V. S. Pritchett (16 December 1900 – 20 March 1997) writes in Midnight Oil,
I have rarely been interested in what are called “characters,” i.e., eccentrics; reviewers are mistaken in saying I am. They misread me. I aminterested in the revelations of nature and (rather in Ibsen’s fashion) of exposing the illusions or received ideas by which they live or protect their dignity.
An approach to the short stories reveals that Pritchett is projecting comic incongruities. He captures the moment of revelation when his men and women recognize an awareness of their plight. His panoply of people ranges from sailors, divers, clerks, blind men, and shopgirls to piano accompanists, wastrels, and the penurious wealthy. Pritchett concentrates on selected details with tart wit and irony in dialogue that characterizes those who people his short stories. Two highly discrete characters often interrelate to their despair or to their joy. With such irony, the reader may conclude that in reading a Pritchett story, nothing is but what is not.
One of the earliest collections of short stories by Pritchett, You Make Your Own Life, and Other Stories, already reflects the mature touch of the writer. Although showing some slight inconsistency, the tales attest variety in narrative, theme, tone, and style. Some stories are stark and Kafkaesque, especially “The Two Brothers,” in which a nightmarish suicide is the central concern. The longest story in this group is “Handsome Is as Handsome Does,” set on the French Mediterranean.
Handsome Is as Handsome Does
The focus is on Mr. and Mrs. Coram, an English couple, both of whom are unusually ugly. Their ugliness is their only similarity. He is rude, inarticulate, and slow-witted, and he quarrels with everyone. He is especially rude to M. Pierre, the proprietor of the hotel, insulting him in English which he does not understand. Mrs. Coram is left to play the role of diplomat and apologist. Soon after the English couple’s arrival, Alex, whose forebears are flung throughout Europe, also vacations at the inn. He is young and handsome and delights in swimming. Childless, Mrs. Coram views Alex as the son she might have had. Yet one day, she attempts to seduce him while he watches unfeelingly, and she, scorned, feels ridiculous. One day, the Corams, Alex, and M. Pierre go to a deserted beach that is known for its dangerous undertow. M. Pierre dives in and before long, it is apparent to all that he is drowning. Alex rescues him while Mr. Coram looks on, never even thinking of saving the innkeeper. His wife is silently furious at him. Later, asM. Pierre brags at the hotel about his narrow escape, Mrs. Coram blandly tells some recent English arrivals that her husband saved M. Pierre’s life.
Clearly, the Corams are loathsome people, but through Pritchett’s portrayal of them as wounded, frustrated, and vindictive, even grotesque, they emerge as human beings, capable of eliciting the reader’s empathy. Alex, protected by his “oily” youth, remains the catalyst, rather neutral and asexual. The aging couple, in Pritchett’s lightly satirical portraiture, in the end claim the reader’s sympathy.
Sense of Humour
Another well-known and often-quoted story in this collection is “Sense of Humour.” Arthur Humphrey, a traveling salesman, is the narrator. On one of his trips, he meets Muriel MacFarlane, who is dating a local boy, Colin Mitchell, who always rides a motorcycle. Colin is obsessively in love with Muriel. Arthur courts Muriel, who stops dating Colin. Nevertheless, the motorcyclist compulsively follows the couple wherever they go. Muriel says that she is Irish, and she has a sense of humor. Yet she never exhibits this so-called Irish trait. When Colin, who is also an auto mechanic, announces that he cannot repair Humphrey’s car and thereby hopes to ruin the couple’s plan, they take the train to Humphrey’s parents’ house. Shortly after their arrival, Muriel receives a call from the police: Colin has been killed in a motorcycle crash nearby. That night, Muriel is overwhelmed with grief for Colin; Arthur begins to comfort her, and they eventually, for the first time, have sex. All the while, Muriel is crying out Colin’s name. To save Colin’s family the expense, Colin’s body is returned to his family in a hearse belonging to Arthur’s father. Both Muriel and the obtuse Arthur feel like royalty when the passing drivers and pedestrians doff their hats in respect. Arthur says, “I was proud of her, I was proud of Colin, and I was proud of myself and after what happened, I mean on the last two nights, it was like a wedding.” Colin is following them for the last time. When Arthur asks Muriel why she stopped seeing Colin, she answers that he never had a sense of humor.
