William Mayne Peter Hunt - Essay

Peter Hunt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Possibly because I am not primarily concerned with children, but rather with books and literary theory, I feel that Mayne is a major writer, who should be recognized as such. That opinion is based on the oeuvre, rather than on any single book…. In his style, Mayne is an original, one of the few true stylists of the twentieth century; if the language echoes a somewhat idealistic view of a child's perceptive processes, it is nonetheless at its best with the apparently inconsequential, avoiding patronizing either the characters or the implied readers. It sets up, in short, an honest narrative contract.

Consider, for example, the opening of The Twelve Dancers…. (p. 13)

I feel that the passage offers precisely what literature should offer; something essentially different; something unique. More prosaically, it is remarkably economical in setting the character and background for the novel, and the irony operates—unlike many other writers'—on both the writer-child and the writer-adult levels. If all that is known is known through the child's eyes, that does not invalidate its acceptance by the adult; and Mayne can extend this technique to virtuoso lengths, as in Royal Harry.

It may be true that his characters rarely stand out, being functional parts of enclosed worlds (or, as Mayne himself has said, secondary to the narrative …), for some readers rather in the manner of the early Lawrence—and this derives from his total approach. While avoiding direct emotional involvement, his capacity to see over the heads of his characters—as in much of A Grass Rope—gives a compensatory dimension, in a tradition running from [Henry] Fielding to Ford Madox Ford and P. G. Wodehouse.

Not to make this a catalogue, I might cite, as others have done, his use of dialogue, which is Pinter-esque, at least in its obliquity and its implication of social infra-structures, if not in its verbal density. This goes hand in hand with his capacity to draw rounded families from suggestions (as in The Battlefield) or complete communities from casual details (as in A Parcel of Trees). (pp. 14-15)

Peter Hunt, "The Mayne Game: An Experiment in Response," in Signal (copyright © 1979 Peter Hunt; reprinted by permission of the author and The Thimble Press, Lockwood Station Road, South Woodchester, Glos. GL5 5EQ, England), January, 1979, pp. 9-24.