The Pritchett Sound


The man of action is never the hero of English letters. Byron will always be understood to have been an orchid, or some Italianate exotic, who required sun and wine and ancient marbles to keep him writing, a circumstance which prevents him from ever entirely being loved by the English. They take their revenge by remembering his good looks better than they remember his good poems. Something similar has happened to Bruce Chatwin, another heliotrope with a well-turned heel whose prose is admired but whose journeys in search of desert configurations and hundred-year-old Chinese eggs to swallow will always, at some level, hold him outside the mahogany parlor of English satisfactions.

I say English very deliberately because the same is not true of Ireland or Scotland or Wales, where Joyce, Stevenson, and Dylan Thomas could be better thought of, in the long run if not immediately, for having planted their feet and their imaginations in foreign places, encountering the social rigors of Trieste, the jungle fevers of Samoa, and even the questionable richness of the American university campus. But there is a tendency with the English to dislike writers who fail to sustain their stay-at-home virtues, who fail, indeed, to devote themselves to the occasionally poetic business of nothing very much happening all the time. A writer like Graham Greene was greatly enjoyed but never deeply loved by the culture that produced him. How could he be, roaming around Africa, Vietnam, and Antibes, and taking too little interest in the daily business of Surrey? Stephen Spender never grasped how much he made himself disliked when he spoke about Spain, and George Orwell, I suspect, was forgiven that particular lapse not so much for having written a good book about the experience as by showing the mettle in his English character by soon after wearing down his shoes on the road to Wigan Pier.

England’s inwardness can be charming (Noël Coward) but it can also be grotesque (Anthony Powell). Taking too deep and unsuspicious an interest in foreign parts has traditionally been understood to constitute a lapse of taste, unless, like E.M. Forster or Apsley Cherry-Garrard—he of The Worst Journey in the World—the writer is seen to carry his fascinating Englishness into all weathers, even into a confrontation with icy death.

To the most grounded English writers, there will always be a corner of every foreign field that is forever England, and if not, then God help the field. In the days before we were war buddies, America used to come in for its fair share of these insults too. Rudyard Kipling went to San Francisco and behaved like any popular English author should if he cares about his popularity: he complained about it not being sufficiently like home. “They delude themselves into the belief that they talk English,” he wrote in his American Notes,

and I have already been pitied for speaking with “an English Accent.” The man who pitied me spoke, so far as I was concerned, the language of thieves. And they all do. Where we put the accent forward, they throw it back, and vice versa; where we use the long a, they use the short; and words so simple as to be past mistaking, they pronounce somewhere up in the dome of their heads…. The American has no language. He is dialect, slang, provincialism, accent, and so forth. Now that I have heard their voices, all the beauty of Bret Harte is being ruined for me, because I find myself catching through the roll of his rhythmical prose the cadence of his peculiar fatherland.

V.S. Pritchett was a traveler too, and some of his most deeply invested writing is about other places and what they can do to you. “New York,” he wrote,

is never sad. It has hardened the human shell. It offers that dramatic, rhapsodic self-consciousness which sets the American tone. It instills the spirit of the tallest of the tall stories.

In South America:

We are standing only a mile or two from the huge red maw of the greatest river in the world. It has been a journey through superlatives of size, through all that Nature is capable of in mountain heights, river, jungle, desert and plain. What can we compare with those thousands of miles over the Peruvian desert or the Andes, or over the jungle of Brazil? What was mere romance to us has now become real memory.

The journey toward real memory might be seen to have been an important one for Pritchett, yet he was devoid of the English tendency to take an interest in foreign places mainly for their un-Englishness: he enjoyed particularities for their own sake, the deft, colorful business of places and people stewing in their own specificity. He wrote amazing narratives about Spain, where he worked as a reporter, and he wrote them early, clearing out before the Spender fraternity arrived with their hats, their whistles, their notebooks from Smythson of Bond Street, imagining that Spanish intellectuals were, as Pritchett scoffed, “an Iberian branch of the Fabian Society.”

