Kingsley Amis Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A novelist, poet, critic, essayist, and short-story writer, Kingsley Amis (AY-mihs) was best known as one of England’s foremost comic moralists, in the tradition of Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh. The only child of William Robert Amis, an office clerk, and Rosa Annie (Lucas) Amis, Amis learned the Protestant virtues of thrift, hard work, and patience from his conservative, lower-middle-class Baptist parents. He considered himself a timid and lonely boy and did not gain confidence in himself until he began attending school, first at St. Hilda’s College, then at Norbury College, where at the age of eleven he saw his first story, “The Sacred Rhino of Uganda,” published in the school magazine. William Amis, to help cultivate his son’s abilities, sent Kingsley to a top private preparatory school, the City of London School. In 1941, Kingsley Amis went to the University of Oxford, where he flirted briefly with communism, but after one year he was drafted and commissioned as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals. After three and a half years in Belgium, France, and Germany, during which time he became a lieutenant, Amis returned to St. John’s College. In 1947, he earned his B.A. with first-class honors in English. He had two sons (one the distinguished author Martin Amis) and a daughter from his marriage to Hilary Ann Bardwell, which ended in divorce in 1965. His second marriage, to Elizabeth Jane Howard, a writer, also ended in divorce, in 1983. Amis was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1981 and knighted in 1990.{$S[A]Markham, Robert;Amis, Kingsley}

Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim, not only attracted favorable attention but also identified Amis with the “Angry Young Men” movement of British working-class writers of the 1950’s. The novel’s satire and sardonic style impressed reviewers, and the protagonist, Jim Dixon, became a symbol of rebellion against the establishment and one of the most popular antiheroes of modern literature. Though appearing to be a young man’s novel, Lucky Jim is an extremely humorous and socially significant book that caught the general mood of unrest in England after World War II. Amis denied any affiliation with the emergent group of angry novelists and playwrights; indeed, as his career evolved he began to shock his liberal admirers with his increasing conservatism in politics and social affairs.

The three comic novels that followed Lucky JimThat Uncertain Feeling, I Like...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)

Kingsley Amis Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Kingsley William Amis was born in London on April 16, 1922. His father, William Robert Amis, was an office clerk with Coleman’s Mustard and fully expected his only child to enter commerce. His son’s intention, however, was to be a writer—a poet, really—though it was not until the publication of his rollicking and irreverent first novel, Lucky Jim, in 1954 that Amis achieved his goal.

By Amis’s own account, he had been writing since he was a child. Writing became for him a means of coming to terms with certain fears. As a boy he suffered from the routine terrors of childhood—fear of the dark, fear of the future, fear of other children, fear of his parents’ disapproval—but as he grew older the subjects of his fears changed. He was a complicated individual; depression alternated with laughter, and an inner loneliness counterbalanced his social charm. Typically, one fear involved his health. Like many of his characters, one of his strongest fears was and continued to be the fear of loneliness. “Being the only person in the house is something I wouldn’t like at all,” he said, years later. “I would develop anxiety. By this I mean more than just a rational dislike of being alone and wanting company but something which means, for me, becoming very depressed and tense. I’ve always been terribly subject to tension. I worry a lot.”

Kingsley Amis as an author and his characters themselves often seem to be running scared, playing out their lives while always looking over their shoulders, afraid that the truth of life’s meaninglessness will catch up to them. Amis admitted that writing fiction encourages the illusion that there is some sense in life. “There isn’t,” he said, “but if that’s all you thought, you’d go mad.” In his fiction, if not in life, he was able to pretend that there is a pattern in events and that the suffering of his characters can be justified, or explained, or atoned for, or made all right. Such power to conjure up meaning where it otherwise may not exist brought with it the “wonderful feeling of being Lord of Creation.”

Long before Amis was to experience this power, he was merely a schoolboy at St. Hilda’s local fee-paying school. At St. Hilda’s he learned French from Miss Crampton and also developed a crush on his English teacher, Miss Barr, “a tall, Eton-crowned figure of improbable eloquence.” It is in these inauspicious surroundings, he said, humorously, that perhaps “we can date my first education into the glories of our literature.” Perhaps because of Miss Barr, but more probably because of his temperament and interests, he developed a fascination for anything to do with writing—pens, paper, erasers.

