For the greater part of the 20th century V.S.Pritchett almost singlehandedly preserved the tradition of the English man of letters. A professional writer, Pritchett composed successful travel books, autobiographies, and biographies, but he is best known for his short stories and for his literary essays, which have appeared, primarily in the New Statesman, since 1926.
Pritchett’s literary essays are not those of a rigorous academic critic, and his ideas reflect no philosophical or literary dogma. They are the informal literary reflections of a widely read and intelligent “common reader,” for whom each book is a new experience requiring an individual response, one that usually involves summary, description, and evaluation. Although Pritchett’s criticism is eclectic, certain broad themes underlie much of it.
One of Pritchett’s principal concerns is the historical aspect of books and their authors.
Believing that “one of the obligations of the critic is to possess himself of the eyes with which a novelist’s contemporaries read him” (“The Shocking Surgeon,” 1946), Pritchett often begins an essay by describing a scene representative of a book or an author, as in a stagecoach ride ending in crash and chaos to introduce the scientific romances of H.G.Wells (“The Scientific Romances,” 1946) or his long, novelistic description of London’s East End as a foreign city to introduce the work of Arthur Morrison (“An East End Novelist,” 1946). The other aspect of Pritchett’s historical approach is his belief that the relevance of older works to contemporary readers should be stressed. In his preface to In My Good Books (1942) Pritchett emphasizes that the best works of fiction “are those in which the cries of an age are like echoes of our own… We hold up the crystal sphere; we see ourselves in miniature reflection and, perhaps, if our minds are not too literal, we may also see our future.” Thus in an essay on Fielding’s Jonathan Wild Pritchett finds the mock biography “the perfect medicine for the present time” because it treats contemporary subjects, while in novels “the news is already absorbed and digested. We see our situation at a manageable remove” (“An Anatomy of Greatness,” 1942).
Literature, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, is news that stays news, so that “Tyranny abroad, corruption at home—that recurrent theme of the eighteenth-century satirists who were confronted by absolute monarchy and the hunt for places—is our own.”
Another common Pritchett approach is the biographical. Many of Pritchett’s essays are reviews of literary biographies, and he uses these works as a springboard to discuss the subject’s background and surroundings that influence the writing. For Pritchett the “death of the author” has not occurred, and when useful he will discuss Eugène François Vidocq’s flamboyant life as a criminal and policeman, Thomas Day’s personality as that of “a crank who is the guide to all cranks, the pattern of the tribe” (“The Crank,” 1946), or the effects of Synge’s and Joyce’s respective return to and escape from Ireland, as necessary to a full understanding of their work. For Pritchett the living novel, as he titled one of his collections, is written by living writers.
A third avenue of Pritchett’s criticism is more technical. A notable writer of novels and short stories himself, Pritchett can knowledgeably and effectively comment on certain literary aspects of a writer’s art with professional insight. In his discussion of Sons and Lovers, for instance, Pritchett defines Lawrence’s originality as the ability to write “from within—from inside the man, the woman, the tree, the fox, the mine” (“Sons and Lovers,” 1946). Lawrence’s characters and settings are “grasped with both hands, with mind and senses. The impersonal novelist has gone…the people, the trees, the mines, the fields, the kitchens come physically upon the page.”
These brief insights, rather than sustained criticism, are the most notable and valuable aspects of Pritchett’s literary essays, and such insights can be found almost at random in them. Pritchett provides the germ of an idea in brief, provocative statements, for instance that Sheridan Le Fanu “might be described as the Simenon of the peculiar” (“An Irish Ghost,” 1946), that for the lower middle class life as described in The Diary of a Nobody, “Reality was the joke, its awful, dreary grayness” (“The Nobodies,” 1942), or that The Ring and the Book is not an epic poem but “a great Victorian novel, or, more accurately, the child of a misalliance between poetry and the novel” (“A Victorian Misalliance,” 1942). Pritchett then briefly discusses the idea but pays his readers the compliment of assuming that they can pursue such considerations for themselves.
