Marriage, lies and a mystical conversion

Before and After
By Alison Wilson
Constable, 192pp, £16.99/$25

From its cover photograph you might think this is an ordinary account of a wartime marriage. Its subtitle suggests something stranger: The Incredible Story of the Real-Life Mrs Wilson is indeed extraordinary, both in its human dimension and its supernatural one. And in an unusual twist, it was recently dramatised on BBC One with the actress Ruth Wilson playing Alison, her real-life grandmother.

Alison McKelvie was a well-bred young typist working for M16 in London in 1940 when she fell in love. She had an affair and then married a “likeable, kind, gentle, quiet, abstemious” colleague, Alexander Wilson (referred to throughout as A).

Marriage was difficult: they had two sons but were often hard-up, due to A’s murky past sometimes catching up with him. The author, who wrote her memoir in 1986, long after A had died of a heart attack in 1963, only learnt the whole truth about her husband after his death: he had been a bigamist, had been married four times, had five other children from his other marriages, had been an M16 agent, a novelist – and had given her an entirely fictitious account of his early life and career.

All this makes for a fascinating story of human weakness of a rather florid kind. This is told in “Before”, which Alison showed her two sons in 1992. “After” she kept hidden; her sons only found it after her death in 2005. It relates her conversion in 1963, becoming a member of the Servite Secular Institute and obtaining a theology degree from Heythrop College.

But “After” is really an account of Alison’s mystical experience on the day of her First Communion and how it transformed her life.

Told in clear, unsentimental and eloquent prose, the experience is obviously authentic, reminding readers that God can sometimes act dramatically in a seemingly quiet suburban life. Having suffered deeply from the revelations about her husband, Alison writes of this mystical moment: “A was no longer my responsibility; he had gone from me into the mercy of that unfathomable love.”

Her book is a testimony to her fidelity, her integrity and her deep faith.