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Life with Father

V. S. Pritchett opens the first installment of his autobiography (at least, one hopes that it is only the first installment) by resolutely waiving any claims to a distinguished or even a distinguishable ancestry. “Go back two generations and the names and lives of our forbears vanish into the common grass.” But whatever the Pritchetts may have lacked by way of a pedigree they made up for in depth and tenacity of family involvement. Among the older generation this often took the form of simple stubborn clannishness: there was Pritchett’s Yorkshire grandmother, for instance, passionately wrapped up in the lives of her husband and children, permanently “right vexed” or “disgoosted” with the rest of the world. By the time Pritchett himself was growing up, irritability had given way to wistfulness, and the atmosphere was less embattled, but the sense of having been born into an exclusive sect still persisted as strongly as ever: “We were a race apart, abnormal but proud of our stripes, longing for the normality we saw around us.”

The family counts for almost everything in A Cab at the Door; by comparison, friends, neighbors, and teachers have little more than walk-on parts, and the larger dramas of history and politics scarcely intrude. It is only at the very end of the book that Pritchett (aged nineteen) finally slips free of the parental grip and starts turning himself into a foreigner—literally, by going to live in Paris; figuratively, because looking back he decides that what becoming a writer meant to him was above all choosing the life of an exile, a man on the other side of a frontier.

One speaks of the parental grip, but “paternal grip” would be more accurate. It is the regular fate of mothers to get pushed into the background in their sons’ autobiographies, and certainly Mrs. Walter S. Pritchett, with her gusts of laughter, her lavish corsetry, her sharp cockney chatter trailing off in mid-sentence is far more firmly and distinctly realized than most. Still, for much of the time she remains part of the book’s emotional landscape rather than a character in her own right. It is her husband who dominates the scene, who is felt to be unique—and though the reader may eventually come to suspect that to a large extent the uniqueness probably lay in the eye of the juvenile beholder, a hundred brilliant narrative touches make it easy to recapture the spell which was cast. Pritchett senior is a really masterly piece of portraiture: an expansive young Micawber with a waxed moustache, shuttling his family through innumerable business failures and changes of address, acting out fantasies of the Monte Carlo opulence that is always just around the corner. He has some of the bounce of the new century, and some of its jaunty pathos: there is a hint of Mr. Polly and Uncle Ponderevo, even of Leopold Bloom, about this double-chinned Edwardian salesman, “the genial carver of the commercial rooms, the singer of bits of Kathleen Mavourneen.”

At one point Pritchett remarks that what he chiefly remembers about the Edwardian age is its meanness; but when it comes to it he is equally good at conveying the boisterousness, the jocularity, the conviction that things were beginning to hum. However small—and mean—many of the actual events which he describes, however clear-sighted he is about his father’s failings, there is an unmistakable tone of enjoyment in his running commentary. The cab at the door, waiting to take the Pritchetts to their next temporary lodgings, is at one level a symbol of defeated hopes and insecurity; but it could just as easily be the title of a music-hall song.

Apart from the author’s father, the most striking character in the book is his father, a tough Nonconformist minister who had begun life by enlisting in the artillery, got himself court-martialed, and first taken up preaching while working as an itinerant brick-layer. Reading about this iron-willed old man—a waning force by the time Pritchett knew him, but by no means a spent one I was reminded of a passage in Childhood and Society where Erik Erikson comments on how often the figure of a “strong” grandfather assumes a central role in psycho-analysis: “What these grandfathers have in common is the fact that they were the last representatives of a more homogeneous world, masterly and cruel with good conscience, disciplined and pious without loss of self-esteem.” In some ways, no doubt, the impression of strength is an illusion—every grandfather was once a grandson himself—but the more cultural dislocation has taken place, the more it is likely to tally with the facts. And Pritchett specifically talks of his family as immigrants: his grandfather, a first-generation arrival in the middle class, still retaining the doggedness and self-reliance of his ancestors; his father, turned loose in the new world, excited by its opportunities and over-dramatizing his role in it. There is something rather American about Walt Pritchett; he wouldn’t have been utterly out of place, one feels, in Zenith or Gopher Prairie (and indeed, there was one momentous occasion when he was due to set sail for the States aboard the Mauretania on behalf of his firm, all expenses paid, only characteristically everything fell through at the last minute).

What he exemplifies most clearly, however, is a favorite Pritchett theme: the Nonconformist conscience gone off the rails, the aftermath of puritanism in a world where puritan theology has crumbled. He belonged to a generation which, as Pritchett observes, had exchanged their predecessors’ belief in Great Men—Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ruskin and Carlyle—for a belief in Big Men, multiple grocers and self-made plutocrats. But the thirst for righteousness was not quite so easily slaked, and he kept drifting from one variety of Nonconformism to the next, until finally he came to rest amid the bland doctrines of Christian Science—a conversion which coincided (for the idea of righteousness was inextricably mixed up with the idea of success) with his first taste of genuine prosperity.

He was now his own master, an art needlework manufacturer with offices opposite the Old Bailey; he also blossomed forth, having dropped the democratic “Walt” in favor of his middle name, as Sawdon Pritchett, a name with a fine ring to it, like Rawdon Crawley. Snobbery and the Bible, Pritchett remarks apropos of his grandfather, are dynamic in English life, and the same is no less true in the case of a debased bible like Science and Health. (Pritchett himself, incidentally, became a Christian Scientist for a time during adolescence, after “miraculously” recovering from a sprained ankle—this in spite of the disapproval of his mother, who was a staunch non-believer. His comments on the social ethos of the cult are shrewd and entertaining; they provide a vivid footnote to the chapter on Christian Science à l’anglaise in the English sociologist Bryan Wilson’s admirable study, Sects and Society.)

