If artists can be divvied up into prodigies and late bloomers, the British writer Francis Wyndham has been both. His melancholy publishing history suggests this split career has been more a curse than a blessing. He composed his first stories between the ages of seventeen and twenty, during World War II, “while I was hanging about waiting to be called up and while I was convalescing after I had been invalided out of the army,” he once wrote. A collection was rejected by publishers—paper was in short supply, so it was difficult to get published, he told a recent interviewer. Still, his confidence was hobbled; he stopped writing fiction and began a long career as a literary critic, journalist, and editor.
Wyndham was an early friend and promoter of V. S. Naipaul and a confidante of Jean Rhys, as well as the editor of her posthumous writings; he has been a mentor to Alan Hollinghurst, Edward St. Aubyn, and other younger authors. But he didn’t become a published writer of fiction until he was fifty, when he discovered his wartime stories in the back of a drawer and showed them to an editor friend; they were collected as Out of the War in 1974. Encouraged, Wyndham began writing fiction again. A decade later, two books followed: Mrs. Henderson and Other Stories appeared in 1985; The Other Garden won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1987. No novels or stories since. “I believe that a lot of writers write too much,” he has said; mostly he likes “sitting still.”
Frustrated ambitions, good intentions thwarted, and time spent in passive pursuits—these are at the heart of Wyndham’s fiction. Set in wartime, partly in “desolate cinema-cafés, dirty milk-bars and dimly-lit station-buffets,” the stories in Out of the War unfold around young middle-class women treading water in repressive English market towns as the ongoing conflict drains their world of interest and possibility. In “Davenant Road,” Edna White, who lives with her mother, finds it difficult to sit through a church service. “I blush and sweat in my pew during the lessons, afraid that I may lose control at any moment, and shriek aloud, so that everybody in the church would turn and stare at me, shocked and startled.” She fulfills a longtime ambition of getting a letter published in a newspaper: “I thought it might interest you to know that at the office where I work the boss is called Mr. Black, the two typists are called Miss White and Miss Green, and the office boy’s name is Brown!” (She admits to us that this is only half true.) Empowered by her published tale—“I wrote that. I invented those sentences”—and miffed over a social snub, she moves on to higher mischief. She is struck with the irresistible urge to write and mail an anonymous letter to Mr. Black’s wife, suggesting untruthfully that an affair is taking place between herself and her boss. This acte gratuit backfires, but no matter. The protagonists of Wyndham’s wartime stories may be humiliated or thrown off track, but they’re rarely defeated.
Out of the War has been shunted to the back of The Complete Fiction, a little as though it were an appendix to the more mature work. But Wyndham’s early stories are far from juvenilia. “I had hardly lived a life of my own at all, and felt as though I consisted only of eyes and ears to record the few things that happened around me,” he writes in the collection’s single directly autobiographical story. Those eyes and ears rarely fail him. Two nuns “with wicked spectacled faces” exit a café, “an imaginary crocodile of schoolgirls trooping behind them”; a bus appears on a high street, “its rows of jolting heads . . . all turned outward to present to the pavements their pale, unrecognizable faces.” Not yet out of his teens, Wyndham had already developed an understanding of what it means to be human—our obsessions, pretensions, and embarrassments, the ways that time gets wasted, the conversations that go in circles.
The lives of the young women in Wyndham’s early stories must have been very different from his own. He was born into an upper-class family, and his grandmother, also a writer, was part of Oscar Wilde’s circle. The stories in Mrs. Henderson take place in a milieu closer to the one Wyndham grew up in, at boarding schools and at Oxford, among posh family and friends. Nevertheless, judging from hints he has given in interviews, it’s clear that those early stories—as well as The Other Garden—are closely based on real people and events. Even though he was upper-crust, he was a close observer of middle-class lives. But the wealthy characters in Mrs. Henderson, as described by a single highly observant and compassionate first-person narrator, are cut from the same psychic cloth as Edna and her fellow provincials. Some are perplexed by life—a classmate is convinced his mother is in possession of a penis. Others nurse odd fixations. A neighbor rages on, at great length, about the “ghastly custom” of taking one’s postmeal coffee in the drawing room, eventually making an exhausting scene in a restaurant: “In no other country would one be prevented from drinking one’s coffee at the dining table. It’s typical of England, I’m afraid: no wonder it looks as if we’re going to lose this ridiculous war!” This is a comic scene, but it never turns into mockery. The narrator’s own obsessions mirror hers. Isolated and lonely at an emptied-out Oxford, he develops a mania for the American detective novelist Mignon G. Eberhart.