A final aspect of Pritchett’s criticism is its enormous range and inclusiveness.
Pritchett’s literary essays include discussions of the literature of many countries, not just England, and like his near contemporary Virginia Woolf he is as interested in the cranks, iconoclasts, and eccentrics of literature as he is in its major figures. In Pritchett’s work a Peacock, Le Fanu, Jerome, or Perelman is responded to as readily and intelligently as a Joyce or Mann.
This wide range of literary interests, together with his concern with literary biography and his relatively simple style, may make Pritchett seem a rather old-fashioned figure in an era dominated by scholarly approaches and sometimes arcane literary theory, and like his nearest American equivalent Edmund Wilson, Pritchett has not always appealed to the academic specialist. However, he did not write for the academic specialist, but for the nonspecialist intelligent reader, and those readers who persevere through the enormous volume of Pritchett’s Complete Collected Essays (1990) will acquire, in a highly informative and entertaining way, a broad knowledge of both the major and the minor currents of world literature.
Victor Sawdon Pritchett. Born 16 December 1900 in Ipswich, Suffolk. Studied at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, London. Worked in the leather trade in London, 1916–20, and in various trades in Paris, 1920–32. Correspondent for the Boston Christian Science Monitor in Ireland and Spain, 1923–26; critic, from 1926, and director, 1946–78, New Statesman, London. Married Dorothy Rudge Roberts, 1936: one son and one daughter.
Held lectureships and visiting professor and writer-in-residence posts at various American universities as well as at Cambridge University, 1953–81. President, PEN English Centre, 1970, International PEN, 1974–76, and Society of Authors, from 1977.
Elected Fellow, 1969, and Companion of Literature, 1987, Royal Society of Literature.
Knighted, 1975. Awards: Heinemann Award, 1969; PEN Award, 1974; W.H.Smith
Award, 1990; Silver Pen Award, 1990; honorary degrees from four universities.
Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE), 1968. Died in London, 21 March 1997.
Essays and Related Prose
In My Good Books, 1942
The Living Novel, 1946; revised, enlarged edition, 1964
Books in General, 1953
The Working Novelist, 1965
George Meredith and English Comedy (Clark lectures), 1970
The Myth Makers: Essays on European, Russian, and South American Novelists, 1979
The Tale Bearers: Essays on English, American, and Other Writers, 1980
A Man of Letters: Selected Essays, 1985
At Home and Abroad, 1989
Lasting Impressions: Selected Essays, 1990; as Lasting Impressions: Essays, 1961–1987, 1990
The Complete Essays, 1991; as Complete Collected Essays, 1991
Other writings: five novels (Clare Drummer, 1929; Shirley Sanz, 1932 [published in the U.S. as Elopement into Exile]; Nothing like Leather, 1935; Dead Man Leading, 1937;
Mr.Beluncle, 1951), many volumes of short stories, two volumes of autobiography, and books on travel and literary criticism.
Baldwin, Dean R., V.S.Pritchett, Boston: Twayne, 1987
Borkland, Elmer, “V.S.Pritchett,” in his Contemporary Literary Critics, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, revised edition, 1982:452–57 (original edition, 1977)
Kermode, Frank, “Books in General,” New Statesman and Nation, 19 March 1965:455– 56
Lewis, Peter, “Loner with a Master’s Touch,” Daily Telegraph, 14 December 1980:21
Marcus, Stephen, “An Ideal Critic,” New York Review of Books, 8 October 1964:12–15
Marks, Harry S., “V.S.Pritchett,” in British Novelists, 1930–1959, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 15, part 2, Detroit: Gale Research, 1983:464–71
Maxwell, William, “The Two Merlins,” The New Yorker, 29 August 1970:77–78
Vidal, Gore, “Secrets of the Shell,” New York Review of Books, 28 June 1979:6–7
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