With Wise Virgin, A.N. Wilson continues his bleak investigation of trauma. The Healing Art (his most acclaimed novel so far) scrutinised human sensibility under the sentence of terminal cancer. Wise Virgin takes the life term and solitary confinement of bereaved blindness. It's played out with Wilson's customary geometric neatness of design. Giles Fox, as the novel's retrospect finds him, was once a fulfilled man - someone who could have represented the happy ending of some other story. He is a librarian and a scholar (his 'period' is 'somewhere between 1213 and 1215'), and the best efforts of his intellectual maturity have been happily applied to editing a Medieval text, the 'Tretis of Love Hevenliche', a work eventually destined for the dusty glory of Early English Texts Society publication. It's not my period, but despite some convincing quotation and an authenticating footnote, this work by 'Robert of St Victor' appears to be invented. (Readers of Wilson's earlier novels will expect highly specialised pockets of expertise on church and university matters.) The treatise celebrates the anchoretic life: or the wisdom of virginity as the path to true marriage with Christ. For all his obsessed attention to his text, Fox had lived the life of its antitype. He was worldly, carnal and atheistic. Happily married, he was prone to flippancy about the 'much over-rated joiner's son'. Then, in the way of Wilson's world, there fell on him a rain of shattering blows. His wife died in childbirth with her baby. He went blind. His second wife, a Moorfields nurse, was run down and killed by a hit-and-run driver (the miseries in Wilson's narratives are invariably the acts of a God who may perhaps just be an insurance company fiction). Giles remained, a sightless scholar blundering uselessly in his library. As we encounter him, he is attended by two virgins: his luscious teenage daughter Tibba and his dowdy amanuensis, Miss Agar (PhD, failed). With all this wretchedness stacked behind it, the novel opens: ' "Marry me," said Louise Agar.' Will he?
LRB 18 November 1982 | PDF Download