Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)

Wilt is probably Tom Sharpe’s best-known novel. Its opening sentence is:

Whenever Henry Wilt took the dog for a walk, or, to be more accurate, when the dog took him, or, to be exact, when Mrs Wilt told them both to go and take themselves out of the house so that she could do her yoga exercises, he always took the same route…

It’s all here: the pedantic comic style; the stereotype of the henpecked, resentful husband; the wife in thrall to the latest fad (hard to imagine, but there was a time when yoga was new and widely ridiculed).

Setting Henry Wilt is a feeble failure of a lecturer at a shabby Fenland community college, trying to teach The Mill On The Floss to classes of apprentice gasfitters and plumbers, amusingly grouped as Meat One (butchers), firemen, mechanics etc. He is 35 and married to fat bitch Eva (as he refers to her), a misogynist stereotype who becomes brainlessly addicted to every passing fad in the faddish 1970s, and who Henry fantasises about murdering.

Campus novels of the 1970s Insofar as it is set in a college and deals with politics among the faculty and staff, Wilt sits alongside other campus novels such as Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (published in 1975; Bradbury adapted Sharpe’s novels Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue for TV) and David Lodge’s great Changing Places, also published in 1975.

Plot Wilt’s wife falls in with some trendy Californians who epitomise the shallow hedonism Wilt despises. At a swinging party Wilt refuses to have sex with the let-it-all-hang-out-wife (Sally Pringsheim), in evading her clutches slips and bangs his head, and awakens to find she has wedged his penis inside a blow-up sex doll. As he is trying to extract himself the partygoers burst in to the bathroom to discover and humiliate him, his wife included.

The next day the Californians maliciously post him the doll and, drunk, he decides to try out how easy it would be to murder his wife by breaking into the building site next to his college and throwing the doll down a hole. Unfortunately, the doll gets stuck half way down and the tipsy Wilt drops loads of handwritten notes about his lectures around the building site and is seen in the act by the college caretaker. The next morning the builders have just lined up a concrete mixer to fill the hole and it has begun pouring when the foreman and a builder spot the body far down waving feebly up at them.

The police are called and several witnesses come forward to wildly misinterpret what they saw as Wilt throwing a body down the hole and – because his wife has taken an unscheduled break with the Californian couple on a boat in the Broads and is nowhere to be found – the police arrest Wilt on suspicion of murder.

This leads to a farcically prolonged police interview in which the bloody-minded and over-educated Wilt is able to run rings round his police interlocutors, especially Inspector Flint who is driven to his wits’ end. The interrogation is intercut with the much darker farce of his wife’s adventures with the unscrupulous Californian couple on the boat which has run aground in the Norfolk Broads. Slowly the facade of the trendy Americans is peeled away to reveal that he is a plastic fetishist and Sally, far from the enlightened sex therapist she claims to be, is an ex-prostitute who agreed to accommodate his weird lusts in exchange for money and security.

The enmity between the couple descends to open violence when Sally tied up her husband in what promises to be a bondage sex session but in which she genuinely intends to drown him, only interrupted by the unwise intrusion of the local (alcoholic) vicar who saw their distress signals. Witnessing the bizarre sex set-up, he immediately flees back to his rowing boat and to his quiet bachelor vicarage only to find the bedraggled, big and quite naked Eva dripping in his living room. Eventually the police arrive, Eva’s identity is confirmed and Wilt – much to Inspector Flint’s chagrin – is released.

The 1970s The time of right-on Marxists (like Bradbury’s Howard Kirk), burn-your-bra women’s libbers, sexual liberation (all clitoral stimulation and vibrators), and the strong feeling among middle-aged white men that  the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Just as in Lodge’s Changing Places the story needs an injection of hyper-Californian trendy characters to set the plot rolling – here the loathesome Pringsheimers, there the über-academic Morris Zapp – in order to make England look the tired provincial backwater the author feels it is and yet which he loves.

The ignorance, the naivety: neither Wilt nor his one male confidant/friend know what a blow job is. Eva doesn’t know that a dyke is a lesbian. Wilt earns £3,500 a year. They reference holidays on the newly-fashionable Costa del Sol. Wilt despises parties where trendy lecturers smoke pot and talk about Hegelian dialectics (just as they do in The History Man). At the Pringsheimer’s party a group are sitting round listening to the Watergate Tapes on the novelty of a stereo tape machine.

40-something men The 1970s might have been the era of the rangy Howard Kirk and overconfident Morris Zapp, but were also the decade of Rigsby (Rising Damp, first broadcast 1974), Basil Fawlty (first broadcast 1975), Reginald Perrin (first published 1975) – of a cadre of frustrated, middle-aged men living by the ‘old standards’, who are affronted by the liberties of the younger generation, the sexual and linguistic permissiveness they associate with ghastly Americans and – often – the sympathy shown for all this by their shrewish wives (Sybil Fawlty, Eva Wilt).

It is the Comedy of Resentment.

Crude There is a lot of swearing. All the characters swear a lot, but particularly the police interrogating Wilt. The humour is broad, the farce absurd and extreme, the bitterness against the modern world savage.

Sergeant Yates leant across the table: ‘Let me tell you something. When we get Mrs Wilt out of there, don’t imagine she’ll be unrecognisable.’ He stopped and stared intently at Wilt. ‘Not unless you’ve disfigured her.’
‘Disfigured her?’ said Wilt with a hollow laugh. ‘She didn’t need disfiguring the last time I saw her. She was looking bloody awful. She had on these lemon pyjamas and her face was all covered with…’ he hesitated. There was a curious expression on the sergeant’s face.
‘Blood?’ he suggested. ‘Were you going to say blood?’
‘No’, said Wilt, ‘I most certainly wasn’t. I was going to say powder. White powder and scarlet lipstick. I told her she looked fucking awful.’
‘You must have had a very happy relationship with her,’ said the sergeant. ‘I don’t make a habit of telling my wife she looks fucking awful.’
‘You probably don’t have a fucking awful-looking wife,’ said Wilt, making an attempt to conciliate the man. (Page 115)

Crude? Yes.
Vulgar? Yes.
And very funny.

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

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