V. S. Pritchett (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
V. S. Pritchett, routinely referred to by his initials, VSP, was probably considered the foremost literary essayist of his generation, was certainly one of its most celebrated writers of short fiction, and was unquestionably one of the busiest authors of the twentieth century. His range was extensive. At one time or another he wrote novels, short stories, travel books and articles, book reviews, translations, both brief and lengthy literary essays on a wide range of subjects, several volumes of biography and autobiography, journalism, and even turned his hand at film, both wartime propaganda and features. He married twice, fathered two children, had many affairs, traveled extensively, won many awards, and generally received the praise of his colleagues.
Victor Sawton Pritchett was born in 1900 into a lower-middle-class English family. His parents’ families were both socially mixed. His paternal grandfather was a congregational minister, his maternal grandfather a stable boy and his wife a barmaid. The family moved frequently, often just ahead of the bailiffs, as VSP’s Micawber-like father, Walter, who was chronically broke and in and out of bankruptcy all of his life, searched for suitable employment. Author Jeremy Treglown remarks that Walter proved to be a model for several of his son’s best fictional characters. In spite of their rocky beginnings, all of VSP’s siblings turned out well. Cyril became a woman’s clothing buyer, Kathleen was a ceramicist and married a printer for the Bank of England, and Gordon also made a success in the clothing trade. Both of his brothers served in the military during World War II.
VSP’s schooling was often disrupted by the family’s frequent moves, but he eventually ended up in Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, where he developed his proficiency in foreign languages. He was forced to leave school at sixteen by his father and went to work sorting skins on the London docks. He later would remark that he was lucky to have avoided the middle-class treadmill. Born at the turn of the twentieth century, VSP’s childhood was thoroughly Edwardian, a sensibility that influenced his subsequent literary career in many ways. It was the world of H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy, the inheritors of the great Victorian literary institutions. Although VSP later wrote about the modernists who came after, his own fiction was firmly grounded in the older tradition.
Even though VSP had rejected the Christian Science of his father, it was in The Christian Science Monitor that his earliest writing appeared. After having had to maintain a day job, even working in a photographer’s studio while living for two years in Paris, it was a relief finally to be able to pay the bills, even if only just, through the sole efforts of his pen. Early in 1923 the newspaper sent VSP to Ireland as a correspondent, where he met and later married his first wife, Evelyn, a marriage that would cause him a great deal of personal pain and would end in a bitter divorce. Despite the unpleasantness, Ireland proved to be a lasting source of material, especially for his short fiction and even later a travel book, Dublin: A Portrait (1967).
Immediately after their marriage in early January, 1924, the Pritchetts set off for Spain, sent by the Monitor, where VSP covered the political events following the recent coup. Then they traveled to the United States and Canada, and to Spain again, Sicily, and southern Italy, and finally back to Ireland. All the while VSP collected impressions, honed his prose style, and savored the atmosphere of these foreign places that would show up in his later works of fiction and travel pieces. His first book, Marching Spain (1928), came out of these early travels. Their peripatetic life did much to feed his wanderlust, a feature of his life until his old age. Although his marriage was falling apart, being constantly on the move agreed with him, and it proved useful to his growing output of fiction, novels as well as short stories. Clare Drummer appeared in 1929, The Spanish Virgin, and Other Stories in 1930, and a second novel, Shirley Sanz, in 1932. He also kept up a consistent stream of articles and journalism.
Through the late 1920’s the Monitor remained his chief source of consistent income, but VSP reviewed extensively for the New Statesman, the Spectator, and the Fortnightly Review and was doing some translating for pennies a word. He also published some ten stories between 1930 and 1932. This substantial output established his career, but much of this early work VSP later disavowed.
Treglown points out that VSP never really became a “Spanish Civil War Writer” like so many of his contemporaries, but his knowledge of the people and typography of Spain made him sought-after to cover the events there during the conflict. In 1935 he was sent by the Fortnightly Review as a correspondent and reported on not only the war but also on the effect it was having on the people in, for its time, a fairly balanced way. Treglown’s remark about his not becoming...
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