In terms of struggle and development, the life of Alfred Edgar Coppard (KAHP-urd) was, particularly in his early years, an epic in itself. He began in abject poverty, and his rise was circuitous. Born on January 4, 1878, at Folkestone in Kent, England, he was the son of a housemaid, Emily Alma (née Southwell) and George Coppard, a tailor. After the family moved to Brighton, Coppard was educated at the Lewes Hill Boarding School until the age of nine. His father had died of tuberculosis the year before. Coppard later remembered him as a radical young man with a bushy beard who never owned nor could afford an overcoat. This fact was apparently significant, as Coppard himself did not own an overcoat until he was thirty. After the father’s death, the family (Coppard, three sisters, and their mother) was sunk in destitution and was forced to apply for parish relief.
At nine, Coppard was taken out of school to become a wage earner. A year later, he was sent to Whitechapel in London, where he lived with an uncle and served as a shop boy to a trousers maker. From there, he was transferred to a pool of messenger boys at Reuter’s Telegraph Agency. The pay was usual for the period, but it was not enough to take care of the rest of his family; he lived on strict rations. This was a period, however, of growth and novelty amid colorful relatives, both hostile and friendly, and the tumult of the city.
Two years later, Coppard returned to Brighton and hired out as an office boy. From thirteen on, he worked at a number of jobs, meanwhile becoming an avid reader of poetry and continuing what had already become a program of self-education. He appears to have been endowed with extraordinary energy; his enthusiasms were broad as well as precocious. He loved sports, hiking, music, painting, and amateur theatricals. By the time of his early teens, he had started to write poetry, inspired chiefly by John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and John Milton’s “L’Allegro.”
Coppard never returned to school but was employed at various places, including a factory that made soap. In his twenties, he was active in sports; at Chatham and London, he competed in many sprint races. In 1907, with his first wife, he went to live at Oxford. This was a move, Coppard said, that changed his life. He met students and members of the literary crowd, although technically he was an outsider. Nevertheless, in the town of Oxford he was able to participate in the cultural and literary life. He went to free public lectures, given by such notables as Bertrand Russell and William Butler Yeats, and he made the acquaintance of the young Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves, Hugh Walpole, and others. Coppard also became interested in, and attended meetings of, the labor and social democratic movements of the day. When he was forty-one, he took the important and risky step of quitting his job and devoting all of his time to writing.
For three years, he lived alone in a cottage in a field near Oxford. It was the first leisure of his life, and some of his best stories were written there. In 1921, Harold Taylor, of the newly founded Golden Cockerel Press, offered to publish a volume of Coppard’s short stories. This was Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, a critical success which also afforded its author some economic comfort, though at no time was his situation ever one of affluence.
In 1927, Alfred Knopf became his American publisher. Coppard’s stories were winning respect. Later years found him the writer of an extraordinary number of books. He was considered one of the foremost short-story writers in England in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A summit had been reached as far as his artistic attainment went, however, and he lived the rest of his life in relative obscurity. Coppard married twice; his second wife was Winifred May de Kok, of the Orange Free State in Southern Africa. They had a son and a daughter. He could never afford to travel widely, but he took extensive hiking tours throughout England. Many years were spent at Dunmow, his home in Essex, and he died in London on January 13, 1957. Since then, Coppard’s work has experienced a resurgence of popularity as a result of the adaptation of several of his stories for television (they have been seen on Masterpiece Theater). For both his mastery of the short-story form and his sensitive portrayal of English rural life, Coppard is an important figure in the development of the short story as a serious literary form.
In appearance, Coppard was dark and gypsylike, with a rugged kind of outdoor handsomeness. He hated the pretentious, and though he could be a brilliant and arresting conversationalist, there was an undercurrent of reserve, with glints of witty sarcasm. When asked by Who’s Who what his favorite recreation was, the answer he gave was “resting.”
Alfred Edgar Coppard’s remarkable life contributed to his early success. To such an influential editor-writer as Ford Madox Ford, he was a rustic wise man or gypsy, a character out of one of his own dark country stories. Coppard was born into poverty and attended only four years of elementary school in Brighton. His father was a tailor, his mother a housemaid; when his father died young, Coppard had to help the family survive by taking a series of menial jobs. At age twenty-one, he became a clerk in an engineering firm in Brighton, where he remained for seven years, advancing to cashier. As a teenager and young man he walked the English countryside, absorbing its landscapes and the language of country folk he met in roadside taverns, a favorite setting for many of his later tales. He was a fine athlete and even supplemented his income as a successful professional sprinter. He married in 1906 and a year later took a better position as an accountant for an ironworks in Oxford, a position he held for twelve years. During his years in Oxford he read, often in the Bodleian, associated with students, heard and sometimes met such luminaries as Vachel Lindsay, Aldous Huxley, and William Butler Yeats, and, finally, began to write. He also became involved in Socialist politics and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union. Finally, in 1919, having published seven or eight tales in journals such as the Manchester Guardian and a few poems in journals such as The Egoist (edited by T. S. Eliot), he decided to leave his position at the foundry and become a professional writer. On April 1, 1919, at age forty-one, he moved to a small cottage outside Oxford at Shepherd’s Pit, where he lived alone in the woods, becoming aware of “the ignoring docility of the earth” and, finally, publishing his first collection of tales on the second anniversary (Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, 1921) of his new career. His first book was well-received and thrust him into prominence as one of the leading English short-story writers. Over the next thirty years his production of tales, poems, and reviews was steady and of high quality. A second marriage, to Winifred May de Kok in 1931, endured, but his reputation as a short-story writer began to wane in the mid-1930’s; his last collection of tales (1954) was not even reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement. The Collected Tales, however, was a clear success, and the autobiography he completed on the eve of his fatal illness in 1957 is a delight.