Critics believe that Pritchett in this story exerts complete control in keeping the reader on tenterhooks between crying and guffawing. The narrator, like the reader, never concludes whether Muriel is marrying Arthur for his money or for love or whether she loves Colin or Arthur, in the final analysis. The story underscores one of Pritchett’s favorite techniques: peeling away at the character with grim irony and even then not providing enough details to see the character’s inner self. As Pritchett declared, however, his interest is in the “happening,” not in overt characterization. Yet, in death, Colin after all does seem to win his love. Still, in the conclusion, it appears that all three people have been deluded. Some of the grim gallows humor in this story reminds the reader of Thomas Hardy, whom Pritchett acknowledged as an important influence.
When My Girl Comes Home
More than a decade after the end of World War II, When My Girl Comes Home was published. The mature style of Pritchett is readily discernible in this collection. The stories become somewhat more complex and difficult in morality, in situations, and in the greater number of characters. The moral ambiguities are many. The title story, “When My Girl Comes Home,” is Pritchett’s favorite short story.
Although World War II is over, the bankruptcy of the war ricochets on many levels. The “girl” coming home is Hilda Johnson, for whom her mother has been working and scrimping to save money. Residents of Hincham Street, where Mrs. Johnson lives, had for two years implored the bureaucracies of the world to obtain news about the whereabouts and the condition of Hilda, who was believed to be wasting away in a Japanese concentration camp. Now Hilda has come home, not pale and wan but sleek and relaxed. Only gradually does the story emerge, but never completely. In fact, because Hilda’s second husband was a Japanese officer, she survived the war comfortably. She does not need the money that her mother saved from years of sewing. En route home, Hilda met two men, one of whom, Gloster, a writer, wished to write Hilda’s story. The narrator observes, when he first sees her, that
her face was vacant and plain. It was as vacant as a stone that has been smoothed for centuries in the sand of some hot country. It was the face of someone to whom nothing had happened; or, perhaps, so much had happened to her that each event wiped out what had happened before. I was disturbed by something in her—the lack of history, I think. We were worm-eaten by it.
Hilda sleeps with her mother in a tiny bedroom while she waits for help from Gloster, who never appears. She seems to become involved with a real prisoner of the Japanese, BillWilliams, who survived through the war, as he terms it, with “a bit of trade.” Some of the neighbors begin to understand that Hilda, too, survived by trading as well. At one point in the tale, Hilda begs her friends to save her from Bill Williams, and she stays away from her apartment that night. When she returns to her flat, she discovers that Bill Williams has robbed her flat completely and has disappeared. Soon after, Hilda leaves London and surfaces only in a photograph with her two boyfriends, Gloster and someone else. Gloster does publish a book, not about Hilda’s war experiences but about the people on Hincham Street.
The story’s subtext may suggest that it might have been better for Hincham Street had the “girl” not come home, for then they would have retained their illusions about her. The illusion versus reality theme is one often used by Pritchett. Mrs. Johnson, now dead, seemed to have kept the street together in a kind of moral order, now destroyed on Hincham Street. After her death, Hilda and Bill were involved in seamy happenings. In the Hincham Street pubs, the war is discussed but only fitfully and inconclusively because “sooner or later, it came to a closed door in everybody’s conscience.” Hilda and Bill, surviving the Japanese camps through moral bankruptcy, forma mirror image of those Englishman who became black marketers, malingerers, ration thieves, and hoodlums. Moral codes were shattered by Englishmen—whether at home or abroad. Pritchett is deliberately murky in theme and relationships, but the story suggests that just as the Japanese disturbed the civil and moral order thousands of miles away, the disruption caused a moral decay at home at the same time that the war was fought to reestablish the world order. Perhaps Pritchett is suggesting that England during the war and after was a microcosm. Despite the disillusionment that touches the entire street and the gravity of the theme, Pritchett never fails to use the restorative of humor and subtle satire, watchwords of the writer.
