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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

V(ictor) S(awdon) Pritchett (1900-1997)


Prolific English writer, essayist, critic, novelist, and journalist, whose career spanned over 60 years. V.S. Pritchett gained fame with his short stories, in which he described ordinary or eccentric Englishmen with respect and understanding humor. Pritchett's autobiographies, A Cab at the Door (1968) and Midnight Oil (1971), are also considered among his finest achievements.

"If I were to write an account of my education the city of Dublin would have to appear as one of my schoolmasters, a shabby, taunting, careless, half-laughing reactionary. His subject? History, of course. I did in fact have such an Irish master at my London school. His name was Callaghan; he glittered with mocking amusement during school prayers and was famous for his tempers, his personal disasters and his scorn. After reading something I had written, he delighted himself and our class by demonstrating to all of us, and with exact command of language, that I was raving mad. When I first came to Dublin, he was often in my mind." (in Dublin by V.S. Pritchett, 1967)

Victor Sawdon Pritchett was born in Ipswich, Suffolk. His mother, who expected a girl, wanted to name her child after the Queen, and Pritchett never felt himself comfortable with his first name. Pritchett's father was a Christian Scientist and a travelling salesman. His business failures forced the family move from place to place. In his childhood, Pritchett lived in the north and in London suburbs with members of his mother's family. "I did not know that almost every time we moved house Father had lost his job or was swinging dangerously between an old disaster and a new enterprise, that furniture had "gone back" or new unpaid-for furniture had "come in." I did not know that my mother wept because of this". (from A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett, 1968)

Pritchett studied at Alleyn's Scool, Dulwich, and Dulwich College in south London for a short time. When his father went to fight in World War I, Pritchett left school, but he began a course of self-education that eventually led him to his preeminence as one of the leading literary critics in Britain. From 1916 to 1920 Pritchett worked in the leather trade. At the age of 20 he took all his savings of £20, and moved to Paris, where he worked as a shop assistant. During one period he sold shellac and glue. But Pritchett's ambition was to write and get published. In 1923 he was hired as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, first in Ireland, then in Spain. From 1926 he wrote reviews for the paper.

After walking across Spain, Pritchett published a book about his journey, Marching Spain (1928). He correctly anticipated that extreme right-wing rule would continue in the country. With this work he started a lifelong career as a travel writer. Clare Drummer (1929), a novel, was based on his experiences as a reporter in Ireland. Nothing Like Leather (1935) drew on the period in Pritchett's youth, when he sorted skins on the London docks. Its main character was based on his father. Upon publishing five novels, Pritchett complained that the work felt monotonous. Mr. Beluncle (1951), Pritchett's last work in this genre, is considered his best.

From 1926 Pritchett wrote reviews for the New Statesman and was made later its literary editor. The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories (1932) established Pritchett's place among the new and interesting writers of the 1930s.

In 1936 Pritchell divorced his first wife, Evelyn Vigors, an Irish actress – "I had known only sexual misery and frustration," he wrote in his diary. Evelyn, whom he had married in 1924, was with him in Spain, but she had not enjoyed the experience. Most of his travel pieces he Pritchett wrote in the first-person singular. In a draft of Midnight Oil he confessed that basically he was fanatical about art and writing. With his second wife, Dorothy Rudge Roberts, he had two children. The marriage lasted until Pritchett's death although they both also had other affairs. Their son Oliver became a journalist at the Telegraph.

During World War II Pritchett wrote a weekly essay for the New Statesman and worked for the BBC and the Ministry of Information. Pritchett was knighted in 1975 for his services to literature and in 1993 he became Companion of Honour. Pritchett's several awards include Heinemann Award (1969), PEN Award (1974), W.H. Smith Award (1990), and Golden Pen Award (1993). Prtichett died in London on March 21, 1997.

"For myself, the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse – yet is not 'poetical' in the sense of shuddering sensibility," Pritchett said in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories (1981). "Because the short story has to be succinct and has to suggest things that have been 'left out', are, in fact, there all the time, the art calls for a mingling of the skills of the rapid reporter or traveller with an eye for incident and an ear for real speech, the instincts of the poet and ballad-maker, and the sonnet writer's concealed discipline of form. The writer has to cultivate the gift for aphorism and wit."

