Biography of V. S. Pritchett
Bith Date: December 16, 1900
Death Date: March 21, 1997
Place of Birth: Ipswich, England
V. S. Pritchett (1900-1997) was an English short story writer, novelist, literary critic, journalist, travel writer, biographer, and autobiographer. Though not an innovator in terms of style, he was nevertheless an interesting and highly competent writer.
V. S. Pritchett, who was born on December 16, 1900, in Ipswich, England, to Sawdon and Beatrice (Martin) Pritchett, told the story of his life in two volumes. The first of these is A Cab at the Door: A Memoir (the British subtitle is Childhood and Youth, 1900-1920), and the second is Midnight Oil (1971). His account of his life is humorous at times and rather detached. His father, a religious seeker, found refuge in later years in Christian Science. Micawber-like, Sawdon Pritchett was optimistic about the get-rich-quick schemes which left the family in straitened circumstances and which accounted for the title, A Cab at the Door. The family had to move frequently, with disastrous consequences for Pritchett's formal education. The mother, Beatrice Martin, was a sometimes vain and sometimes foolish woman of a decent lower class family.
Pritchett loved literature and read Dickens and Hardy. He felt that he lacked grounding in mathematics and science. When his father, in 1915, decided that the son must learn a trade, the youth was upset at having his education interrupted. Though he didn't like his work in the leather trade, he did enjoy meeting and associating with people. At 20 he left for Paris. He continued to read not only British authors and poets but the more important modern French ones. He acquired a fluency in French of which he was very proud.
It was almost by chance that he submitted three pieces for publication in 1921. The Christian Science Monitor published one of these, and his career was launched. During his two-year stay in Paris he made friends with other young people, though he was rather shy and certainly innocent by today's standards. He longed for the love of a young woman and ultimately lost his innocence. Evidently there was something about this short, shy youth that brought out the maternal instinct in older women: more than once he was mothered and advised by a woman older than himself.
In 1923 he returned to London and was asked by the Christian Science Monitor to write a series of articles about Ireland. The extended visit to Ireland, as well as a subsequent visit to Spain, led to a series of travel books written over a span of nearly 40 years. Pritchett traveled to various parts of Ireland to acquire first-hand material for his articles and in the process developed an admiration for the Irish, though an occasional dreariness of the landscape depressed him. When he visited Spain he was impressed with the country, and it provided him with the setting for some of his stories and furnished him with journalistic material. He published his first novel, Clare Drummer, in 1929 and a collection of short stories, The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories, in 1930. Neither book was a critical success. These were followed by another novel, Elopement Into Exile--or Shirley Sanz, to give it its British title. This book was not a critical success either.
Nothing Like Leather, which appeared in 1935, traces the material success and moral disintegration of Matthew Burkle when by dint of hard work he begins to rise in the leather tannery where he is employed. The industrial town in which the novel is set is vividly and realistically described. In 1935 Dead Man Leading appeared. Its setting--the jungles of Brazil--was more exotic. As in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, there is a symbolic journey motif, and two of the men who make the journey, Philips and Johnson, attempt to find in Wright a father figure.
After 15 years, in 1951, another novel, Mr. Beluncle, appeared. Like Pritchett's own father, Beluncle, the protagonist, is searching for religious fulfillment. Brendan Gill, writing in the New Yorker, admitted that the novel amused, yet he thought it only partially successful because he found it also "forced and cold." In Midnight Oil Pritchett mentions in passing that his father thought that he saw himself in the novel, and the author nowhere denies that the protagonist was based on his father, whose penchant for schemes of easy wealth has already been mentioned. It may be that the objectivity that can be achieved by the lapse of time between actual events and their recollection had not yet been reached.
Certainly Pritchett's biography of the great 19th-century novelist Honoré de Balzac deserves mention. Though Millicent Bell pointed out that in Balzac (1974) he broke no new ground, she found him good at "describing persons and scenes" and considered that he wrote "in a sinewy and witty style." There can be no doubt that his sympathies lie with his subject, and Balzac's lover, Madame Hanska, who might have treated the author more handsomely than she did (though she did fulfill on his deathbed her promise to marry him), comes out a decided second best.
