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 fiancé of a woman he loves. The book began as a short story but grew into a highly regarded full-length study of psychopathology that spawned two sequels over the next two years: The Debit Account, which deepened the psychological portrait of its predecessor by exploring the effect of guilt on the unapprehended murderer’s psyche, and The Story of Louie, which shifted focus to a minor character in the series, offering a different perspective on events that altered their meaning and significance. In 1925 Onions wove the three novels together into a large mosaic novel, Whom God Hath Sundered, that cemented his reputation as an experimenter who flouted literary conventions.
Although he tried his hand at many different types of fiction, Onions—who, in 1918 officially changed his name to George Oliver for the sake of the two sons he had with his wife, the popular novelist Berta Ruck—never achieved the same renown as Onions. The diffuseness of his literary interests appears to have kept him from developing a substantial following. The 1920’s saw the appearance of a murder mystery, A Case in Camera, and a fantasy novel of a man who grows progressively younger, The Tower of Oblivion. In the 1930’s he produced an espionage tale, The Open Secret, the fairy tale A Certain Man, and the continental novel Catalan Circus. All of these books received mixed reviews.
In the 1940’s and early 1950’s Onions revealed a latent penchant for historical fiction: Both The Story of Ragged Robyn and The Poor Man’s Tapestry , the latter of which won...
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