BOOKS: In search of Angus

Margaret Drabble was a great friend of Angus Wilson, but worried she was the wrong sex to write his life, she tells Michael Arditti
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"YOU'VE better things to do with your time, dear girl," was Angus Wilson's response when Margaret Drabble suggested writing his biography, but for once she ignored his advice. Having recently completed a trilogy of novels, she was anxious for a fresh challenge and determined to do honour to a novelist whom she considers to be one of the finest of the century.

Despite the example of her husband, Michael Holroyd, she was unprepared for the rigours of research. "I realised how long it would take, but I hadn't realised how little time I'd have for anything else. All my trips, all my reading revolved around the period. My friends became Angus's friends, the people I needed to talk to; my own friends got very short shrift."

Drabble was a close friend of Wilson's for the last 25 years of his life. She cannot recall their first meeting ("If I'd known, I'd have recorded it more accurately"), other than that it was in the mid-Sixties. "I started publishing in 1963. Angus was ubiquitous on the literary scene and I was then much more of a party-goer."

Their bond was established when Wilson invited her on an Arts Council tour in March 1969, along with Christopher Logue and Nell Dunn. "He went out of his way to make us feel happy and comfortable. It was a great spree." With the customary generosity which was, later, to cost him so dear, he did not even accept a fee. "We got our fees, of course. But he was Chairman of the Literature Panel so he thought it inappropriate. We didn't appreciate it at the time."

With Wilson's long-term lover, Tony Garrett, sharing the driving, she had the chance to evaluate their relationship at first-hand. "Tony was never treated as an appendage. Angus was the soul of courtesy and always made him part of things. It was very much like being a wife, although without the social status. Tony played it beautifully. He said 'I've been to 101 literary parties and never understood a word; I don't complain.' I never saw him lose politeness in public, but he had a lot to put up with."

Drabble had long been a fan of Wilson's work; before they met, she had sent him a letter with an article she had written about him for Petticoat ("an inappropriate title for a Sixties girls' mag"). Wilson returned the enthusiasm. "He liked my writing. I didn't put that in my book because I didn't think it was right. I'm sure that one of the reasons he took me on the tour was because he wanted to encourage my work."

They shared an interest in social peculiarities and the areas in which public morality and private lives interact. Drabble recalls an occasion in Llandudno when Logue was holding forth on tragedy and the blackness of life. "Angus said 'Maggie and I are not like that at all. We're optimists. We admire the noble washers-up of life.' This was not strictly true because he got gloomier and gloomier. But we were both writing about people leading small lives."

The writers of his own generation he particularly admired were Priestley, Golding and Henry Greene. "I don't know what he thought of Kingsley Amis. I don't think he much liked the provincial novel; he certainly hated the provinces. But, although writers are very prone to envy, he was curiously unjealous. As a young man, he reviewed a lot and wrote some devastating reviews of people who later became great friends, like Elizabeth Bowen, about whom he changed his mind, as he did on Virginia Woolf. He did write one rather acid review of Iris Murdoch, but Iris was always very nice to him and generous when he fell on hard times."

His bete noire was C P Snow. "He was interested in Snow as a man of affairs but thought he was a terrible writer. His very name would put him in a tizzy. I misread one of the entries in Tony [Garrett]'s diary. 'Angus very upset about snow and had to rearrange the bookshelves.' I thought it was the snow outside until I saw that it was June. Then I realised it was the man."

Drabble put Wilson in touch with writers of her own generation. She recounts in the biography a nightmarish dinner party of hers which included Julian Mitchell and Arnold Wesker. Wilson took umbrage at some of Mitchell's remarks and made an embarrassing scene. She now attributes this to insecurity: "I didn't see it myself; but like a lot of very flamboyant people, I think there was a side of him that was insecure. Reading the notes for his novels, there's always an undercurrent of fear - as, perhaps, there is for all serious writers - fear that you can't do it, that people don't like your work, that you're not as good as other people."

As he grew older, ill-health compounded his insecurity. "It undermined confidence in his talent as well as in his physical comfort. My view was that Angus didn't need to worry. If I could have written any of those books, I'd have died happy. I felt that he should just sit back and enjoy himself. Of course, it's easier to do that when you're rich." Wilson was far from rich: his financial position was parlous. The extravagance and generosity which led Ian McEwan, one of his students, to suppose him a millionaire, had taken its toll. "It annoys me that people talk about the wealth of authors."

Drabble has had a longstanding active commitment to gay rights, from the belief that "people suffer enough in love without having to suffer for sexual inclinations" and that "life is better with more variety". Nevertheless, her fears that she was the wrong sex, if not the wrong person, to write the biography ran deep. "I had a terrible dream in which Angus said to me quite angrily 'I don't want a woman writing my life.' " She was only reassured by Tony Garrett's insistence that "Angus wasn't a separatist; he loved women."

Nevertheless, she knows very well that Wilson showed different sides of himself to different people. "To women, he was like a father confessor; we told him about our children. He revealed a wilder streak to his gay friends." She is sure that a man would emphasise other aspects, but believes that, as the first biographer, her duty is to "lay the ground clearly out. A second, third and fourth can have more of a thesis. I felt that I couldn't be too opinionated. I'm very much aware that a lot of material could be used in a different way."

Wilson himself wrote highly personal biographies; as Drabble points out, "his Kipling is very interesting about Angus Wilson... He strongly believed that childhood was much the most important part of a writer's life and determined his literary output. If I'd been a different kind of biographer, I might have gone very much more on sexual abuse."

After working on Wilson's life for five years, she comes away with an added respect for biography ("I can't tell you how hard it is. You never feel you've done it properly. There are always people you haven't interviewed and clues you feel you've missed") and a renewed relish for fiction ("There's something very sad about writing a biography; your hero always dies. It doesn't happen in a novel"). Her primary hope is "that people will come to read Angus's work with the same pleasure and respect as I do. If that happens, my time will have been well spent."