'The Voice' (in It May Never Happen, 1945) has all the distinctive marks of a classic V.S. Pritchett story. The main characters are described with a few but vivid strokes. The setting, World War II years, is left in the background after the opening. Pritchett was more interested in the psychological reactions of his characters than external events. The tone is mildly satirical, adjectives and poetic expressions are sprinkled in the narration. However, Pritchett has also confessed that he never cared much for poetry.

Usually Pritchett described lower-middle class people, in this particular story two reverends with opposite personalities. In his book of memoir, Midnight Oil, Pritchett said: "I have done, given my circumstances and my character, what I have been able to do and I have enjoyed it." Although Pritchett viewed his lower middle-class characters in a more or less humorous light, he did not make them comical, but depicted their disappointments, dreams, fears, sufferings, and fates with a deep psychological understanding that had connections to the work of Chekhov and Turgenev.

In the story a bomb has brought down the front wall and the roof of a church. A pigeon crosses the building "like an omen of release." Mr. Morgan, an unfrocked priest, is buried under the debris. He sings and the rescue workers know he is alive. Morgan is the predecessor of Rev. Frank Lewis in the church. Lewis considers the care-free and joyful Morgan "a hook-nosed satyr", the nearest human thing to the devil. After a landslide and fall of stone the singing stops. "How unbearable this silence was. A beautiful proud voice, the voice of a man, a voice like a tree, the soul of a man spreading in the air like the cedars of Lebanon." Lewis is ready to forgive Morgan everything to hear his voice again. He goes after Morgan into a tunnel. The floor crashes down in the darkness. Lewis hangs over a pit and cries for help: "Morgan, are you there? Catch me. I'm going." He falls exactly two feet. "Haven't you ever felt rotten with fear," Morgan asks, "like an old tree, infested and worm-eaten with it, soft as a rotten orange." He tells him that he has been in the church ever since raids got bad, and sings because he is afraid. Lewis hears for the first time Morgan's voice, and understands his prejudices. At the end of the story the rescue party hear something new: "A ruddy Welsh choir!"

"V.S.P.," as he was generally known, wrote in fountain pen; the handwritten pages were typed by his wife. She used an Imperial typewriter. "The paper was fastened to the board with a Bulldog clip," his son has recalled. "He wore a terrible frown and his bottom jaw jutted fiercely in his struggle to order the words on the page. It was a battle. Sometimes he held his head away from the board, as if he expected those words to rise up from the page and fight back." ('Foreword' by Oliver Pritchett, in The Pritchett Century, 1999) Pritchett's short stories map the change of moral values, customs, speech, and details of everyday life of commonplace people in England from the 30's to the 90's. During the years Pritchett developed his own quiet style of expression. "... the writer of short stories has to catch our attention at once not only by the novelty of his people and scene but the distinctiveness of his voice, and to hold us by the ingenuity of his design..." (Pritchett in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, 1981) In his essays Pritchett showed interest in all kinds of subjects, from antiques to horticulture and the rag trade. He read for delight from Gibbon to Virginia Woolf, as one can find from The Complete Collected Essays of V. S. Pritchett (1991).

V.S. Naipaul described Pritcett in Half a Life (2001) as a benign man, who had "a well-modelled, humorous face and a humorous, absent-minded air." Pritchett did not worry about his lack of university studies: "It was even good luck to grow up among nonintellectual people, all in trades; better luck, to have a vocation fixed in my mind..." His years in France, Ireland, and Spain became his universities. However, in later life he taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia and Smith. Pritchett's biographies on Chekhov (1988) and Turgenev (1977) were well received by critics, although Pritchett did know Russian and had never been in the Soviet Union. He was fluent in German, Spanish, and French, and published also a biography on Balzac (1973).