From an early point, Pritchett had the great writer’s propensity to turn the inward gaze on exterior matters, relishing the texture of experience as it unfolded in his head and in the world outside his head, and he was able to examine nationalist sicknesses without rhetoric. As a nonfiction writer, Pritchett found a way to share his puzzles with the readers, as opposed to sharing his abject certainties. “Sombreness is so much the dominant aspect of these people,” he writes in The Spanish Temper, “that one is puzzled to know how the notion of a romantic and coloured Spain has come about.”

In the bones of his style, however, and despite his travels, Pritchett was a stay-at-home. He is loved for that reason, seeming to meet the requirement for an English Proust, a writer who can let domestic and social worlds speak inside their own dowdy parameters, allowing characters to live their small lives rather largely and rather powerfully, determined only by their unbreakable habits and modes of talk. “Nothing continues to happen to me,” he wrote in his early fifties, and nothing continued to happen to Pritchett during the entire near-century through which he lived. Except writing, of course, writing happened, and Pritchett’s work not only defined a style of implication and understatement, much admired by readers of this paper for almost twenty-five years, but his fiction offers a portrait of a class of people, the “lower-middle-class,” with their soaps and bus fares and hopes of improvement, a portrait that bears the hallmark of his genius.

Jeremy Treglown’s captivating and intelligent biography lets you know that those hopes were sometimes Pritchett’s too, and it shows how the material of his life—his father, his childhood, his marriages, his plain domestic routines—made his life like that of any number of the best characters in his writing: solid and gray and true, filled with the hope that springs eternal, the demands that drive one mad, and the small outbursts of recognition that give shape to the average life.

Yet it is the work that dominates. I remember wondering what it would mean to have a biography of Pritchett: how do you fillet a book out of all those working afternoons, those marked galleys, those uniform hours and small memories and cups of tea? Treglown shows how. He already demonstrated, in his previous book on Henry Green, a great feeling for the tone and the character of that period in English letters, and his curiosity is gifted when it comes to establishing the real matter of a life such as Pritchett’s, the matter of his prose. If one is to follow Nabokov and say that the only biography of a writer that matters is the biography of his style, then Treglown’s book will be seen to have achieved everything, for it captures most definitely the essence of the Pritchett sound.

A Cab at the Door, the first volume of Pritchett’s autobiography, energizes the moribund in a spectacularly individual way. Only Pritchett, perhaps, could summon an entire world via a quick and comic description of his grandmother doing her washing:

Grandma always kept her white hair in curlers until a late hour in the afternoon, when she changed into one of her spotted blue dresses. The only day on which she looked less than neat was Monday. On this terrible day she pinned a man’s cloth cap to her hair, kirtled a rough skirt above her knees, put on a pair of wooden clogs and went out to the scullery to start the great weekly wash of sheets, pillowcases, towels, tablecloths and clothes. They were first boiled in a copper, then she moved out to a washtub by the pump in the cobbled yard and she turned the linen round and round with the three-legged wooden “dolly”—as tall as myself—every so often remarking for her neighbours to hear that her linen was of better quality, better washed, whiter and cleaner than the linen of any other woman in the town; that the sight of her washing hanging on the line—where my grandfather had to peg and prop it—would shame the rest of the world and the final ironing be a blow to all rivals. The house smelled of suds and ironing. Her clogs clattered in the yard. But, sharp at five o’clock she sat changed as usual and sat down to read the British Weekly.

The tang of such Mondays also happens to be the tug of Pritchett’s prose: there is a quality of self-watching in everything he sees. Treglown, however, uses early drafts and fresh interviews to show that Pritchett was given to exaggerating the family traits to suit his grayer purpose, especially when it came to his portraits of his mother and his father, Walter, a Christian Scientist, “light in his handmade shoes,” whose bankruptcies and scams were used again and again by Pritchett to stress his father’s existence as a colorful grotesque. But to Oliver, the writer’s son, Walter had seemed “absolutely the epitome of virtue and uprightness.” Treglown goes on:

By this, Oliver wasn’t…implying that Victor’s version wasn’t true. Yet—if only in emphasis and degree—there was a subjective element in it. Oliver’s sister Josephine remembered her Pritchett grandparents as much more ordinary than in her father’s versions. The idea that Beatrice [VSP’s mother] was downtrodden, so vehement in Pritchett’s many accounts of her, didn’t fit Josephine’s recollection: “No, I remember her as being a sweet, funny old lady who liked to laugh.” And Victor’s younger brother Gordon felt strongly that the writer had exaggerated their mother’s vulnerability and, with it, their father’s faults.

