I do not think it at all likely that we shall again have the bad luck to strike a man who combines a blameless record, first-rate linguistic abilities, remarkable gifts as a writer of fiction, and no sense of responsibility in using them!
—Sir Stewart Menzies, “C” of MI6, 1943
Mrs Wilson is a three-part mini-series, written by Anna Symon, directed by Richard Laxton, and based on actual events. It is produced by, and stars, Ruth Wilson, who is the real-life granddaughter of the central character, Alison Wilson. Christopher Stevens of the Daily Mail wrote that “the story sounds too extraordinary to be believable. It’s as though John le Carré turned his hand to a Barbara Cartland novella.”
In 1963, prolific spy novelist Alexander Wilson (played by Iain Glen) drops dead of a heart attack, at the age of seventy, in the front room of his family home. His body is discovered by his wife, Alison, but even before she and her two sons can begin to grieve properly, a strange woman named Gladys knocks on the door and announces that she is the legal Mrs Wilson and that she and Alex have three children together.
Alison had met her husband in 1940 while they were working for MI6 (SIS) in London. (Their work there was so sensitive that the section number for the unit was not made public until 2010.) Alison now suspects that much of her husband’s avowed classified extended lapses away from home were to spend time with this other family. At his funeral the two wives agree on some temporary discretion, to shield their children from the shocking truth.
As Alison begins to delve into her late husband’s secretive past, discouraged at every turn by the bureaucracy of MI6, more skeletons begin to emerge. She discovers there had been a third wife, Dorothy Wicks, whom her husband met while he was in India in the 1930s.
We discover that Wilson, in addition to being a decorated First World War veteran and a successful writer, was also a pathological liar who fabricated intelligence reports, resulting in his expulsion from MI6. He was also a thief, a conman, with a record of several jail sentences, a forger of false identities—and a serial bigamist.
Just as Alison is coming to grips with the huge lie she has been unwittingly part of, she is thrust further into chaos by yet a fourth Mrs Wilson, Elizabeth, who suddenly appears with her son Douglas. They have been living just two miles away.
The series explores, through flashbacks, the web of intrigue Wilson had to spin to keep these four families from ever meeting. It closes with Alison taking a vow of celibacy as a Servite nun, and dedicating the remainder of her life to the Catholic Church. In an interview with Nick Curtis of the London Evening Standard, Ruth Wilson recalled:
I was amazed that something like that had happened in my very ordinary family. But now, playing my grandmother, I think I hate him. I have very mixed feelings … of the four wives, three are dead and the fourth now has Alzheimer’s. Two of them, including my grandmother, removed all trace of him from their lives. But what’s incredible is that these women fell for and were duped by Alex, but kept his secrets. Each of the mothers preserved the heroic mystery of their father for the kids.
The three-part series focuses on Alexander Wilson, primarily from Alison’s point of view, and is concerned with her relationship with him. The back-stories of the other three families are not delved into in detail. Alison Wilson is portrayed as an amateur detective, persistently probing to get to the truth. This is artistic licence.
The real detective into the life of Alexander Wilson was Dr Tim Crook, Professor of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies, at Goldsmiths, University of London, who wrote the definitive book on his life, The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, and I am indebted to him for his generous correspondence with me, and a brilliant timeline, which helped me answer quite a few questions about this highly secretive man.
In 2005, Mike Shannon, the son of Wilson’s second wife Dorothy, approached Crook, an academic researcher, and asked if he would be interested in helping him investigate his father’s life, of which hardly anything was known. When interviewed about how he proceeded with such a daunting task, Crook replied: “The simple answer is Goldsmiths, University of London. I consulted my then head of department, Dr Gareth Stanton, who agreed that it could become an official research project.”
Alexander Wilson wrote under the names Alexander Wilson, Geoffrey Spencer, Gregory Wilson and Michael Chesney (the real name of his son, with Dorothy Wilson) and published three academic books and twenty-four novels before the Second World War. Crook’s biography is meticulous in detail on all of Wilson’s novels. I have read the first one, The Mystery of Tunnel 51, and found it interesting, following in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a bit of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
The Mystery of Tunnel 51, published in 1928, was the first of nine books in the Wallace of the Secret Service series. Crook writes: “The clearest mark of Wilson’s success in popular fiction was that for twelve years his Wallace of the Secret Service set the public imagination on to the global reach and power of the British Secret Service.” The novelist and columnist Tony Parsons said: “Without Alexander Wilson, there is no James Bond, there is no Bourne, there is no George Smiley.”