As an essayist Pritchett avoided academic jargon and theorizing and wrote in a clear, seeemingly effortless style. From his travels in Ireland and Spain Pritchett produced several reportages. Spanish Temper (1954) has been compared to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Pritchett's own career in literature manifested itself in his insightful comments on other writers and their work. Sheridan Le Fanu was "the Simenon of the peculiar" and D.H. Lawrence's characters and settings were "grasped with both hands, with mind and senses." In Ireland he met the writer William Butler Yeats: "He was the only man I have known whose natural speech sounded like verse."

Pritchett often introduced older writers to his readers, to show their relevance to our own time. "... the art of writing dramatic stories in verse seems to have gone for good," Pritchett stated in 'Our Half-Hogarth' (1947), which dealt with the English humorist Thomas Hood. As Pritchett, Hood had also a serious side, and a deep sympathy for the poor. Pritchett notes that Hood draws our attention to the poor by shuddering and laughing with them at the same time. "But writers are urged and taught not by society only but by other writers whose background and intention make them utterly different from their pupils. It is a strange fact that the England of Hood is not delineated by revolutionary realists, but has come down to us in the fantastic dress of German Gothic. The Cruikshank who frightens us; Mr Punch, with his pot belly, his fairy legs and the arching nose like some cathedral fragment, who squats on Dicky Doyle's cover, are part of the Gothic colony that settle like a migration of gargoyles among the English chimneys and their myth-creating smoke."

For further reading: V.S. Pritchett by D. Baldwin (1987); V.S. Pritchett by J. Stinson (1992); V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life by Jeremy Treglown (2005); The Art of Revision in the Short Stories of VS Pritchett and William Trevor by Jonathan Bloom (2006); Fiction of the New Statesman, 1913-1939 by Bashir Abu-Manneh (2011); The Ordinary and the Short Story: Short Fiction of T.F. Powys and V.S. Pritchett by Milosz Wojtyna (2015)

Selected works:

  • Marching Spain, 1928
  • Clare Drummer, 1929
  • The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories, 1930
  • Shirley Sanz, 1932
  • Nothing Like Leather, 1935
  • Dead Man Leading, 1937
  • This England, 1938 (ed.)
  • You Make Your Own Life, 1938
  • In My Good Books, 1942
  • It May Never Happen, 1945
  • Novels and Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1945 (ed.)
  • Build the Ships, 1946
  • The Living Novel, 1946
  • Why Do I Write?, 1948
  • Mr. Beluncle, 1951
  • Books in General, 1953
  • The Spanish Temper, 1954
  • Collected Stories, 1956
  • The Sailor, The Sense of Humour and Other Stories, 1956
  • When My Girl Comes Home, 1961
  • London Perceived, 1962
  • The Key to My Heart, 1963
  • Foreign Faces, 1964
  • New York Proclaimed, 1965
  • The Working Novelist, 1965
  • The Saint and Other Stories, 1966
  • Dublin, 1967
  • A Cab at the Door, 1968
  • Blind Love, 1969
  • George Meredith and English Comedy, 1970
  • Midnight Oil, 1971
  • Penguin Modern Stories, 1971 (with others)
  • Balzac, 1973
  • The Camberwell Beauty, 1974
  • The Gentle Barbarian: the Life and Work of Turgenev, 1977
  • Selected Stories, 1978
  • On the Edge of the Cliff, 1979
  • Myth Makers, 1979
  • The Tale Bearers, 1980
  • The Oxford Book of Short Stories, 1981 (ed.)
  • The Turn of the Years, 1982 (with R. Stone)
  • Collected Stories, 1982
  • More Collected Stories, 1983
  • The Other Side of a Frontier, 1984
  • A Man of Letters, 1985
  • Chekhov, 1988
  • A Careless Widow and Other Stories, 1989
  • Complete Short Stories, 1990
  • At Home and Abroad, 1990
  • Lasting Impressions, 1990
  • Complete Collected Essays, 1991
  • The Pritchett Century, 1997 (The Essential Pritchett: Selected Writings of V.S. Pritchett, 2004)
  • London Perceived, 2001 (photographs by Evelyn Hofer)
  • Mr. Beluncle: a Novel, 2005 (introduction by Darin Strauss)
  • Essential Stories, 2005 (selected and with an introduction by Jeremy Treglown)

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