Coming to a fair assessment of Walter’s life was a constant job of work for Pritchett; it was, perhaps, his central business as a memoirist and a novelist, though other sorts of love began to inform the tender meanderings of his short stories. The news that Pritchett was very interested in sex makes one feel curiously like a Pritchett character—embarrassed, twitchy, alarmed, fearing accusations of prurience and unchecked emotion. Yet the journey from wife number one to wife number two, from Evelyn Vigors to the long-lasting Dorothy, is a story of sexual success flowering from the soils of estrangement. “Writing about the happiness he had found with his second wife,” says Treglown,

he said that previously “I had known only sexual misery and frustration…. What a monstrous egotism to accept with a sort of tortured complacency…that sexual misery of my first marriage.”

Pritchett was writing a lot in the early 1920s for the Christian Science Monitor and Evelyn worked at their offices in Dublin. She came from two posh, Anglo-Irish families, the kind that were being supplanted at the time she met Victor. His novel Clare Drummer is full of them, their frustrations and their disempowerment, which mirrored some of his feelings about the terrible marriage to Evelyn. Treglown unearths a section deleted from Midnight Oil, Pritchett’s second autobiography, just before it was published. “Among my difficulties,” wrote Pritchett,

was that the Major, her father… could not bear the sight of me. It was bad enough for him that his daughter insisted on earning her living; it was intolerable that she brought this “nasty little London clerk” to his flat off Merrion Square.

Evelyn was the kind of wife who wasn’t built to live with a writer; her dissatisfactions ruined his confidence and she puzzled him. “Clever,” writes Treglown,

alert to current psychological fashions, but constitutionally imperious, muddled, and unhappy, she saw herself as rebelling against her background and boasted to Victor that she had once bitten her father’s hand (“Very proud of this,” he later noted disenchantedly).

In his story “Sense of Humour,” Muriel, an Irish girl working in a hotel, begins her relationship with a traveling salesman called Mr. Humphrey by laughing at the fact that his father is an undertaker. Then her boyfriend turns up out of the rain with his hair sticking up—“he’d been economizing on the brilliantine”—and she gets rid of him and goes to the cinema with Humphrey. The guy with the hair, Colin, works in the local garage and he begins following the couple around on his motorbike until Humphrey tells him to quit it. “She was my girl,” is all Colin says, then he fails to fix Humphrey’s car and forces him to take the girlfriend by train when the couple go to see Humphrey’s parents. Pritchett achieves all this without a single strained comma. When they reach the house of the parents, every line of dialogue is a little miracle:

How’s business with you, Mr Humphrey?” said Muriel. “We passed a large cemetery near the station.”

Dad’s Ledger,” I said.

The whole business has changed so that you wouldn’t know it, in my lifetime,” said my father. “Silver fittings have gone clean out. Everyone wants simplicity nowadays. Restraint. Dignity,” my father said.

Prices did it,” my father said.

The war,” he said.

You couldn’t get the wood,” he said.

Take ordinary mahogany, just an ordinary piece of mahogany. Or teak,” he said. “Take teak. Or walnut.”

You can certainly see the world go by in this room,” I said to my mother.

It never stops,” she said.

The father’s words are laid out by Pritchett in such a way that the pauses are almost vocal; somehow, quite magically, you feel the years of experience behind each phrase and there’s no escaping the force of the man. Pritchett took what he needed from his own life, as all writers must, but his revelations never seem pre-ordered or called down from a list of grievances, so that when something terrible happens in the story, as it does, its shockingness just comes as part of the quiet shockingness of life in general. Colin dies on the road and Muriel is very upset, but what one remembers is the reaction of Humphrey, the mild-mannered narrator, the undertaker’s son. “Holiday ruined,” he says. Then he discovers that an opportunity may lie behind the heartbreak of others:

This Colin thing seemed to have knocked the bottom out of everything and I had a funny feeling we were going down and down and down in a lift. And the further we went the hotter and softer she got. Perhaps it was when I found with my hands that she had very big breasts. But it was like being on the mail steamer and feeling engines start under your feet, thumping louder and louder. You can feel it in every vein of your body. Her mouth opened and her tears dried. Her breath came through her open mouth and her voice was blind and husky. Colin, Colin, Colin, she said, and her fingers were hooked into me.