His interest may have been piqued at St. Hilda’s, but his first literary efforts occurred at Norbury College. There he was exposed to the vast entertainment that the days held for a British public school boy in the 1930’s: Under the tutelage of his teachers, he began to write stories and poems. His first published work of fiction, a three-hundred-word adventure story called “The Sacred Rhino of Uganda,” appeared in the school magazine. In the fall of 1934, he entered the “really splendid” City of London School—a day school of seven hundred boys that overlooked the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge. Amis read much during this period. He specialized in the classics until he was sixteen, then switched to English, but later he would wish that he had been more interested in scripture and divinity at the time and had been touched by the wings of faith, a wish that his fiction would ultimately demonstrate. He also read French. Early artistic delights included watercolors, Dadaism, and architecture. He especially loved to read poetry, and with his keen mind and quick sensibilities he could take in a considerable amount of material quickly.

In the prewar year of 1939, while he was in the sixth form, Amis and many of his school chums were suddenly surprised to find themselves being evacuated from London for their safety, sent to Marlborough College in Wiltshire; there he spent the next five terms. He found himself in the small country town of...

(The entire section is 1710 words.)

Kingsley Amis Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Kingsley William Amis (AY-mihs) was born in London on April 16, 1922. His father, William Robert, worked as a senior clerk in the export division of Colman’s Mustard and fully expected his only child to enter commerce. His son’s intention, however, was to be a writer—a poet, really—though it was not until the publication of his rollicking and irreverent first published novel, Lucky Jim (1954), that Amis received worldwide recognition, winning the W. Somerset Maugham Award in 1955. By Amis’s own account, he had been writing since he was a child, but without notable success. To read his early poetry is an embarrassment for him, he has said; his first novel, “The Legacy,” written while he attended St. John’s College, Oxford, and rejected by fourteen publishers, was later abandoned altogether because it was boring, unfunny, and loaded with affectation. He also considered the novel derivative: He felt that he was writing someone else’s book, while what he wanted to say needed a new story and a new style.

Several factors influenced Amis’s development into a writer whose novels and style are unique and universally recognized. His comic proclivities were encouraged by his father—a man with “a talent for physical clowning and mimicry.” Amis described himself as “undersized, law-abiding, timid,” a child able to make himself popular by charm or clowning, who found that at school he could achieve much by exploiting his inherited powers of mimicry. That was true not only at the City of London School—where he specialized in the classics until he was sixteen, then switched to English—but also at Oxford, where he earned his B.A. (with honors) and M.A. degrees in English.

School friends testified to Amis’s capacity for making others laugh. Philip Larkin’s description of their first meeting in the introduction to his own novel Jill (1946, 1964), suggests that it was Amis’s “genius for imaginative mimicry” that attracted him: “For the first time I felt myself in the presence of a talent greater than my own.” The novelist John Wain recalled how, in the “literary group” to which both of them belonged, Amis was a “superb mimic” who relished differences of character and idiom. Later as a writer, like Charles Dickens, Amis sometimes acted out with his face and his body the appearances and the actions of his characters while creating them. More important, many of his fictional people would appear as fine mimics themselves, using masquerades, role playing, practical jokes, and faces of all kinds for sheer enjoyment, to cover up certain insecurities, or to defend themselves from boredom and other unpleasantness in their lives.


(The entire section is 1106 words.)

Kingsley Amis Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In all of his novels, Kingsley Amis tries to understand the truth about different kinds of human suffering and then passes it on to the reader without distortion, without sentimentality, without evasion, and without oversimplification. Underlying all Amis’s novels is the hero’s quest for happiness, for meaning, for a life of morality and common sense in an ever-darkening world. In thirty-six years, he moved from fundamentally decent people who choose to act in a manner that has at least some significance, to utterly depraved ghosts, to people young and old stripped of their humanity, impotent and mad. The objects of his humor have broadened and deepened over the years, too.

No one can deny Amis’s great technical...

(The entire section is 176 words.)