Righteousness didn’t altogether improve Sawdon Pritchett’s temper. It crushed the gaiety in him, and brought out a stern authoritarian streak. (Symptomatically, he shaved off the waxed moustache.) But for his children there were compensations in the form of widening horizons. They had a permanent home at last, a villa in the pleasant South London suburb of Dulwich. They gradually began to be drawn into the life of the neighborhood. And for the first time going to school started to count for something more than a meaningless chore. Previously the young V. S. Pritchett had been left to fend for himself in Dickensian establishments like St. Matthew’s (C. of E.) where every morning at the rap of the headmaster’s cane two hundred shrill little cockneys yelled out the school hymn—

Loudly old Mathusians rally
At the sound of the reveille

—and then went off to do their sums or learn the dates of the Kings and Queens of England by rote. Now he was sent to the local secondary school, where there was at least one outstanding teacher, an English master called Bartlett with unusually enlightened ideas about teaching literature; and after that to Alleyn’s, one of the best-known grammar schools in London.

Under Bartlett’s influence he began to write, and it seemed natural to dream of literature as a career. But no encouragement was forthcoming at home. His father jeered at his ambitions and grumbled about his ingratitude. There were two particularly unforgivable outbursts, slaps in the face which still sting—one prompted by the discovery that the budding man of letters had a secret hoard of schoolboy comics, tattered copies of the Magnet and the Gem, the other prompted by the discovery that he had got up before breakfast to read Shakespeare, both equally the occasion for sarcasm and humiliation. And then as a final blow Grandfather Pritchett came south on a visit and announced that it was high time that the lad was earning his own keep. His recommendation carried the day; Sawdon knew a man who knew a man who knew about an opening in leather; and so at fifteen Pritchett was taken away from Alleyn’s, given a bowler hat, and sent out to work among the hides and sheepskins in a musty office-cum-warehouse near London Bridge.

In retrospect his years in the leather trade can be seen as a valuable moratorium, a breathing-space which gave him the chance to gather his forces before finally striking out on his own. They also enabled him to store up a fund of experience, the rough-and-tumble experience of the ordinary working world which so many university-bred English writers lack, and to learn more about London, a city which in these pages as on many previous occasions he portrays superlatively well—not so much the imperial Babylon (for that one must go to his splendid and underrated study London Perceived) as the sprawling everyday London of “twenty thousand streets under the sky.” At the time, however, his leather-bound apprenticeship hardly seemed quite such a privilege. The work, once the fascination of mastering its technicalities had worn off, was more and more deadening; the office gossip and the office ribaldry soon lost their charm; contact with occasional well-read businessmen only heightened his unhappy sense of all the masterpieces still waiting to be tackled. “The cry of the autodidact and snob broke out in me in agony: ‘Shall I never catch up?’ ” Meanwhile home was uncomfortable; his father kept sniping at him derisively (“What is in the superior mind of my sentimental son?”), although most of his fire was now concentrated on Pritchett’s younger brother.

Sawdon Pritchett may sound like a case of straightforward jealousy, middle age resenting the rise of the young, but the real trouble, as his son now sees it, was rather different. He was a possessive rather than a domineering father, “one of those fathers who are really mothers.” Harshly disciplined in his own childhood, he invested too much emotion in his family life, and ultimately couldn’t bear to let his children out of his sight. However, if A Cab at the Door closes on an understanding and a forgiving note, it is none the less in large measure the story of a conflict—often muted, often transposed into comedy, but a conflict all the same.

It is instructive to compare it from this point of view with Pritchett’s novel Mr. Beluncle (1951), the story of a small-time furniture manufacturer whose life is a chaotic whirl of self-deluding dreams and stratagems, and who after working his way through a dozen sects, Christian Science among them, has become a member of the Church of the Last Purification (Toronto). The two books naturally differ in many major respects (not least in Pritchett’s father being a very much more likable character than Mr. Beluncle), and one must enter all the usual caveats about comparing real life and fiction too directly; but still in this particular case there is plainly an overlap. If the novel, in spite of all its abundant comic energy, is less satisfying than the memoir, it is chiefly, I think, because Mr. Beluncle is too limited and insulated a character to keep the story going single-handed. Incapable of real development, he is doomed to rotate forever on his own axis. By contrast, A Cab at the Door gains in dramatic power from the tension between father and son, and from the steady underlying rhythm of a life pushing forward and slowly taking shape.

It gains, too, from the reader’s knowledge of where that life led, of the author’s subsequent achievements. Not that it is in any rigorous sense an intellectual autobiography. The authors who helped Pritchett to get started as a writer, as he makes plain, were second raters like Du Maurier and Belloc; the books which captured his adolescent imagination, along with Ruskin and Browning, were such things as J. M. Barrie’s When a Man’s Single and W. J. Locke’s The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne. (A useful reminder, at any rate, of how often good literature grows out of a mush of good, bad, and indifferent.) But at a deeper level one can watch the first tentative stirrings of some of the qualities which distinguish Pritchett’s criticism: the appetite for experience; the curiosity about the borderland between life and books; the tolerant but never lazy or sentimental willingness to settle (as Walt Whitman put it) for “people, just people.” As for those qualities which have yet to reveal themselves in the youthful hero by the time the book closes—the psychological finesse, for instance, or the unerring use of metaphor—they are, of course, everywhere apparent in the actual writing. The whole book, in fact, is as subtle and humane as anyone who knows Pritchett’s other work would expect.

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