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William Cooper Biography

William Cooper comments:

Pseudonym: Harry Summerfield Hoff. Nationality: British. Born: Crewe, Cheshire, 1910. Education: Christ's College, Cambridge, M.A. in physics 1933. Military Service: Served in the Royal Air Force, 1940-45. Career: Schoolmaster, Leicester, 1933-40; assistant commissioner, Civil Service Commission, London, 1945-58. Part-time personnel consultant, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, 1958-72, Central Electricity Generating Board, 1960-72, Commission of European Community, 1972-73; assistant director, Civil Service Selection Board, 1973-75; member of the Board, Crown Agents, 1975-77; adviser, Millbank Technical Services, 1975-77; personnel consultant, Ministry of Overseas Development, 1978. Adjunct professor of English, Syracuse University, London Center, 1977-90. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature.



Trina (as H.S. Hoff). London, Heinemann, 1934; as It Happened in PRK, New York, Coward McCann, 1934.

Rhéa (as H.S. Hoff). London, Heinemann, 1937.

Lisa (as H.S. Hoff). London, Heinemann, 1937.

Three Marriages (as H.S. Hoff). London, Heinemann, 1946.

Scenes from Provincial Life. London, Cape, 1950.

The Struggles of Albert Woods. London, Cape, 1952; New York, Doubleday, 1953.

The Ever-Interesting Topic. London, Cape, 1953.

Disquiet and Peace. London, Macmillan, 1956; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1957.

Young People. London, Macmillan, 1958.

Scenes from Married Life. London, Macmillan, 1961.

Scenes from Life (includes Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Married Life). New York, Scribner, 1961.

Memoirs of a New Man. London, Macmillan, 1966.

You Want the Right Frame of Reference. London, Macmillan, 1971.

Love on the Coast. London, Macmillan, 1973.

You're Not Alone: A Doctor's Diary. London, Macmillan, 1976.

Scenes from Metropolitan Life. London, Macmillan, 1982.

Scenes from Later Life. London, Macmillan, 1983.

Scenes from Provincial Life, and Scenes from Metropolitan Life. NewYork, Dutton, 1983.

Scenes from Married Life, and Scenes from Later Life. New York, Dutton, 1984.

Immortality at Any Price. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1991.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Ball of Paper," in Winter's Tales 1. London, Macmillan, and NewYork, St. Martin's Press, 1955.

"A Moral Choice," in Winter's Tales 4. London, Macmillan, andNew York, St. Martin's Press, 1958.


High Life (produced London, 1951).

Prince Genji (produced Oxford, 1968). London, Evans, 1959.


C.P. Snow. London, Longman, 1959; revised edition, 1971.

Shall We Ever Know? The Trial of the Hosein Brothers for the Murder of Mrs. McKay. London, Hutchinson, 1971; as Brothers, New York, Harper, 1972.

From Early Life (memoirs). London, Macmillan, 1990.


Manuscript Collection:

Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Critical Studies:

Tradition and Dream by Walter Allen, London, Phoenix House, 1964, as The Modern Novel in Britain and the United States, New York, Dutton, 1964; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury to Scenes from Provincial Life, London, Macmillan, 1969; William Cooper the Novelist by Ashok Kumar Sinha, New Delhi, Jnanada, 1977.

(1972) I don't know that I specially believe in artists making statements about their own work. An artist's work is his statement. And that's that. The rest is for other people to say. Perhaps a writer whose original statement has turned out obscure may feel it useful to present a second that's more comprehensible—in that case I wonder why he didn't make the second one first.

Speaking for myself, Scenes from Provincial Life seems to me so simple, lucid, attractive, and funny that anyone who finds he can't read it probably ought to ask himself: "Should I be trying to read books at all? Wouldn't it be better to sit and watch television or something?" I write about the real world and real people in it. And I stick pretty close to what I've had some experience of. That's why Scenes from Metropolitan Life, which is also simple, lucid, attractive and funny, was suppressed. Scenes from Married Life, makes the third of a trilogy. Albert Woods and Memoirs of a New Man are about goings-on in the world of science and technology; You Want the Right Frame of Reference in the world of arts—they have an added touch of wryness and malice. An unusual marriage is the core of Young People and of Disquiet and Peace, the former set in the provinces in the '30s, the latter in Edwardian upperclass London—its small group of admirers thinks it's a beautiful book. The Ever-Interesting Topic is about what happens when you give a course of lectures on sex to a boarding school full of boys: what you'd expect. Shall We Ever Know? is a day-by-day account of a most surprising and mystifying murder trial, a kidnapping for ransom in which no trace whatsoever of the body was ever found, and two men were found guilty of murder.

(1981) Love on the Coast, my only novel to be set outside England, is about some former "flower children" in San Francisco who are working their way back into society by running an "experimental" theater. And You're Not Alone is the diary of a London doctor, a retired GP of some distinction, to whom people come to confide their sexual quirks—as a start he tells them they are not alone.

