In December of 1900, in lodgings over a toy shop in Ipswich, England, Victor Sawdon Pritchett was born, the first child of Beatrice Martin and Walter Pritchett, who had met in the milliner’s shop where they both worked. The marriage apparently began passionately, three children following quickly after Victor, but because of Walter’s many business misadventures and his conversion to Christian Science, the marriage was soon unsettled and its passion converted to quarrelsomeness. Although the Pritchetts were not shiftless, their household was often shifted about: By the time Pritchett was twelve, the family had moved around London at least fourteen times, usually so that Walter Pritchett could escape creditors, twice to hide his bankruptcy. Beatrice Pritchett lived in constant fear of creditors (once denying her identity on opening the door to an officer attempting to serve a writ) and in outspoken jealousy of the “other women” in her husband’s life—his mother, his business partner (“Miss H”), and Mary Baker Eddy (founder of the Christian Science Church).
Because the family never stayed in one place for long, Pritchett felt that he belonged nowhere, that he was an outsider everywhere but in his own, rather strange, family. In addition to moving with his parents, he was sent at intervals to his grandparents in Yorkshire, an arrangement contrived, apparently, to ease the burden on Walter Pritchett’s purse. New problems complicated their home life from 1910, when in Camberwell, Walter was converted to Christian Science. His conversion brought on quarrels with Beatrice about “that woman” that lasted well into the night, and later his business failed. After a year’s separation, during which time Pritchett formed a vague idea that he would become a painter, Beatrice and the children rejoined Walter in Dulwich, where he had established an art needlework trade with his former bookkeeper, Miss H.
Until he moved to Dulwich, Pritchett had received only sporadic schooling, and then only in rough Methodist and penny-a-day schools, because his father did not trouble himself about the children’s education. Finally, Beatrice grew impatient with Walter’s ruminations over the prospectuses from Eton and Harrow, for which Pritchett would never have qualified because, among other things, he knew no Latin, and she enrolled him in Rosendale Road School. There he was awarded a copy of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1843-1860) for one of his paintings, and there, too, under a man named Bartlett, he read his first literature. He promptly began to read whatever he could find, having decided to become a writer. He became known in the family as “Dirty Poet” and “Professor.”
Two years later, to impress Miss H, his father allowed him to sit for an examination for a scholarship to the Strand School (Streatham), which he failed. Pritchett identifies this failure in A Cab at the Door as a turning point in his life, for he believed that had he won the scholarship, he surely would have continued at a university and died as a writer. Instead, at Miss H’s expense, he entered Alleyn’s School, a London grammar school founded to educate the lower middle classes. There he learned that he was good at languages, and he also enjoyed a few classroom successes with his writing. Around this time, he sprained his ankle, and this accident was the occasion of his first hearing the Christian Science argument from his father. Not long afterward, Pritchett professed his belief in it, probably out of a need to please his father, but his faith seems never to have been very strong. Church provided a social outlet for him, the children otherwise not being allowed to go out.
In 1916, at the instigation of his grandfather, Pritchett was taken from school and put to work as a clerk in a London firm that manufactured leather goods. After fighting with another clerk on the office floor, he was promoted out of the office to learn the other phases of the trade. For four years he commuted into London, so happy with the idea of thoroughly learning a trade that for a while...