The extraordinarily prolific novelist, critic and composer Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester 100 years ago this week. Although he left the Church as a teenager, Burgess maintained that he was a Catholic writer in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark
When Anthony Burgess died in November 1993, the front page of Le Monde declared him to be “a great European novelist”. He is best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, which he described as a parable about free will, and “too didactic to be artistic”. For Le Monde, Burgess was “a believer in hell”. He himself went further. Interviewed by the Paris Review in 1973, Burgess said: “The novels I’ve written are really medieval Catholic in their thinking.” He believed that his background and education had determined the shape of everything he wrote.
John Anthony Burgess Wilson was born into a Lancashire Catholic family on 25 February 1917. His mother, a music hall singer and dancer known as “The Beautiful Belle Burgess”, became a Catholic the day before she married in 1908. His father, Joseph Wilson, accepted no English king or queen after James II and asserted that the true capital for English Catholics was not London but Rome or Dublin.
Burgess’s mother died when he was 18 months old, and for the next few years he lived with a maternal aunt. In 1922 his father married a widow called Margaret Dwyer, and the newly conjoined families moved into a rowdy pub, the Golden Eagle, in the Miles Platting area of Manchester. Through this second marriage, Burgess acquired an extended stepfamily, including his cousins James and George Patrick Dwyer, both of whom were to become priests.