(1986) In 1981 the 30-year suppression of Scenes from Metropolitan Life ended, allowing the trilogy to be published complete. The three novels fit together thus: Provincial Life—Boy won't marry Girl; Metropolitan Life—same Girl now won't marry Boy; Married Life—Boy meets another Girl and marries happily every after. In 1983 I published Scenes from Later Life as a companion volume to the trilogy, with the characters in their sixties and seventies, learning to cope with old age—in the final chapter I can make you laugh and make you cry within seven pages.

(1991) For my next novel I decided to make a change and embark on obvious satire. I completed a first draft which needed quite a lot of work, and two things happened which led me to put it aside. The first was a long drawn-out personal tragedy, on which I was persuaded to do a piece for Granta about the last stages—the most intimate thing I have ever written. The second was a friend's suggestion which caught my fancy, that I should try my hand at autobiography (from which I had previously had an aversion). I decided to write down things I could remember happening between the ages of 2 and 17 just as they came into my head—pure reminiscence unsullied by "research," From Early Life, short and delightful. And then I came back to my new departure, the satirical novel called Immortality at Any Price. The jacket by Willie Rushton discloses its nature—my response to a most wounding comment once made by an American reviewer: "Who wants to read a novel by a nice guy?" Well! …

* * *

William Cooper is the pen-name of a novelist who had already published four novels under his own name, H.S. Hoff, when in 1950 he emerged with a new literary identity, and won a new literary reputation, with Scenes from Provincial Life—a book which quickly became a classic of a new kind of postwar realism and undoubtedly had a very powerful influence on the development of the English novel in the 1950s and since. A delightful and tough-minded story set among young provincial intellectuals, in a British midland town that bears a close resemblance to Leicester, over the crucial months of change and crisis leading up to the outbreak of World War II, Scenes from Provincial Life—published at a time when new fictional directions were uncertain and no real postwar movement had shown itself—became the forerunner of a whole sequence of novels which, in the postwar years, were to treat local English life, and the familiar and ordinary experience of recognizable people, with a fresh, youthful, exploratory, and critical curiosity. There can be little doubt that the book did encourage, and often considerably influence, a number of younger writers like John Braine, David Storey, Stanley Middleton, and Stan Barstow, some of whom directly expressed their indebtedness; and it certainly helped writers thereafter to find a sense of direction in the period after the decline both of Modernism and the political fiction of the 1930s. Its force was strengthened by the fact that Cooper—along with C.P. Snow, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and some other younger writers like Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and John Wain—was deliberately reacting against the Bloomsbury-dominated climate of "cultured" and cosmopolitan experimentalism, and was seeking out a form of fiction much more social, empirical, realistic, and humanly substantial in character, and concerned with a felt sense of texture and the issues of contemporary British life.

This spirit in writing has sometimes been characterized by critics as middlebrow, and it was self-defined as provincial. But it asserted a humanist vigor and a closeness to familiar life in the practice of serious British writing at a time when, in literary traditions in other countries, the break with the past was disquieting and the signs of literary strain were being felt. Joyce had seemed to bring the modern novel into a cul-de-sac, and Cooper and others pointed to the value of the native tradition, his argument clearly strengthened by the fact that his own novel was not just one of the first, but one of the best, of a kind. In time the tendency he represented was to come to seem a narrowed view of the direction of fiction, but Cooper represented this kind of novel in all its strength. Scenes from Provincial Life tells the story of Joe Lunn, the young science master at a provincial grammar school, and his friends, nonconforming emotional radicals who know they are distant witnesses to the world's great events, as a kind of conflict between the force of history and the force of the familiar. Fearful of a German occupation of Britain, they plan their exiles; but the day-to-day world of provincial life (especially their complex sexual relationships) seems all that matters, and they finally opt for it. The story was to go on through three more volumes, plotting the development of Joe's life as a scientific adviser to government, as a writer and a married man. Scenes from Metropolitan Life, written in the 1950s but not published for legal reasons until 1982, brings the story into the postwar world, the London scene, and the world of Whitehall, renewing Joe's relationship with his former mistress Myrtle in the context of urban sexual mores. Scenes from Married Life, which appeared in 1961, is, unusually in contemporary fiction, a celebration of marital life, reinforcing Cooper's gift for exploring the private underside of the public world in which Joe is now an important figure. Scenes from Later Life brings most of the characters forward into the world of the late 1970s, with Joe haunted by retirement and the ailments of his mother. But, despite a rising quota of pain, the characteristic Cooper good humor and the sense of celebration of the familiar prevails, and the sequence sustains the spirit with which it started. As in the novels of C.P. Snow, but without Snow's stoical and even tragic pessimism, we see the new bloods turn into the men of place and power in an age in which the scientist and technologist become important public figures. But Cooper's social history gives way to a history of the domestic and the familiar, a comedy of daily life done with great luminosity and delicacy.