The delicate quality of these stories eventually made Pritchett a great favorite of The New Yorker (William Shawn sent him a “momentous ham” by way of thanks for his first piece) but the toughness of the stories may reside in a very English notion of endurance beyond sadness. “The development of Pritchett’s aesthetic,” writes Treglown,

in his fiction and also in his accounts of others’ work, is in more than one sense the story of his life…. He had every artist’s fear that his gifts were under threat.

That threat receded with the growth of his second marriage, to Dorothy, a woman who helped him through all the upheavals and bereavements of life, who typed his books, and who gave him two children. Dorothy was an alcoholic in her early days, and we are bound to see his self-absorption as a kind of spur to that, but their letters are full of sex and exuberance, and eventually a balance was struck, Dorothy gave up drink, and Pritchett moved toward the creative contentment he needed. There would always be hiccups, though: Pritchett had a rather Victorian attitude toward the role of the literary wife, never taking enough account of Dorothy’s own ambition and anxieties. “Pregnancy & the subsequent feeding is a terrible time,” he wrote, “and I shall be glad when Dorothy & I can begin again to have some life together.”

The point was about work. The point was always about work. Pritchett was the sort of writer who became ill if he did not get on with his tasks; he became a wretch and a bore, or, as he said himself, “just a factory turning out anxieties.” He found fatherhood a struggle in that regard. There is a picture he drew on the eve of the Second World War, when Dorothy was pregnant for the second time. The picture is captioned “Guilty, or The Perfect Husband” and shows Pritchett writing a biography with one foot, letters with the other, reviews with his right hand, a novel with his left, while nappies and books pile up on ledges on his shoulders, a clock ticks away on his chest, and a halo glows on his bespectacled head. “She worked harder than ever when she became famous,” he wrote of Virginia Woolf, “as gifted writers do—what else is there to do but write?”


Pritchett wasn’t just a writer, he was a Man of Letters, someone who applied himself to the business of using his literary talent in whatever way opportunity and time presented, and he was never shy of making it pay him a living wage. He enjoyed this, and Jeremy Treglown is able powerfully to convey the scent of literary magazine offices and corridors at the BBC, places once filled with ambitious young men in knitted ties who smoked pipes and had affairs between “pieces,” scuttling from typewriter to Lyons Corner teashop to a half-pint at some rowdy bar, outraged by this or that article in that week’s New Statesman. As contributor, book writer, and as editor, as lover and social drinker, Pritchett negotiated these demands with spectacular aplomb, making his work a barrier against all emerging troubles. “I get a curious masochistic and nonconformist pleasure out of excessive work,” he wrote, “and especially out of work of the wrong kind. I get a cussed kick out of earning my living; and the artist in me is in perpetual harangue with the tradesman.”

If Henry Green’s was a slightly foreshortened, timid, somewhat eclipsed life, Pritchett’s seems a triumph of steady application and slowly burning happiness. So often his work is about taking and not taking things for granted, and you get the feeling that Pritchett’s achievement was never entirely sure in his own mind, another uncertainty he may have owed to his father. (Treglown: “Poets were dirty, the fastidious man said, and dirty men always got the sack.”) But Pritchett was not the kind of person who would allow himself to get the sack. He worked, always, as if there was no tomorrow, and he exercised literary judgment in the same way that some people manage money, looking after the sentences in the way that canny people look after the pennies, spending them wisely, knowing the pounds will look after themselves. He showed no great anxiety about posterity: he was too busy, he always had a piece to write, and posterity likes him for it, seeing Pritchett as very English in the excellence and flow of his chatter.

