Oliver Onions Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

At the height of his popularity in the early part of the twentieth century, Oliver Onions (UHN-yuhnz) was hailed as a candid observer of human behavior whose novels merited comparison to those of D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, and other modernists. Since his death, he has been remembered almost solely for a handful of ghost stories whose fantastic themes would seem to contradict the literary realism for which he was best known in his lifetime. This inconsistency characterizes his output as a writer, which ranges across a broad spectrum of tones and concerns.

Onions was born George Oliver Onions in Bradford, a city in the Yorkshire region of northern England. Initially he trained for a career as an artist, studying for three years at the National Arts Training Schools in London before traveling to Paris on a scholarship in 1897. Upon his return to London he briefly made a living illustrating books, designing posters, and working as a draftsman for the Harmsworth Press. When he turned to writing fiction, it was not surprising that many of his stories featured artist protagonists and were set in the bohemian art world of the day.

Onions wrote his first novel, the lighthearted The Compleat Bachelor in 1900, in response to a challenge from his friend Gelett Burgess. He followed this two years later with Tales from a Far Riding, a collection of grimly realistic stories that offered a better indication of where his literary interests were taking him. Onions continued his unsentimental examination of modern life in his second novel, The Odd-Job Man, which featured an unsympathetic artist as its lead character and explored a character type that would reappear in The Two Kisses: A Tale of a Very Modern Courtship, its sequel A Crooked Mile (published together in the United States as Gray Youth in 1914), and several short stories: the artist who is perverted, rather than ennobled, by the passions of his or her calling.

By 1913, Onions had embarked upon a full-time writing career, having received strong reviews for two novels critical of the spirit of the age: Little Devil Doubt, which attacked the devaluing of serious literature by crass commercialism, and Gold Boy Seldom: A Romance of Advertisement, a social satire that told of an unscrupulous financier’s comeuppance. That year, he wrote In Accordance with the Evidence, a crime novel narrated in the first person by an ordinary young man who is driven by his morbid obsessions to murder the...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Donaldson, Norman. “Oliver Onions.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, edited by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Scribner, 1985. The best overview of Onions’s work to date, which sees a continuity between the themes of his mainstream fiction and weird tales.

Swinnerton, Frank. The Georgian Literary Scene: A Panorama. Rev. ed. London: Hutchinson, 1969. Includes a brief discussion of the grim realism of Onions’s novels in the context of their time.