Cooper's other novels are all marked by the same commitment to familiar life, and the same luminous good humor. One, Disquiet and Peace, is an historical novel, set in the high-society milieu of Edwardian political and drawing-room life as the strange death of Liberal England is taking place; another, Love on the Coast, takes radical Californian lifestyle as its subject. But most of his books are, in an approving sense of the term, "banal" novels—concerned, that is, with the world of everyday social and emotional experience, and capable of evoking a strong, strange sense of recognition. Set in the provinces, the suburbs, or the world of the urban middle-classes with its clubs and appropriate restaurants—the pieces of social experience Cooper knows and details very well—they describe with affection and understanding the way ordinary things happen to intelligent and skeptical people as they marry, breed families, have affairs, work at recognizable jobs, and worry about their sexual lives, their mortality, and their salaries. Many of them indeed belong to the world of the "new men" (one book is called Memoirs of a New Man) whose meritocratic ascent forms an important story in British social life. Like that of his friend C.P. Snow (on whom he has written warmly), Cooper's fiction relates the life of ordinary origins to the commonsense decencies of public life, and, as with Snow, his realistic pleasure in the world seems to have to do with the fact that it is open to his mobility and talent. Like Snow's fiction, Cooper's achievement bears some relation to that desire for a better world that fed the postwar years, and also explores many of its ambiguities and disappointments.

But if one of Cooper's best qualities is his powerful realism, another is his comedy and wit. If he deals with familiar life, he lights it up with a striking sense of human oddity, and of the quirks and unexpected outrages that exist in his very recognizable characters. The outrage is often added to by the cool, undercutting tone of his narrators themselves. Like Muriel, who in Disquiet and Peace is provoked to stirring up disorder by donning an eyeglass and then dropping it in her soup, Cooper has a way of stirring up the surface of his world by his oblique vision. The struggles of the characters for sexual, social, or material success become matters for very cool irony. His plots often turn on conflicts between traditional and more liberal values, and he writes with a moral edge, but is also capable of moving lightly away from it all, leaving the chaos to itself, as in The Ever-Interesting Topic, about a headmaster who tries to bring lectures on sex education into his public school. All Cooper's books show a buoyant and vitalistic view of sexuality and an awareness of the way it undercuts so many of our social and moral pretensions. This comic vision is something he also handed on to his successors, and it makes his a realism of marvelous surprise, giving his books a sharp bite and clarity that distinguish them from Snow's sobered kind of realism. His Albert Woods and Joe Lunns may acquire influence, but they do not acquire sobriety. As a result they become attractive centers of vision, and that is especially true of Joe Lunn, who, in all the books where he is narrator, is both a performer in the chaotic and comic action and an artistic observer consciously knowing about fiction and busily interpreting, recalling, and shaping in a neat balance of sympathy and irony. Other narrative techniques are used in other novels, but they are usually distinguished by an adept mixture of sympathetic identification with lively characters and an ironic detachment from them.

With 17 novels over half a century to his credit, Cooper has contributed vitally to postwar British fiction. At times his committed support for realism and his distrust of writing in any way avant garde has been unfashionable and even inhibiting, though it has been an expression of his fierce literary individualism. Nonetheless his influence has been very considerable, and he did much to establish the "new realism" of British fiction from the 1950s onward. Though his own novels do vary somewhat in quality, they possess a very distinctive style, tone, and vision, and at their best a very cunning and powerful artistic control. Cooper's strengths are most apparent when—as in Young People—he is capturing the flavor of some distinctive period, milieu or generation, and then observing, with some cynicism, the characteristic, and comic, behavior of individuals within it. A strong admirer of the novelist H.G. Wells ("I loved it, enshrining Wells's message of optimism," Joe Lunn says of Wells's The History of Mr. Polly in Scenes from Later Life), and like him trained as a scientist, he can be compared with his master both for his concern with the way British society works and for his power to capture youthful, hopeful, buoyant pleasure from the stuff of ordinary life. At best, as in Scenes from Provincial Life, his balance of detail, reminiscence, sentiment, and irony comes together so exactly as to allow comparison with the great "artful realists," like Turgenev. Where many British novelists avoid the public world, of politics, government, law, and science, Cooper's books construct an important record of manners and moods, landscapes and cityscapes, social and historical changes, public operations and private and sexual emotions, in ways which are both morally and humanly illuminating and comically adept. Cooper has described his aim simply; it is "to tell the truth, laughing." These are the qualities that give the four novels of the Scenes series the classic status they now possess. Cooper has remained a vivid and influential writer, publishing in 1990 an autobiography of his midlands childhood, From Early Life, which captures his lower-middle-class social origins and ambitions with his familiar humane intelligence, and extends his chronicle of English life backwards to the years right after World War I. Meanwhile his late novel Immortality at Any Price deals in his sharp, cynical fashion with the raging competitiveness of the old, and turns on the principle that there is nothing like the animosity of old friends. Altogether, the long chronicle of his novels reminds us that the ability to see, illuminate, shape, and construct the experience of the ordinary and social world and to interpret the patterns of human behavior within it is something fundamental to the spirit of fiction.

—Malcolm Bradbury

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