There certainly was something of the clerk about Pritchett, he loved to clock-on and he loved to shuffle pages, but he was also literary to the end of his fingertips, even if some of them were encased in rubber thimbles. He knew his way around an office and was, for a time, the literary editor of the New Statesman, a job he couldn’t do with much skill or imagination, being too disorganized. “He found it particularly hard to choose reviewers,” writes Treglown, “saying he thought everyone was either too good or not good enough.” But one of the biography’s funniest moments arrives with the account of Pritchett’s inability to cope with the pressure that comes occasionally to bear on a literary editor. Edith Sitwell, it turns out, was quite furious at a very critical review written by Giles Romilly of the Collected Poems of Lilian Bowes-Lyon. “Rarely,” writes Treglown, “can the work of an English poet have been defended in a way to which the word ‘clinical’ seems so literally apt.” “Both this unhappy lady’s legs have had to be amputated,” Sitwell wrote,

after a year or more of intense agony. She is now in agony with both arms.

Her terrible fate is the result of a kick received from a hysterical woman in an air-raid, while Miss Bowes-Lyon was living in the slums in order to work among the people.

I am glad to hear that Mr Romilly was unaware of this…. But under the circumstances, the terms “blanched mash,” “bloodless” etc. have, and I think naturally, outraged those who know the circumstances.

Office life didn’t agree with him after all, though he writes, “with relish,” as Treglown notes, to his friend Gerald Brenan about the amatory messes that could gather around an English magazine of the period:

Reviewer No 1 who wants only what other people have got, takes Reviewer No 2’s girl from him. Reviewer No 2 goes for consolation to see Reviewer No 3. He, upset by the sadness of his friend, invites him into bed with his wife. Reviewer No 3’s wife now leaves [for] Reviewer No 2. Reviewer No 1 deeply shocked, gets married quickly. The rest are left to argue it all out, day & night, on sacred Existentialist principles.

It is difficult not to conclude that Pritchett’s novels were never quite right. He almost wanted too much from them too quickly, and even his very good characters, like the eponymous Mr Beluncle, seem in a sense to expire before they have been allowed properly to breath through the pages. Pritchett himself knew that his novels lacked oxygen, saying that his mind “consumes too many ideas & scenes & people and could rush through them all in one fierce fizzing gorse blaze, leaving me with the ashes of people.” In any event, Mr Beluncle, written over forty years before he died, was to be his last novel, and it is the short stories and essays that live. In those shorter forms, Pritchett was able to maintain a very striking sort of carefulness, the sort which is at its best when noticing carefulness in others.

To me, this explains his excellence as a critic. It was his imagination that could see how imaginative Dickens was—and see “his strongest and fiercest sense: isolation”—and his own artistic demands for particularity that could understand the special particulars of Saul Bellow, “his spreading carnivals.” But something he said about Bellow must also be said of him:

I…think he is finer in his shorter works. The Victim was the best novel to come out of America—or England—for a decade. The Dangling Man is good, but subdued; Seize the Day is a small grey masterpiece. If one cuts out the end, Henderson the Rain King is at once profound and richly diverting in its fantasy. These novels had form; their economy drove their point home.

Pritchett was the king of economy. He wrote a great deal, he may at times have written too much, yet he never wasted words. (Even in his putdowns he drove directly to the pump. On Lionel Trilling: “a quiet Herbert Readish fellow, with a whining, martyred wife with all psycho-analysis popping out of her harrowed eyes.”) He gave no more of himself to life than he did to his writing, which some people might consider a fault, and some biographers too, but the chief property of Treglown’s book lies in its attempt to comprehend Pritchett as what he managed to be, as an artist, which is the right call, for nothing in Pritchett’s life counted outside of the work he did, and his nature is inscribed in those places where writing and reading converge.

In their house in Camden Town, Victor and Dorothy Pritchett worked out how to do their work and live happily, every day enjoying the same routine of breakfasting and writing and bathing and typing. “Self-effacement was among Pritchett’s professional tools as a writer,” we are told. And that is it, I think: the tremendous zest, the “not-unhappiness” as Philip Toynbee called it, the sense Pritchett had all his career of never having been cheated and never feeling entirely pleased with himself either. If that was the balance of his life, it is also the balance of his stories. “In the end,” writes Treglown, “he knew that happiness is as arbitrary and gratuitous as a sense of humour.” If the phrase “sense of humour” hadn’t already given itself as a title to the story of Muriel and the undertaker’s son mentioned above, it would serve well enough as the heading over just about everything Pritchett ever wrote.