Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises

  • By A.N. Wilson
  • Bloomsbury Continuum
  • 320 pp.

A literary critic admits his shortcomings.

Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises

The writing life is full of potholes — long days and solitary nights followed by rewrites, rejections, and, for most, scant rewards. Upon publication of a work, critics descend from Mt. Olympus to dissect and dismember, which may explain why writers like A.N. Wilson wrap themselves in the protective carapace of grandiosity. In the first paragraph of his new memoir, Confessions, Wilson writes: “Fans and hostile critics alike have always spoken to, and of, me as one who was too fluent, who wrote with too much ease. Over fifty books published, and probably millions of words in the newspapers.”

Quite a record for a British writer not born in Stratford-upon-Avon. And not to puff up an already overstuffed ego, but Andrew Norman Wilson can write — fluidly, gracefully, and with immense literary flourish. So, one might wonder about his memoir’s subtitle, A Life of Failed Promises. The disconnect, according to Wilson, is found in his self-assessment of a man who has squandered his potential.

At 72, he’s looking back on his life as a husband, a parent, a son, and a friend; sadly, he finds himself wanting. And who’s to argue as he admits to being “trapped” in his first marriage to a woman 13 years his senior, whom he blames for stealing “my youth, my experience of student life, my chance of developing an emotional spectrum with several girlfriends, before settling on the Right Moment to marry”?

Like a petulant child, Wilson retaliates with vitriol, leaving one to wonder if he was some kind of naïf who’d been shanghaied into marriage at 19 by a 32-year-old virago who bound and blindfolded him. They had two children together, and despite his many affairs (and a few of hers), remained married for 19 years, supposedly because of their religious vows.

Wilson maintains he was desolate in his first marriage and writes of how he tortured himself, becoming anorexic, not to mention enduring “two bouts of pneumonia, one of pleurisy and weight loss down to seven stone [98 pounds].” If not for hypnotherapy, he contends, “I think my eating disorder would probably have killed me.”

But then he fell in love with the woman who would become his second wife, until that marriage also ended in divorce. Before either of those wives came along, Wilson admits to having had “one fully fledged love affair” at his all-boys boarding school “that lasted nearly three years.”

Of his first marriage, Wilson writes: “I broke every vow and promise I ever made to that woman, including of course, the one about staying with her in sickness and in health.” He blames their split on “certain aspects of life with my difficult mother.” Years later, when his first wife tumbles into “alcohol numbed dementia,” Wilson visits her in “the care home,” adding less than chivalrously that her “uncertain control of bodily functions” made “taxi rides or visits to restaurants and cinemas anti-social.”

In keeping with the book’s title, Wilson confesses to the addiction of fame and seeing his name in print. “Cheap publicity,” he calls it, claiming it infected him as much as it did his “cherished friends,” the poet Stephen Spender and the philanthropist Lord Longford. He compares the “heady buzz” of seeing themselves in print to “the sadness of lonely mackintoshed men reaching greedily for magazines on the top shelf, in days before internet porn.”

Wilson further pleads guilty to being a full-throated snob who loves the monarchy, adores Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and reveres Margaret Thatcher as “the best Prime Minister of our lifetime.” He berates Oxford’s refusal to grant Thatcher an honorary degree as “shameful.” He claims not to be “a natural courtier,” yet devotes several pages to his dinners with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and the near national scandal he caused by reporting her table talk about T.S. Eliot and his “dreary” recitations of The Waste Land, which convulsed the royal family into fits of giggles.

Page after page charts Wilson’s back-and-forth religious forays from the Church of England to the Church of Rome. He once entered an Anglican seminary intent on becoming an Episcopal priest, but he left after a year. He then converted to Catholicism, but that, too, was temporary. He now rages against Catholicism’s “preposterous claim” of papal infallibility and the “authoritarian clericalism [that] has so obviously helped to cover up, perhaps even to encourage, the abuse of children by priests.”

Admitting that his life has been a tangle of spiritual confusion, he recounts how, in 1989, he descended from the heights of piety to meander in the nether region of agnosticism. “I think that all churches have faults but all also have members whose lives shine with the life of Christ, and that this has been true in the C of E as it has in the other churches.” He then adds, “I still read the New Testament in Greek each year.”

The surprise of this book comes from its lackluster ending, which is not a bang but a whimper. After confessing his thundering ambitions, he writes remorsefully of the “young A.N. Wilson, so full of himself, so unfaithful, not only to his wife [make that two wives] but to his own better nature.” Unable to find peace in religion or happiness in marriage late in life, he seeks redemption in his talent. After all, he concludes, “[E]ven the feeblest of writers [know] why writing and reading play such a vital part in our lives.”

Kitty Kelley is the author of seven number-one New York Times bestseller biographies, including Nancy Reagan, Jackie Oh!, and The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty. She is on the board of the Independent and has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.

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