In The Mystery of Tunnel 51, Major Elliott, of the “Sappers and Miners”, the Corps of Royal Engineers of the British Army, is travelling with classified documents on the Calcutta Express. Midway through Tunnel 51, the longest tunnel on the track, the lights go out, and when they come back on, Elliott is found stabbed to death. Investigation shows the documents he was carrying are blank. Sir Leonard Wallace, a mix between Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes, is sent for from the India Office to solve the mystery. Wallace only has one arm—the other was shot off by German agents—and wears a glove over an artificial hand.
Wallace doesn’t make his appearance until a third of the way into the novel. The few action scenes are very good but padded out with dreary dialogue with a lot of “By Joves” and non-dramatic exchanges. We wait anxiously for Wilson to get on with the story so we can find out what happens to the missing documents, but the climax is slow in coming. The early scenes with young women are overly idealised—the detailed descriptions of their beauty are like descriptions of porcelain dolls. There are a few nice touches, recalling distant times: when someone asks what the contraption is on the end of a revolver, they’re told it is “one of those new fangled silencers”, to which the reply comes, “I don’t like that—an honest man wouldn’t have it.”
Wilson met his first wife, Gladys Kellaway, in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, in 1916, in the same year he left the army with war wounds. Their first child, Adrian, was born in the following year, and two more children, Dennis and Daphne, within the next three years. For the next five years the family travelled around England performing in small theatres in a repertory company that Wilson managed.
In 1925, most likely using self-forged documents, he was appointed Professor of English Literature at Islamia College, Lahore. Here he began the affair with his second wife (although no official certificate of their marriage can be located), a popular local actress, Dorothy Wicks.
Wilson was now maintaining a double life at a distance, but this changed in 1933 when Dorothy became pregnant and had to return to England, giving birth to a son, Michael. Wilson was now dividing his time between his three children with Gladys in Southampton, and Dorothy and the new baby in London. This continued until 1941, when Wilson left his first family forever.
His youngest son, Dennis, began writing poetry while serving in the trenches of Normandy, attaining the rank of captain before he was wounded and disabled by two close-exploding shells. It must have been particularly difficult for this truly honourable war hero to find out in 2006 that his father had been jailed for impersonating a colonel and wearing unearned military decorations.
Dennis Wilson subsequently worked forty-eight years for Encyclopaedia Britannica, bringing a stability to his family that his own father could never achieve. He finally published his poetry in his eighties, and began to achieve recognition as an important Second World War poet, in the tradition of other writers who had experienced combat such as Keith Douglas, Hamish Henderson, Sidney Keyes, Karl Shapiro and Randall Jarrell.
In 2013, at ninety-two years of age, he received an invitation from the Poet Laureate, Carol-Ann Duffy, to attend the Reception for Contemporary British Poetry at Buckingham Palace. He shared honours with a younger war poet, Coldstream Guards Captain John Jeffcock, and esteemed UK poets Roger McGough, Sinead Morrissey, Gillian Clarke and John Agard.
Wilson’s Elegy of a Common Soldier (Kultura Press) was the work that gained him the most recognition. Here is an extract:
This is the spring, and all around is seen
Nature awaking fresh, and giving birth
To eager buds and tender sheaves of green:
Spreading a growing cloak across the earth.
This is the time of youth and carefree love
Of which the minstrel sings, the poet dreams,
Of joyous sun, and peaceful skies above;
But this perfection is not all it seems:
For not too far across this pleasant world
The scene is changed: upon a sombre stage,
The sharpest weapons Man can forge are hurl’d
Against his fellow men, in bitter rage.
New life that seeks to piece the desolation
Is churned by shell and bomb to reeking mud;
The season marked by God for fresh creation
Gives way to death: the green is tinged with blood.
No phrase is this from some medieval page;
No brutal sport in ignorance devised:
This is a learnéd scientific age:
An age of progress: Man is civilised …
Alex Wilson met his second wife, Dorothy Wicks, in Lahore. Islamia College had hired him, according to Crook, for his ability to organise and run cricket and sports programs and their desire to:
recruit … a European who could combine the role of improving the college through higher education and leadership with the monitoring of boys at the college who were drawn from the regions of the Islamic elite, North-West Frontier farmers and the agitating tribal chiefs of Waziristan … he is consistently represented as Prof. Major Sir Alexander Wilson, Bart, B.A. (Oxon), D.S.O., M.C., Legion of Honour.
He was certainly not the holder of a baronetcy, a hereditary title awarded by the Crown. He had not been knighted. He did not have a degree from Oxford. He had never been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross or the French Legion of Honour.
Dorothy Wicks was a professional actress. In the television series she is played by Keeley Hawes. She is assigned by MI6 to accompany Wilson to social functions in order for him to penetrate her circle of theatre friends and political contacts, and, with his language skills, to eavesdrop for any useful intelligence information. However, this is just more artistic licence—in fact their relationship simply began as another of his affairs on the ship over to India.