At the end of the 1960’s, Blind Love, and Other Stories appeared. This collection reflects Pritchett’s admiration of Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev, whose bittersweet irony enfolds the characters as they experience, at the end, self-revelation. In his later years, Pritchett continued to grow as an artist in many ways. The story lines are compelling, and no matter what the theme, Pritchett’s wit provides humor and pathos. The transition between time present and time past is accomplished with laserbeam precision.
“The Skeleton,” concerning George Clark, fleshes out a skinny man who has never loved. Cantankerous, selfish, perfectionistic, and thoroughly narcissistic, George is painted to perfection with satirical brushes. His encounter with Gloria Archer, whom George accuses of corrupting his favorite painter, transforms him. The comic becomes almost caricature and is flawless. Pritchett shows him guarding his whiskey bottle like a Holy Grail, but his valet finds it mistakenly left on the table, drinks a bit, and then dilutes the bottle with water. Dean R. Baldwin, who wrote the excellent Twayne biography of Pritchett, wrote, “George is the skeleton, until Gloria puts a bit of meat on his emotional bare bones.”
Like many of Pritchett’s best stories used as title stories, “Blind Love” is a masterful portrait of two people who are scarred by nature but who succumb to pride before their fall. Mr. Armitage, a wealthy lawyer living in the country and blind for twenty years, has been divorced because of his affliction. He interviews Mrs. Johnson by feeling her face and hands, and he hires her as a secretary/housekeeper. As Thomas Gray would say, nothing disturbed the even tenor of their ways for a few years. One day, Armitage, walking in his garden, loses his balance when a dog chases a rabbit, and he falls into his pool. Mrs. Johnson sees the fall but before she can rush out to help him, he is rescued. When Mrs. Johnson tries to help him change his clothes in his room, she breaks the cardinal rule of never changing the physical order of things because Armitage has memorized the place for every item. He screams at her to get out and leave him alone. This verbal attack stimulates a flashback that reveals that Mrs. Johnson had heard “almost exactly those words, before. Her husband had said them. A week after the wedding.” She recalls that he was shocked and disgusted at
a great spreading ragged liver-coloured island of skin which spread under the tape of her slip and crossed her breast and seemed to end in a curdle of skin below it. She was stamped with an ineradicable bloody insult.
After Armitage’s rudeness, Mrs. Johnson decides to leave, for, in addition to those scorching words, she disliked the country. Armitage apologizes and begs her to stay. Soon thereafter, he gropes toward her and kisses her, and they make love. Mrs. Johnson, initially motivated by the pleasure of revenge against her husband, begins in time to enjoy Armitage’s lovemaking. Religion is woven into the story when Armitage mocks Mrs. Johnson for going to church, and at one time, he insists that she use spittle and dirt on his eyes to mock a miracle of Christ: “Do as I tell you. It’s what your Jesus Christ did when he cured the blind man.”
Armitage then goes to Mr. Smith, an expensive faith healer, actually a charlatan manqué, to regain his sight. Once, Mrs. Johnson accompanies him. As she leaves, Armitage hears her telling Smith that she loves Armitage as he is. Earlier, Smith appeared when Mrs. Johnson had been sunbathing nude at the pool. After wondering whether he saw her, Mrs. Johnson concludes that he did not. When Armitage later asks her whether Smith had seen her at the pool, Mrs. Johnson explodes and says that Smith saw everything. Unzipping her dress, she cries, “You can’t see it, you silly fool. The whole bloody Hebrides, the whole plate of liver.”
Later, when Mrs. Johnson for some strange reason is found lying face down in the pool, she, like Armitage earlier, is rescued. Both have had their “fall.” This parallel happening seems to be a moment of epiphany, and the story ends with the couple living in Italy, where Mrs. Johnson describes churches and gallery pictures to her “perhaps” husband. In the last paragraph, Mrs. Johnson proclaims her love for her husband as she eyes the lovely Italian square below. She says that she feels “gaudy,” leaving the reader wrestling over her selection of the word. Long after the reading, the poignancy of the story resonates.
This title story, an intensely poignant one, forthright and absorbing, shows the handicaps bringing people together and almost tearing them apart. They are both anointed by their “fall” from pride, and in their moment of epiphany, they see their need of each other and the love accompanying the need. Through each other and by self-analysis, they transcend their limitations and experience the joy of seeing themselves anew. Again, this revelatory process is a mainstay of Pritchett.
