A Cab at the Door is interesting as an account of the boyhood of a man who has gone on to do solid and admired work as a journalist, short-story writer, novelist, and critic—solid enough to earn for him a knighthood, membership in the Order of the British Empire, and several honorary degrees. What makes this volume most interesting is that, even though V. S. Pritchett had a passable education by the standards of his day and class, he is essentially an autodidact. The reader learns which authors he cut his teeth on: William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, as well as the writers of adventure and schoolboy stories in popular magazines. The young Pritchett took naturally to languages, not Latin but French and German. Most interesting of all is the way Pritchett reacted to his tumultuous family life: He decided at a relatively young age that he had to break with his family and go it alone. Although an author needs experience, Pritchett implies that he needed detachment most of all.
The book is also interesting as a somewhat unconventional picture of English life in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. The usual contrast between north and south in English narratives is that of northern industrial cities with southern upper-class elegance and gentility. For Pritchett, in contrast, the north was small towns and the strictness of dissenting religion; the south was the grubby, dangerous streets and the third-class schools and offices of London—a London unfashionably south of the Thames at that. Other motifs give the book coherence without making it in any sense an essay. Pritchett not only sketches poverty existing side by side with modest affluence but also makes the reader painfully aware (especially in the case of his father) of the thin line between those states, how hard it is to rise, how easy to fall. His parents exemplify an important tension of the times: The easygoing, unambitious, old-fashioned nature of his mother clearly contrasts with the manners, pretensions, and extravagant dreams of his father, a man shaping himself for the new century. Pritchett details the new era’s changes in dress, manners, pastimes, religion, manufactures, and sexual...
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Almost all important English male writers of this era attended a university, or could have done so. Pritchett’s formal education stopped when he was fifteen; he achieved his status by himself. Many of these writers have written personal accounts: J. B. Priestley, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene. Pritchett’s is unique, not only in that it is notably unself-centered and has no ax to grind, but also in that it tells about a truly lower-class life. Unlike George Orwell, Pritchett lived naturally among the poor. His experience enabled him to rival Charles Dickens and Arnold Bennett in some of his lower-class scenes; his rendition of office life resembles those in the early novels of H. G. Wells and in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913).
Although one reviewer called reading this volume a “depressing experience” because Pritchett appeared to say that his “childhood was not worth having,” most critics agree that A Cab at the Door is exceedingly evocative, captivating, and well written. One critic called it “one of the half-dozen autobiographies of our time which are works of art.”