Lynne Wilson at 99
Born on 24 November 1920, Llewela ‘Lynne’ Wilson, Anthony Burgess’s first wife, had a short but influential life. Despite Burgess’s characterisation of Lynne as ‘unliterary’ in his autobiography, she had a rich interest in literature and not only contributed to Burgess’s own writing, but collaborated with him directly on a series of translations.
Burgess’s anxiety about Lynne’s literary status can be seen in his attempts to connect her family with another literary family, that of Christopher Isherwood. There is some anecdotal evidence that Lynne’s family is distantly descended from the Bradshaw-Isherwoods of Marple Hall in Cheshire, but Burgess exaggerates this, inserting ‘Isherwood’ as Lynne’s middle name and claiming she is a cousin of the famous writer (although he only felt he could get away with this after her death in 1968).
Burgess’s efforts to bolster Lynne’s literary identity in this way do not do justice to her own endeavours in the world of books. Between 1962 and 1965, Lynne collaborated with Burgess on three translations: The Olive Trees of Justice by Jean Pelegri (1962), The New Aristocrats by Michel de Saint-Pierre (1962), and The Man Who Robbed Poor-Boxes by Jean Servin (1965).
There is also evidence that Lynne moved in literary circles with and without Burgess. During the war, she developed a friendship with Dylan Thomas in London, and frequented the pubs of Fitzrovia in which the literati drank. Lynne was often included in Burgess’s literary friendships, and had work dedicated to her. The poet Martin Bell dedicated his poem ‘Pets’ to both Burgess and Lynne. While the subject seems to be Bell’s own relationship with his cats, it is possible it also refers to Lynne’s love of her pet Lalage, a Siamese cat she took with her to Malaya, and Dorian, a grey cat she acquired after their return to Britain.
Lynne was so involved in Burgess’s literary life that she became Burgess’s formal business partner in 1964, meaning she benefitted from Burgess’s income from his writing and became the co-copyright holder for all of his work until she died in 1968. Burgess’s writing about Lynne in the autobiographies does not give credit for the vital role she played in his creative life. She inspired characters in The Malayan Trilogy (1956-9), The Doctor is Sick (1961), and Honey for the Bears (1964), and her experiences during the war were influential to the creation of A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Burgess’s writing about Lynne tends to be full of bluster and posturing, yet in the novel Beard’s Roman Women (1974), which is inspired by the events surrounding Lynne’s death, he writes sensitively about marriage and his loss: ‘More than twenty-six years spent constructing a mythology, a joint memory bank, a signalling system of grunt and touch’. The book reads as an elegy for Lynne, and the difficulties of moving on from such an important and intimate relationship. In the 26 years they were married, Lynne shared Burgess’s early adventures, supported him as he embarked on his literary career, and was a skilled collaborator. Her influence goes deeper than Burgess suggests in his autobiographical writings.