fly.

Like many other precocious and sensitive misfits he survived at school and university by playing the freakish jester, the storyteller. Although he made lasting friendships he was often mocked as "an amusing but hardly human pet". Freed at last by his father's death in 1938, he began to enjoy an eccentric and brilliant social life and a series of homosexual affairs, overshadowed and qualified by the looming horror of war. After the bombing of the British Museum he was sent to Bletchley Park where he worked on deciphering Italian naval codes. Here he was tense, rebellious and desolate. An analyst suggested that he try writing as therapy; finding that he could only produce "pastiche Dickens" he gave up almost immediately.

At the end of the war he returned to country lodgings, travelling in to London to work at the museum; still disturbed and unhappy, he found himself loathing pubs and clubs, blackmailed by pick-ups and involved in a turbulent triangular love affair. Then, at a loose end one Sunday afternoon, he was bullied by an elderly village neighbour to jot down some thoughts on village life: "I just wrote a story." He continued to write stories, overwhelmed by a sense of "miraculous delivery". Cyril Connolly printed two in Horizon and in 1949 Secker and Warburg brought out a collection, The Wrong Set. This was rapturously received and Angus became an instant celebrity, feted and praised, the focus of attention both socially and at work. There, as deputy superintendent of the British Museum reading room, he was a fine sight on his dais: "a colourful bird, in a vast circular cage, bowtied, blue-rinsed, chattering loudly..."

Colleagues and readers provided endless material for his stories, as did friends, family, the now tolerable past, and the changing orders of post-war society. He had also now begun his enduring relationship with Tony Garrett. More stories, Such Darling Dodos, were published, and then a book on Zola. He was in constant demand for talks, articles, reviews, sustaining a full-time job and writing his first novel Hemlock and After, ostensibly a tale of village life. Wilson loathed the limited nature of the English provincial novel and the complacency it engendered in its reader. Here he wrote of the narrowness and hypocrisy of rural life. "I'm getting to know all your little movements dear," a neighbour once told him.

He also wrote of homosexuality and bisexuality, of accepted social limits and their transgression. This brave, funny and controversial book brought him more serious attention and a reputation as an "investigative social analyst". In 1955 he left the museum and went to live with Tony in a remote Suffolk cottage. Now he lived entirely by his writing, while Tony worked as a probation officer. His life assumed a pattern which was to continue until his final illness. His year would be spent in a punishing series of lecture tours abroad and at home, reviewing, writing the next novel, suffering from desperate anxieties now about writing, now about money; at the cottage with Tony he gardened, entertained streams of visitors, and subsided into brief and random periods of unbroken privacy.

As a public figure he was involved in campaigns for homosexual law reform, for public lending rights, for funding for authors; he worked tirelessly for the Pen Club, the arts council, the National Book League. He taught at the brand-new University of East Anglia where he became professor, he was awarded the CBE, he travelled literally all over the world. And he was unfailing sustained by Tony Garrett. In his later years he became profoundly depressed by the philistinism of Thatcher's Britain, by the cult of violence promoted by television, by a vision of "Benthamite, high- producing, technological workday people who after work simply watch and eat and never come alive." He began to feel he had lost touch with his times. The greater his success, the more painful his work became: "so much is expected of one all the time." Bad reviews terribly distressed him. He felt "overworked, horribly poor, depressed and frightened by the future". Nonetheless, driven by financial necessity, he vowed even in old age and illness "I'll go on writing until I fall." As much as anything, this book gives a chilling account of the hazards of a writer's life.

Despite homosexual law reforms and a new tolerance, prejudice was still rampant. At a university in the States he was greeted by a huge sign, intended to read "Welcome Angus Wilson", which had curiously lost its g. When he was knighted in 1980, the Daily Express celebrated "our latest nancy knight". Tony had lost his job and thus his independence, due to malicious gossip years before. He and Angus had shown great courage in declaring themselves and continuing to live in the homophobic countryside.

Margaret Drabble's own eye for detail is a constant delight. She shares her subject's dry wit and his passionate anger at the small and dangerous meannesses of the human soul. Her writing is uneven, with occasional lapses into journalese: "They taped a long interview with a grey-suited, velvet- tied Angus while they munched chocolate biscuits and sipped tea by a smoking log fire." But the main fault in this fascinating book is that same love of detail, which leads Drabble to interminable lists of names and irrelevant information: "Serikawa records that the salmon was boiled, but Tony says it was poached."

However, she is able to convey a character of great complexity, a life triumphant and tragic, as paradoxical as any in his books, with such warmth and utter credibility that one shares her affection for him. Concerning biography, Wilson had said that "in the last analysis the human personality is not open to invasion". Allowing for this decent reticence I like to dwell at last on the image of Angus and Tony "pottering around the countryside with the Pevsner in the glove compartment", for a little while oblivious to Angus's "high distant overtone of perpetual woe".

8 'Angus Wilson' by Margaret Drabble is published by Secker at pounds 20.