Wyndham is drawn to his fellow appreciatorsof popular songs, genre authors, and film stars. Such fan allegiance is, on a small scale, akin to the devotion he feels for the subjects of these prose portraits. “Ursula,” the longest story in Mrs. Henderson, spans half a century as the narrator traces the life of his half sister. Ursula shows “an extreme sensitivity to the sufferings (however slight and however brief) of other creatures, animal as well as human”; she is decades older than him, and by the time he is aware of her she has moved to Harlem to be the lover of Ruby, a black actress. Direct communication between Ursula and her family is spotty: “Their intimacy was felt to exist at a deeper level than the plane of formal social intercourse to which letters . . . belong.” Instead, the narrator sees her on her very occasional trips home and hears about her at intervals through a mutual friend. With the help of Ruby, Urusla overcomes a heroin addiction that developed when she was a “Bright Young Person” in the ’20s; she becomes involved with the “Negro cause,” joins the wacs, and takes a government job administering benefits for war veterans. “Ursula” doesn’t crest and fall the way a typical short story might; rather, it follows the contours of lived experience. Visiting her at the end of her life, the narrator sees that Ursula, the child of a doting, laissez-faire father, carries “that legacy of absolute love which is intended to shield one through life like a magic cloak but instead leaves one indecently disarmed and vulnerable to the most trivial adversary.”
The Other Garden, Wyndham’s slender novel, is a dual portrait—of Kay, a friend of the narrator (who is, we presume, identical to the narrator of Mrs. Henderson), and of a small English town before, during, and after the war. Wyndham’s fictional stand-in lives with his warm family; through a neighbor, they meet the upwardly aspiring Demarests. To the narrator and his family, Sibyl, Kay’s mother, is occasionally insulting and always boring; Charlie, Kay’s father, is deaf and grumpy. They both act viciously toward their untidy, awkward daughter; Kay, in her thirties, is the odd woman out, “the hapless victim of a mysterious spell binding her to the callous custody of her parents.” She leads an exile’s existence, staying with friends, taking up intermittently with one or another of an odd assortment of boyfriends, and finding occasional employment. One evening, while listening to BBC News in their sitting room, Sibyl and Charlie absurdly rise to attention when the national anthem is played. When Kay remains in her chair, her outraged father tries to tip her out of it. “Part of her longed to get up . . . however ridiculous she would have considered such a surrender to the hypocritical hysteria that seemed to have seized her parents; but a greater part was gripped by the same moral paralysis and morbid passivity that prevented her from returning her library books on time, and she found to her horror that she was quite unable to move.”
Like earlier Wyndham characters, Kay obsesses over movie stars and has unfocused creative energies: The day after war is declared, the narrator finds her outside a newsstand, pleased, like Edna in Wyndham’s earlier story, that a letter she has written was reprinted in Picturegoer. She is both self-absorbed and outwardly affectionate; she can barely contain her joy over seeing a beautiful sunset and adopts an abandoned dog that becomes another fixation. The narrator, still a teenager, becomes Kay’s confidant and wandering companion. He sees in her an “extreme example” of a temperament “in which I recognized some elements of my own.”
Only some. Over three short, subtle books, Wyndham has thrown his lot in with the disenfranchised and the neurotic, the powerless and the unwanted. The “eyes and ears” that have allowed him to so clearly and empathetically record his surroundings have proved to be his saving grace.
Peter Terzian is the editor of Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives, published in June by Harper Perennial.