Five years later, Pritchett continued his consistent stream of productivity by publishing The Camberwell Beauty, and Other Stories. This volume particularly focuses on the eccentric foibles of the middle class. “The Diver,” set in Paris, is an enjoyable tale of a diver who is a metaphor for sexual encounters. This diver is sent to retrieve bundles of leather goods that a Dutch ship accidentally spews into the Seine. A young clerk for the leather tannery is assigned to count the sodden bales. Quite by chance, he himself falls into the Seine and is fished out by the onlookers. His boss takes him across the street to a bar and expects the lad to pay for his own brandy. Mme Chamson, feeling sorry for the youth, takes him to her shop for a change of clothing. As he disrobes, she notices his inflamed member and becomes furious at his disrespect. A few minutes later, she calls him into her bedroom, where he finds her nude, and she initiates a sexual encounter. The youth, yearning to become a writer, feels inarticulate. This encounter with Mme Chamson, his first sexual experience, has released his creative wellsprings. A simple tale, “The Diver” is rib-tickling in its theme of innocence lost and creativity gained. Pritchett elsewhere has written of the link between sexuality and creativity.
The Camberwell Beauty
Again, the long title story, “The Camberwell Beauty,” is one of the most arresting. The ambience is that of the antique dealers of London, a cosmos of its own. Each antique dealer has his own specialty, and “within that specialty there is one object he broods on from one year to the next, most of his life; the thing a man would commit murder to get his hands on if he had the nerve.”
The narrator is a former antique dealer. A current art dealer, Pliny, an elderly man, has married a beautiful woman, and the narrator is determined to get hold of the Camberwell beauty, who is essentially a work of art. Once more, Pritchett writes of illusion, this time using the art world and the gulf between the greed of the dealers and the loveliness of the art and the artifacts. Isabel, the Camberwell beauty, is exploited by being held captive, like any objet d’art. The narrator fails in his attempt at seduction, which might have replicated another sexual exploitation. Isabel insists that Pliny is a good lover, but Pritchett strongly suggests that there is no intimacy between them. She, likeWilliam Blake’s Thel, seems not to descend into generation (or sexuality). Remaining under the illusion that she is safe and protected in her innocence, and content to be in stasis and in asexuality, she never does reach a moment of self-awareness. She might just as well have been framed and hung on a wall.
The last collection of original stories, On the Edge of the Cliff, was published in 1979, and it contains stories wrought with a heightened sensibility and subtlety. The humor and technical brilliance are very much in evidence. Marital infidelity is the theme of several tales, especially in “The Fig Tree” and “A Family Man.” A well-carved cameo, “The Accompanist” also portrays an unfaithful mate. William, the narrator, on leave from his Singapore job, is having an affair with Joyce, a piano accompanist, married to Bertie, impotent but particularly likable by a circle of friends who gather for dinner in his flat. The furniture, Victorian monstrosity, obsesses Bertie, since it is a link to the past. For undisclosed reasons, the furniture may almost affirm his asexuality. Critics invariably remark on a Henry James-like subtlety of sensitivity and particularity of detail. This texture surfaces when Bertie, accompanied by his wife, sings a French bawdy song about a bride who was murdered on her wedding night. Despite Bertie’s problems with sex, he seems not to be aware of the irony in singing this song and in being anchored in the protected illusion of bygone Victorian days. His wife, Joyce, may emerge from the decadence of her marriage if, as the narrator says at the end, she will hear her tune: “And if she heard it, the bones in her legs, arms, her fingers, would wake up and she would be out of breath at my door without knowing it.”William is saying that if she arrives out of a sexual impulse, there will be hope for her liberation from Bertie and from the historical frost symbolized by the Victorian furnishings.
