A Cab at the Door by V. S. Pritchett

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In this, the first volume of his memoirs, V. S. Pritchett—novelist, short-story writer, travel writer, critic, and essayist—recounts the first twenty years of his life, which coincided with the opening years of the twentieth century. Further installments are Midnight Oil (1971) and The Turn of the Years (1982).

Pritchett spent these years in England. He was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, the eldest son of a family teetering between the lower and the lower-middle class. Pritchett’s father had escaped from his own father, a fierce Yorkshire Congregationalist minister only one generation away from the fishing boats of Hull, to become a representative of his day, a salesman. Vain, doggedly hopeful, and tireless, Walter Pritchett failed at one enterprise after another as Victor grew up. (The cab of the book’s title is one of the vehicles which periodically enabled him to escape his creditors.) Walter’s enthusiasms were spiritual and imaginative as well as material. He tortured his family with his devotion to Christian Science; he responded to London not as a real city but as a world of fantasy. He once dressed as a yachtsman and then as an aristocratic fisherman; his reports from the provinces were filled with tales of royal hotels and splendid restaurants. Eventually he was tamed by life; he became severe and moderately successful, at least as far as this first volume of Pritchett’s memoirs progresses.

Pritchett’s mother was quite different: A slatternly, sexy, devious, free-spirited North London Cockney, she was a woman more in tune with the old century than the new. She was moody, unkempt, and given to bathroom humor, but lovable and loving. She told wonderfully suggestive stories, but was notoriously bad at cooking and sewing; Pritchett’s trousers, for example, were made from his father’s clothes or old curtains and often were insecurely basted together. She was jealous, too. Pritchett and his brother overheard many of their parents’ loud quarrels about “that woman”—who could have been Walter’s bookkeeper, but who usually proved to be the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy.

Pritchett’s account of his first eleven years is one of constant change, mainly from one district of London to another— some suburban and pleasant, some central and dangerous. Change also came in the form of periodic stays with relations in Yorkshire and Suffolk while his father got back on his feet. Here the grandfather’s strict and puritanical influence began to tell; Pritchett’s character was to take on a certain stubborn strain. Pritchett says little about his education during these years because he received little, but he says much about the ordinary trials and pleasures of growing up. He and his brother were close; he liked the Yorkshire countryside and the calm life there, yet he participated with gusto in the knockabout existence of the London poor.

When Pritchett was ten, important changes began. The old king died, and war came closer; the family fortunes took a swing for the better; his puberty arrived; his education improved. Walter Pritchett became a manufacturer of needlework, and the family moved to Dulwich, a pleasant South London district. At school, Pritchett himself was finally blessed by an inspiring and imaginative teacher. Soon he dreamed of becoming a writer; he read voraciously—everything from pulp magazines to John Ruskin and William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837-1839) thrilled him. When he moved to a better school, he unfortunately found that he was good only at learning languages and writing stories. His first...

(The entire section is 900 words.)