Although his world was that of the twentieth century, John Wain was very much an eighteenth century man. He delighted in pointing out that he and eighteenth century writer Samuel Johnson were born in the same district (“The Potteries”) and in much the same social milieu; that he attended the same university as Johnson (Oxford, where he served from 1973 to 1978 as a professor of poetry); and that he knew, like Johnson, the Grub Street experiences and “the unremitting struggle to write enduring books against the background of an unstable existence.” What chiefly interests the critic in surveying Wain’s formative years are the reasons for his increasingly sober outlook. Wain’s autobiography, Sprightly Running, remains the best account of his formative years as well as offering engaging statements of many of his opinions. In it, the reader finds some of the profound and lasting effects on Wain’s writing of his childhood, his adolescence, and his years at Oxford.
John Barrington Wain was born on March 14, 1925, in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, an industrial city given over to pottery and coal mining. Here, as in other English cities, a move upward in social status is signaled by a move up in geographical terms. Therefore, the Wain family’s move three years later to Penkhull—a manufacturing complex of kilns and factories and, incidentally, the setting for Wain’s third novel, The Contenders—marked a step up into the middle-class district.
From infancy, Wain had a genuine fondness for the countryside. He immersed himself in the sights and sounds and colors of rural nature, all of which made an impression on him that was distinctive as well as deep. This impression developed into an “unargued reverence for all created life, almost a pantheism.” On holidays, he and his family traveled to the coast and hills of North Wales—an association that carried over into his adult years, when, at the age of thirty-four, he married a Welsh woman. His feeling for Wales—for the independent life of the people, the landscape and mountains, the sea, the special light of the sun—is recorded in A Winter in the Hills. Here and elsewhere is the idea that nature is the embodiment of order, permanence, and life. Indeed, the tension between the nightmare of repression in society and the dream of liberation in the natural world is an important unifying theme throughout Wain’s work.
The experience of living in an industrial town also left an indelible imprint on Wain’s mind and art. His exposure to the lives of the working class and to the advance of industrialism gave him a profound knowledge of working people and their problems, which he depicts with sympathy and humanity in his fiction. Moreover, Wain’s experiences at Froebel’s Preparatory School and at Newcastle-under-Lyme High School impressed on him the idea that life was competitive and “a perpetual effort to survive.” He found himself surrounded and outnumbered by people who resented him for being different from themselves. His contact with older children, schoolboy bullies, and authoritative schoolmasters taught Wain that the world is a dangerous place. These “lessons of life” were carried into his work. The reader finds in Wain’s fiction a sense of the difficulty of survival in an...
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