On the Edge of the Cliff
The centerpiece story, “On the Edge of the Cliff,” unravels the tale of a May-December liaison. Harry, a botanist in his seventies, and Rowena, an artist and twenty-five, have a happy affair in his house on the edge of a cliff. Driving down to a nearby village fair, they engage in role playing. The omniscient narrator declares, “There are rules for old men who are in love with young girls, all the stricter when the young girls are in love with them. It has to be played as a game.” The game stimulates the love affair. At the fair, Harry meets Daisy Pyke, who was a former mistress and who has a young man in tow, mistakenly thought by Harry and Rowena to be her son but actually her lover. Daisy subsequently visits Harry, not to resume any romance but to beg Harry to keep the two young people apart so that her own love life will not be jeopardized. She cries, “I mean it, Harry. I know what would happen and so do you and I don’t want to see it happen.”
Ironically, both Harry and Rowena rarely venture into society. When Harry denies that Rowena is being kept prisoner, Daisy shrewdly insists, “You mean you are the prisoner. That is it! So am I!” Harry replies, “Love is always like that. I live only for her.” In this tale, as in many of Pritchett’s stories, there are contrasting sets of people who are often foils for each other. Both Daisy and Rowena are jealous of their lovers and want their May-December relationships to continue. Pritchett is undoubtedly concerned with the aging process and the capacity to sustain love. Both Daisy and Harry find their capacity to love undiminished with age. Yet, although their love affairs are alive, Pritchett’s metaphor of the house on the cliff may suggest that the lovers are aware of inherent dangers because of the differences in ages. At the same time, Pritchett may be implying that even with no age differences between lovers, there is an element of risk. Illusion in this and many other of Pritchett’s tales plays an important role. As Harry and Daisy discuss their younger lovers, illusion is implicit. Yet, in their confronting the reality of age differences, they become intensely aware of their predicament, and it is at this moment that they experience a Pritchett epiphany. This realization will help them to savor the time spent on the edge of the cliff.
In his short fiction, Pritchett fashions a host of unique characters, uses witty and humorous dialogue, employs a variety of “happenings,” and leaves readers with the sense that they themselves have been mocked, not with bitterness or caustic wit but with gentleness and love.
Novels: Claire Drummer, 1929; Shirley Sanz, 1932 (also known as Elopement into Exile); Nothing Like Leather, 1935; Dead Man Leading, 1937; Mr. Beluncle, 1951.
Miscellaneous: The Pritchett Century, 1997.
Nonfiction: Marching Spain, 1928; In My Good Books, 1942; The Living Novel and Later Appreciations, 1946; Why Do I Write? An Exchange of Views Between Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and V. S. Pritchett, 1948; Books in General, 1953; The Spanish Temper, 1954; London Perceived, 1962; The Offensive Traveller, 1964 (also known as Foreign Faces); New York Proclaimed, 1965; Shakespeare: The Comprehensive Soul, 1965; TheWorking Novelist, 1965; Dublin: A Portrait, 1967; A Cab at the Door, 1968; George Meredith and English Comedy, 1970; Midnight Oil, 1972; Balzac: A Biography, 1973; The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev, 1977; The Myth Makers: Literary Essays, 1979; The Tale Bearers: Literary Essays, 1980; The Other Side of the Frontier: A V. S. Pritchett Reader, 1984; A Man of Letters, 1985; Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, 1988; Lasting Impressions, 1990; The Complete Essays, 1991; Balzac, 1992.
Angell, Roger. “Marching Life.” The New Yorker 73 (December 22-29, 1997): 126-134.
Baldwin, Dean. V. S. Pritchett. Boston: Twayne, 1987.Johnson, Anne Janette. “V(ictor) S(awdon) Pritchett.” In Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by James G. Lesniak. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Oumhani, Cecile. “Water in V. S. Pritchett’s Art of Revealing.” Journal of the Short Story in English 6 (1986): 75-91.
Pritchett, V. S. “An Interview with V. S. Pritchett.” Interview by Ben Forkner and Philippe Sejourne. Journal of the Short Story in English 6 (1986): 11-38.
Stinson, John J. V. S. Pritchett: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Theroux, Paul. “V. S. Pritchett.” The New York Times Book Review 102 (May 25, 1997): 27.
Treglown, Jeremy. V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life. New York: Random House, 2004.
Tunick, Linda F. “V. S. Pritchett.” In Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Revised Edition, edited by Carl Rollyson. Vol. 6. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2000.