William Sansom (SAN-suhm) wrote novels, essays, travel books, and children’s books, but he is also arguably one of the most important writers of short stories to emerge from England after World War II. He was born on January 18, 1912, in London, England, the son of Ernest Brooks and Mabel (Clark) Sansom. The product of a comfortable middle-class upbringing, Sansom attended Uppingham School. After he graduated in 1940 Sansom studied for a short while on the Continent, where he cultivated an interest in the arts. Without receiving a degree, Sansom returned to London after only a few months. Sansom worked in a bank for a short while before deciding to assist the fire department in the monumental task of putting out the fires caused by the Blitz of 1940-1941. His account of what he saw as an auxiliary fireman, in a book entitled Jim Braidy, marked the beginning of his literary career.
Sansom spent the next five years honing his skills as a short-story writer. In his first collection of short stories, Fireman Flower, Sansom once again attracted public attention through his vivid portrayal of the horrors of the bombing of London. The subjects and moods of these early stories focused on death and terror. Although Sansom was criticized for his wordy style, he was praised for the precision with which he analyzed character and motive.
Two more volumes of short stories came out in 1948. The stories collected in South center on the reactions of typical Englishmen to situations outside their normal realm of experience. The majority of the stories in Something Terrible, Something Lovely deal with characters who are thrust into horrible situations. The power of these stories is derived from the fact that they contain realistic descriptions of people and places.
Sansom’s first novel, The Body, is also the most highly praised. The Body is a psychological portrayal of Henry Bishop, a suburban Londoner who suspects his wife of twenty years of infidelity. Even though some critics deplored the novel’s “slick” style, most hailed The Body as a study in jealousy that had no contemporary peer. Sansom received more critical acclaim with the publication of his second novel, The Face of Innocence. This story of a handsome young woman who marries an old friend of the narrator emphasizes the humor and wit that were only hinted at in his first novel.
Many critics believed that the quality of Sansom’s work declined between 1951 and 1954. In A Touch of the Sun, a collection of twelve short stories ranging from the macabre to the comic, Sansom once again exhibits his flair for observation as well as a tendency to manipulate two-dimensional characters. A novel, A Bed of Roses, also received only a lukewarm reception by the critics. The stories in A Contest of Ladies vividly convey a sense of place, but the characters, like the ones in A Touch of the Sun, fail to come to life.
In 1955 Sansom discovered the source of a second income when an American editor looked at some of Sansom’s stories that were set in Naples. Sansom’s talent for description was so evident in these stories that the editor suggested that Sansom write travel pieces for him. Within a few months, Sansom was writing travel pieces for major American magazines.
Sansom’s literary reputation was greatly enhanced by the publication of The Loving Eye and The Cautious Heart. The Loving Eye is the satirical story of a middle-aged invalid, who becomes obsessed with a twenty-one-year-old girl whom he observes outside his window with binoculars. In The Cautious Heart, Sansom once again employs humor to comment on the nature of love. This story of a nightclub pianist, his girlfriend, and her drunken escort is powered by the same sexual tensions and jealous acts that appeared in such successful works as The Body and The Face of Innocence.
By the 1960’s, Sansom’s reputation was so well established that each publication was...
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- Critical Essays