A son was born, Michael Chesney Wilson, but he later changed his surname to Shannon, for professional reasons, when he became a playwright. Dorothy told him all his life that his father had been a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army in India. When he finally left them, she told Michael he had been killed at El Alamein. Michael retained a traumatic memory of his father’s violence to his mother and told Crook:
It was a pretty nasty thing for a young lad to see. I can’t have been very old then; about five I suppose. It was very violent … the only son hooked on the father figure. He struck my mother and hurt her very badly. These things you never forget. He broke a couple of teeth. Blood pouring out of her mouth, poor old love.
Crook said there was no evidence of Alex being violent in any other context. But it is precisely the kind of thing that would be unforgivable to a proud, independent woman like Dorothy Wicks, especially if witnessed by her son, and could have been the deciding factor in her lifelong hatred of Alex and subsequent actions to erase his memory. And if he was not violent to any of the other women he married, their later forgiveness of him may have been a bit easier to come by.
Michael Shannon was diagnosed in May 2010 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and died that year at his home in London.
Wilson met this third wife, Alison McKelvie, the protagonist of the television series, in 1940, when he was forty-eight and she was twenty-one and working as his typist at MI6. Her granddaughter, Ruth, in the interview with Nick Curtis, recalled:
I remember my grandma always having this big, glamorous hair … she used to put so much hairspray on it, my mother would get annoyed that the spray would be all over the bathroom mirror. It was one of the things about her I wanted to re-create. She always looked immaculate.
From 1942 to 1959 the family was practically destitute, living in seventeen different houses. Alison’s first son, Gordon, had to be sent for a time to a children’s home and her brother, and her own mother, tried to persuade her to give up her youngest son, Nigel, for adoption, but she refused.
In 1967, Alison dedicated her life to God and in 1986 graduated in theology from the University of London. She wrote a memoir of her life with Wilson that helped inform both the mini-series and Tim Crook’s biography. Crook says: “It is in its own way significant literature; perhaps better writing than anything her husband had been able to produce in 28 published and unpublished novels, and three academic volumes.”
Alison Wilson’s memoir—still unpublished—is unflinching in its criticism of her husband’s behaviour, but in the second part, she explains how her commitment to God was the reason she was able to finally forgive him. She died in 2005.
Alexander Wilson’s last family was with Elizabeth Hill, whom he married in 1955, when he was sixty-two—and she was twenty-seven. They had a son born that same year named Douglas (who later changed his last name to Ansdell, after Elizabeth’s second husband, John Ansdell), the only one of the seven Wilson children who has no physical recollection of his father. Elizabeth left no diary or written records of her relationship with Alex and when the rest of the family eventually found her, she had advanced Alzheimer’s and had no memory of her life with him. She died in 2010.
Alexander Wilson was fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. His initial intelligence reports as a translator, many of which ended up on the desks of Churchill and the War Cabinet from 1939 to 1942, are credited with helping Montgomery and the British Army defeat Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein in the first British land victory of the Second World War.
So why are his MI6 files still redacted, unavailable to researchers and the public, and considered national-security-sensitive, after more than seventy-five years? Whatever happened that led to his expulsion from MI6 in 1942, he never published another novel.
Perhaps the inter-war spy drama that Wilson had specialised in was made obsolete by the reality of modern warfare in the Second World War. Crook says: “The Second World War had threatened to lay waste the fictional writer’s creative imagination on the subject of murder.”
The records of Wilson’s publisher and agent are incomplete. This may be, as Crook speculated in an interview, “the result of an MI6 clean-up operation”. Selected MI6 reports could have been sent to publishers discrediting Wilson. He was accused of fabricating intelligence, and if he was ordered, as some believe, to use his language skills to eavesdrop on friendly and neutral embassies, possibly even his own in London, that would be an unacceptable embarrassment to the agency, not to mention illegal. This would have tainted his credibility, and made him a liability as an author.
Gordon and Nigel, Wilson’s children with Alison, believe that any false intelligence contributing to his dismissal could have been a classic counter-intelligence operation, planted by Egyptian agents for this specific purpose—Wilson may have passed it on, believing it to be accurate.
The mini-series Mrs Wilson is told from Alison’s point of view, based on her memoirs, so it forms only one fourth of the complete family story. It is a compelling watch and a good introduction to Wilson’s truly bizarre life and one of the saintly women who put up with him.
Ruth Wilson told Curtis, “We still don’t quite know who he was. Half the family think he was a bit of a conman, the other half think he was a hero.” In an interview with Nicole Lampert she reflected:
When I decided to become an actress, nobody in my family was involved in the arts, but now there’s this whole new side. Michael was an actor, his son is a writer and his daughter is a director, while Dennis is a poet. And it turns out that my grandfather was not only a novelist of note but probably a spy of note too. He was also the best actor of all of us.
