Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897
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 attitudes.
The reader of this memoir will search in vain for gossip about the important figures of the time. For one thing, Pritchett did not know any of them. For another, he is reticent. His story is selective. He is like his ancestors, who altered their narratives to make them more aesthetically or morally effective. Not only are there gaps in his chronology, but Pritchett depicts fully only his mother and, most important, his father. The reader is not immediately aware of how large Walter Pritchett is to loom in this narrative; the father is often away from home and once even leaves his family. Walter gradually balloons (literally, for he gains a considerable amount of weight) into the book’s most completely realized character. Pritchett’s portrait of his father—his anxious schemes to get ahead, his touching dreams of grandeur and revenge, his earnest hopes, his odd displays of love for his children, his unflagging energy—suggests that his influence may have been more profound than his son is willing to state directly.
A Cab at the Door was published almost fifty years after Pritchett left London for Paris. In those years, Pritchett came to write a kind of English prose which has been praised by critics as a model of precision, economy, vividness, and informality, and the first volume of his memoirs is no exception. The author deftly and gracefully mixes past and present, foreground and background, detail and generalization; he is relaxed and informal without being garrulous or embarrassingly confidential:In our family, as far as we are concerned, we were born and what happened before that is myth. Go back two generations and the names and lives of our forebears vanish into the common grass. All we could get out of Mother was that her grandfather had once taken a horse to Dublin; and sometimes in my father’s expansive histories, his grandfather had owned trawlers in Hull, but when an abashed regard for fact, uncommon in my father, touched him in his eighties, he told us that this ancestor, a decayed seaman, was last seen gutting herrings at a bench in the fish market of that city.
Pritchett’s generalization here is rooted in visual detail, and he hints at the characters and the social territory which will be important to his story. His style is literary, but not stuffy. It is wise, witty, sympathetic, and unsentimental.
Although Pritchett does not stress the connections between his early years and his later career, the reader of A Cab at the Door can see how the man was formed. He early developed a taste for the rich surface of English life, a taste which helped him to succeed both as a writer of fiction and as a journalist. His youthful travels up and down England taught him how to discriminate among peoples and places, a talent which surfaced later in his travel writings. And his wide reading gave a foundation to his book reviews and critical surveys. Later, the publication of A Cab at the Door when Pritchett was sixty-seven signaled the beginning of his wide recognition. It was almost universally praised, and significant honors followed soon thereafter.