Laurie Lee Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Laurie Lee 1914–

English memoirist, poet, nonfiction and travel writer, essayist, and dramatist.

The following entry provides an overview of Lee's career through 1994.

Lee is highly regarded for autobiographical works depicting his childhood in the English countryside, his travels in Spain, and his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Having garnered critical acclaim for his vibrant portraits of village life in the English Midlands and his descriptive characterizations of the chaotic and destabilizing environment of war, he is considered among England's foremost writers of the post-World War II era.

Biographical Information

Born into a large, rural English working-class family in Stroud, Gloucestershire, Lee was a small child when his father abandoned the family. Financially strapped, Lee's mother raised him and his siblings with little economic means, and she has been described in his writings as a resourceful, fun-loving—if at times impractical—woman and a major influence on his life. At the age of nineteen, Lee left the English countryside on foot for London, where, to support himself, he worked a variety of jobs and played the fiddle. He eventually traveled throughout continental Europe, spending much of his time in Spain. In the late 1930s, Lee joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans, or Loyalists, in their struggle to overthrow the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. During World War II he worked in a variety of government ministries in England, eventually undertaking scriptwriting duties with a number of their film units. After publishing several volumes of poetry and a well-received narrative of his leisurely travels in Andalusia, A Rose for Winter (1955), Lee turned to autobiographical writing and has since continued primarily in this genre.

Major Works

Lee's best-known work details his childhood and his experiences in Spain. Set in a village in the Cotswolds, Cider with Rosie (1959) celebrates nature, boyhood, and rural traditions. Recounting the passing of a pastoral way of life in unsentimental terms, the collection provides an affectionate account of Lee's childhood, family, and friends. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) begins with Lee's departure from his childhood home in the 1930s, chronicles his peripatetic wanderings throughout Europe, and ends with Lee—having been evacuated from Spain by a British ship—returning to Europe, crossing the Pyrenees, and joining the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War. In A Moment of War (1991), Lee examines the effects of the war on a personal level, discussing his own horrors and follies. For example, he details his initial fascination with aerial bombings as well as how, on several different occasions, he was captured and sentenced to death only to be miraculously rescued at the last moment. Although not as well known as Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and A Moment of War, Lee's A Rose for Winter, a memoir recounting his travels through the Iberian peninsula, provides a sensuous picture of the land, its inhabitants, and their customs. His other major works include several volumes of poetry—including The Sun My Monument (1944), The Bloom of Candles (1947), and My Many-Coated Man (1955)—and the essay collection, I Can't Stay Long (1975).

Critical Reception

Many critics have praised Lee's skilled use of figurative language and the sharpness of his descriptions. Cider with Rosie, perhaps Lee's best known work, was warmly received by both critics and popular audiences. When it was published in the United States as The Edge of Day, T. S. Matthews noted that "once in a blue moon, a book appears that deserves its success. This time the moon is blue, and The Edge of Day is the book." Likewise, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War have both received accolades from many reviewers. Writing about the former, Charles Causley found its romantic style to be "as juicily ripe as an autumn pear" and possessing a "charm in the writing that genuinely makes it difficult to put the book down." In discussing more serious aspects of Lee's work, Albert Hoxie recommended A Moment of War "[for] anyone who wants to understand what war is actually like, when it is not being dramatized, hyped, heroized or propagandized." Overall, critics have found Lee's stories both accessible and expressive. As one commentator noted in The New Yorker, "Mr. Lee's writing—almost precious, almost naive—has a tone and intensity that are truly entirely his own, and are inimitably pleasing."