John le Carré Biography

Biography

John le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell on October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorset, England, the son of Ronald Thomas Archibald Cornwell and Olive Glassy Cornwell. His father was an extravagant businessman who ran for Parliament as a Liberal, and as A Perfect Spy (1986), le Carré’s most autobiographical novel, makes clear, he was also a confidence trickster who went to prison for fraud. Because his parents divorced when he was five, young David experienced no consistent family life: He did not see his mother from the time he began school until he was twenty-one. “I think a great part of one’s adult life,” he has said, “is concerned with getting even for the slights one suffered as a child.”

The lonely little boy sought an outlet for his frustrations in writing. Although his literary efforts were discouraged at Sherborne School in Dorset, Cornwell won the school’s prize for English verse. He attended Berne University in Switzerland for a year and served in the Army Intelligence Corps in Vienna before reading German at Lincoln College, Oxford University. He married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp in 1954 and received a first-class honors degree from Oxford University in 1956. After teaching for two dismal years at Eton College and trying unsuccessfully to become a freelance illustrator of children’s books, he found a position in the Foreign Service in 1959.

While commuting by train from Buckinghamshire to the Foreign...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Biography

John le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell, the son of Ronald and Olive (Glassy) Cornwell, on October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorset, England, “in a mouldering, artless house with a ’for sale’ notice in the garden.” He went to Sherborne School—where the 1939 film adaptation of James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) was filmed—but did not like Sherborne and attempted to run away. “I was not educated at all,” le Carré states in a 1977 essay titled “In England Now,” in which he speaks of his school as a prison. He spent much of his time “planning escapes across moonlit playing fields,” thereby finding release from “those huge and lonely dormitories.” He remembers the severity of the school crystallized in his being “sprawled inelegantly over the arm of the headmaster’s small chair” to smart under blows from a small riding whip. Since young le Carré’s father seldom paid the school fees, he was singled out even more for punishment. He was struck by the hand as well as whipped, and le Carré attributes his “partial deafness in one ear to a Mr. Farnsworth,” a teacher in school at that time. The school atmosphere was violent: Rugby wars were fought “almost literally to death,” boxing was a religious obligation, and instructors drummed into their pupils the notion that “to die in battle” was the highest achievement to which they could aspire.

Le Carré’s father was determined to make his two sons grow up independent, so he sent them to schools thirty miles apart. Young David and his brother Tony, two years his senior, made arduous journeys to meet each other on Sundays to find the emotional nourishment they so desperately needed. Le Carré quit Sherborne two years later.

Le Carré’s father had dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and ever after, le Carré said in a 1977 interview with Time magazine, “lived in a contradictory world,” full of credit but no cash, with a “Micawberlike talent for messing up his business adventures.” He finally ended up in prison for fraud. Le Carré’s mother abandoned the children to live with a business associate of her husband. Le Carré did not see his mother again until he was twenty-one. His father died in 1975 without reconciling with his sons. Without the support of his parents, le Carré had to depend on his elder brother. As children, they were ignorant of the whereabouts of their parents, and the young le Carré often wondered if his father was a spy on a crucial mission for England. False promises by his father made him distrustful of people, and he confesses that “duplicity was inescapably bred” into him. His childhood was therefore traumatic, and he drew on this painful experience in writing The Naive and Sentimental Lover, in which Aldo Cassidy, one of the heroes of the novel, tells Shamus how his mother abandoned him when he was a child. The loss “robbed him of his childhood,” denying him “normal growth.”

Le Carré’s father was angry that his son had left Sherborne and, to punish him, sent him to Berne University, Switzerland; le Carré was sixteen at the time. At Berne, he studied German, French, and skiing. After completing his military service in Vienna with the army intelligence corps, he went to Lincoln College, Oxford, and studied modern languages, taking an honors degree in 1956. From 1956 to 1958, he taught languages at England’s most prestigious public school, Eton.

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