There are many other instances of artistic licence in the television adaptation. In the series, Alison discovers the existence of her husband’s second and fourth wives when they come to her house. In real life, she only found mention of Gladys in her husband’s correspondence, and rang her, thinking she was a cousin. When Alison explained who she was, and that Alex was dead, Gladys collapsed and her son Dennis had to finish the phone conversation.
In the final episode, Alexander’s fourth wife, Elizabeth, arrives at Alison’s house with their young son. In real life, Alison never met Elizabeth.
In the series, Alison makes repeated visits to MI6 offices to talk to Alex’s “handlers”, Shabhaz Karim and Coleman, but in real life neither of these characters existed. Crook says: “There is no evidence that Alison had any contact with the intelligence services after her husband’s death.”
Wilson had told Alison that, in the event of his death, there was a secret compartment in his wallet which would explain everything. In the series, she discovers a card with a telephone number written in invisible ink. But, in real life, nothing was found in his wallet.
Alexander Wilson was given two funerals: one in London, at the request of his third wife, Alison, and another at the insistence of his first, and only legal wife, Gladys, at his final resting place, buried next to his mother and sister, at Milton cemetery in Portsmouth.
Barry Spurr, author of Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity, observed that although the period clothing, house furnishings, hair styling and style of shoes, car models and even the dress lengths were recreated faithfully for the series, the minutiae of ecclesiastical vesture, liturgy and ritual and church furnishings revealed insufficient attention to historical accuracy. The liturgies and graveside prayers in that era would have been said in Latin, not modern English, and a priest wouldn’t have conducted the committal of a body to a grave dressed in vestments to celebrate Mass.
One major moral dilemma I had with the final chapter of Tim Crook’s fine book, and indeed the testimonies of all the surviving children, is the willingness to forgive Wilson’s unacceptable behaviour as though it were somehow offset against the important, patriotic and noble things he achieved in his life. I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. Had he been caught by the law for his bigamous practices, he would have served many years in prison—and what he achieved as a writer and in the service of his country would have made no difference whatsoever.
Family members continually say that Wilson had “respect for women” and was a “good father”. Alison admired “his spiritual and moral guidance to his children”. These are statements of denial.
Besides being a serial bigamist, with four marriages, Wilson was also serially unfaithful—who knows how many other extramarital affairs he had? He only married the women he got pregnant. But for the pregnancies, he probably wouldn’t have married any of them.
What kind of respect for women is shown by leaving a wife and children in extreme financial hardship, while starting up another family—and then doing the same thing twice more? What kind of good father abandons his children and then creates additional families with more children that he also abandons?
One has to be careful in applying modern values to early-twentieth-century reality, especially to those men involved in the two world wars. But even by the values and morals of his own time, Wilson was a cad. He was jailed three times. The first time was in 1919, as a Navy purser on board the SS Prinzessin, for stealing soldiers’ money; he received six months hard labour in the notoriously brutal Okalla Prison Farm in British Columbia. In 1944 he received two months in jail for wearing a colonel’s uniform and medals that weren’t his. (He somehow convinced Alison that this was part of an undercover operation.) In 1948 he was jailed for stealing the box-office takings while working at a cinema in Hampstead.
In 2007, many of the surviving members of the four extended Wilson families gathered at the home of Gordon Wilson. This gathering was celebrated as a chance for them all to finally meet each other and to forgive Alexander Wilson for the pain and suffering he had caused them all.
But if Wilson’s awful subterfuge had come out publicly while he was alive, it would have been impossible to pardon him, as his betrayal would be blatantly obvious, the jealousy between wives and children would have been palpable, and he would have been held accountable, not only by family members, but by law. It seems to me that the real forgiveness at these well-intentioned family gatherings was for each other—the innocent wives and children who had no knowledge of Wilson’s duplicity. It was an opportunity for them all to forgive any ill will towards each other.
Three of Wilson’s wives—Gladys, Alison and Elizabeth—had a selfless desire to help people less fortunate than themselves, and perhaps this is why it was easier for them to overlook their common husband’s shortcomings. Dorothy, also deeply involved in charitable work, was the only one who refused to forgive or forget.
In 2008, a monument was erected on the unmarked grave where Alexander Wilson had lain for forty-six years. His epitaph was a quote from Othello: “He loved not wisely, but too well.”
Joe Dolce wishes to thank Tim Crook for his assistance. The second revised edition of The Secret Lives of A Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, by Tim Crook, was published by Kultura Press in November last year, and is available from Amazon for £14.55.