In reviewing his Collected Stories (1982), Valentine Cunningham, who called Pritchett "the best living English author," commented that he was "always on the alert for the illustrative moment," that he turned "human moments into epiphanies," and that he was "celebrating the heroicism of banal life." The last comment rings true, for the lives examined are only seemingly banal and the deep current beneath them is all. Cunningham singled out for special praise "Many Are Disappointed"; however, another superior story, "Blind Love," which deals with a blind man and his housekeeper who hides from the world a disfiguring birthmark that the blind man cannot see, truly illustrates that a rich and turbulent life can exist beneath an outwardly placid, banal one. In 1983 More Collected Stories was published. Both this collection and the earlier one go back many years. A Man of Letters: Selected Essays by Pritchett was published in 1986.
As a literary critic Pritchett was incisive, and in a happy choice of phrase he could lay bare for the reader an author's method of approaching his subject. In The Myth Makers: Literary Essays (1979) he said of Jean Genet that "he proceeds from criminal ritual to the literary without losing his innate interest in violence," and again, "Genet is the natural product of an age of violence, a cult figure for those who feel guilty because they have escaped martyrdom." In his essay on Gustave Flaubert he says of Madame Bovary of his famous novel Madam Bovary: "She is dignified by a real fate--not by a false word 'Fate,' one of the clichés Flaubert derided," and he described Flaubert himself as "her fellow adolescent." Of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's method in One Hundred Years of Solitude, he said that "Marquez seems to be sailing down the blood stream of his people," and spoke of "the slippery comedies and tragedies of daily life" as depicted in that novel.
In an essay on the British writer Henry Yorke, Pritchett called the author "sensitive to that rarity which is buried in people who outwardly might be commonplace," and he went on to say that he thought that Yorke's characters "were living in the imagination and this made him a master of comedy of what can only be called the human underground." These words aptly fit Pritchett's own method and characters.
Pritchett himself preferred his travel books, short stories, and novels to his reviews, but he was wrong to so belittle his talents as a critic, and his critical ability, if anything, grew with the passage of time. Cunningham shared Pritchett's own belief that the short stories he wrote in the 1920s were merely "apprenticeship work" and that he came into his own in the 1930s. At his very best he endowed his stories with an interest and understanding of the human condition that will be felt by readers yet unborn.
Even into his eighties, Pritchett took on an enormous workload, writing reviews nearly full time and publishing his final biography, of Chekhov, in 1988. V.S. Pritchett died in London's Whittingham Hospital on March 21, 1997, at the age of 96.
- For additional information see "V. S. Pritchett" in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1-5 (1975), and Harry Marks, "V. S. Pritchett," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15, Pt. 2 (1983), to which this article is in some part indebted. Brendan Gill, "One Yes, Two Maybes," the New Yorker (October 13, 1951), contains a review of Pritchett's Mr. Beluncle; Millicent Bell, "Balzac Set Forth With Lavish 'Furnishings,"' Sewanee Review 50 (Summer 1974), is a sympathetic review of Balzac; B. L. Reid, "Putting in the Self," Sewanee Review 85 (Spring 1977), deals essentially with A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil and sheds some light on Pritchett's style in autobiography; Valentine Cunningham, "Coping with Bigger Words," Times Literary Supplement (June 25, 1982), provides a review of Pritchett's Collected Stories and deals with his progress as a writer. S. S. Prawer, "The Soul of Brevity," Times Literary Supplement (August 17, 1984), includes a review of Pritchett's The Other Side of the Frontier: A V. S. Pritchett Reader and his Collected Stories and is important for the comments of one first-class writer on the quality and methods of another. Additional works by Pritchett include "An Interview" conducted by Douglass A. Hughes, Studies in Short Fiction 13 (Fall 1976); "Henry Yorke, Henry Green," Twentieth Century Literature 29 (Winter 1983), which appears in an issue devoted to essays on Yorke--Pritchett evaluates the writer's work and in the process tells the reader much about his own literary values and interests.