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Gentlemen in England A Vision by A.N. Wilson (Viking: $17.95; 310 pp.)

March 16, 1986|RICHARD EDER

A. N. Wilson's games demand costumes. Old ones, prickly to put on, and musty with soup stains. It is something of a chore, at first, when he wheels up "Gentlemen in England" and invites us to plunge into the elevated language, the furniture inventories, the interior monologues, the heavy meals and the freighted misunderstandings of a Victorian pastiche.

"Stuff it, Wilson," the reader may think, coming across "as was his wont," "vouchsafed," and "dubiety" in the first few pages. Or following a guided tour of the gnarled red-brick excrescences of the Nettleship residence. Or taking in the sighs, mopped-at tears, offended silences and clangorous digestive tracts around the Nettleship family table.

Patience, though. Wilson is an unfairly clever writer who, in a previous novel, "Wise Virgin," showed a talent for writing about gravely magical young girls and aging gentlemen. He writes in disguise, but the eyes show through the eyeholes, and they glitter.

The story is set in an enlightened Victorian family, full of high purpose, suppressed passion, hysteria, bad drains and a faith in progress. Wilson's purpose is partly to recreate it, partly to challenge it and largely to amuse with it. He holds his contemporary sensibility in check, letting it escape only by calculated miscalculations.

The Nettleships are a small and unsound fortress. Horace is an expert on volcanoes, a lesser scientific luminary in the company of a Darwin, a Froude and a Huxley. Their bald heads are to be seen nodding alongside his, in fact, in the library of the London Atheneum.

To the outside world, the Nettleship name is a beacon, if minor. Indoors, all is misery. Horace married the much younger Charlotte after hearing her recite the 9-times-9 table at age 12. For 15 years, though, they have not spoken, communicating mainly by notes or through their two children. Charlotte has rebelled against her husband's Olympian domination by withdrawing; she is a furnace looking for fuel. Horace lives in a state of perpetual injury, ever since he lost his faith in God while tapping volcanic rock, and his wife refused to share the agony of it.

To make things worse, their son, Lionel, has become absorbed in the religious fevers of the Oxford Movement, and writes letters home about chasubles and clerestories. Maude, their daughter, is dreamy and troubled by a perpetual cough.

The shaky Nettleton edifice is put under assault. Not by the future, but by the past. (Wilson, who also wrote a biography of Hilaire Belloc, seems to have near-feudal sympathies, though you can count on his treating sympathies and antipathies with impartial comedy.) Two elderly gentlemen, Severus Egg and Waldo Chatterway, come to visit, bringing along a young painter named Timothy Lupton.

Egg--his servant is named Bacon--is Charlotte's father; and Chatterway, who once loved her, is almost as old. They are pre-Victorians, though, at least in spirit. They belong to the Regency: Beau Brummells, both of them, delighting in gossip, scandals, elegance and wit. They represent the frivolous grace drowned in the brown gravy of Victorianism. ("Gravy browning" and "Maude Tennis-Elbow," in fact, are Chatterway's contemptuous nicknames for the two enshrined poets of the day. His own poets are Byron and Shelley.) Their arrival ignites the volcanoes that Horace has always studied dormant. Charlotte falls passionately in love with Lupton, a beautiful but mediocre young man. Lupton is besotted by Maude, who has no use for him but falls under the disreputable and graceful spell of Chatterway. The silence between Horace and Charlotte turns to screaming, and very funny, melodrama. Their marriage is blown to bits and is only reassembled, at the end, with large cracks showing.

Lionel, in a side development, goes off temporarily to join a religious commune run by a half-fraudulent, half-saintly monk. We learn a great deal about the religious rifts and enthusiasms of 19th- Century Anglicanism, but the episode is awkward. Wilson is trying for a portrait of the saint-sinner along the lines of Graham Greene and Georges Bernanos, I think; lightened by a Waugh-like sense of the absurd. It doesn't really work.

What works much better is the doleful comedy between Charlotte, certain she has found the love of her life, and the bewildered and blustering Horace.

Wilson, at one point, turns to the reader to ask him for sympathy for this undermined Victorian potentate; and it is a tribute to his skill that Horace appears simultaneously outrageous and touchingly in pain.

The relationship between Chatterway and Maude is comical and extremely subtle. It will not become a love affair, though there is love; it is more of a Sentimental Education.

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