7 minute read

Mervyn Jones Biography

Mervyn Jones comments:

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1922. Education: Abbotsholme School, Derbyshire; New York University, 1939-41. Military Service: Served in the British Army, 1942-47: Captain. Career: Assistant editor, 1955-60, and dramatic critic, 1958-66, Tribune, London; assistant editor, New Statesman, London, 1966-68. Awards: Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1982. Agent: Scott Ferris Associates, 15 Gledhow Gardens, London S.W.5.



No Time to Be Young. London, Cape, 1952.

The New Town. London, Cape, 1953.

The Last Barricade. London, Cape, 1953.

Helen Blake. London, Cape, 1955.

On the Last Day. London, Cape, 1958.

A Set of Wives. London, Cape, 1965.

John and Mary. London, Cape, 1966; New York, Atheneum, 1967.

A Survivor. London, Cape, and New York, Atheneum, 1968.

Joseph. London, Cape, and New York, Atheneum, 1970.

Mr. Armitage Isn't Back Yet. London, Cape, 1971.

Holding On. London, Quartet, 1973; as Twilight of the Day, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974.

The Revolving Door. London, Quartet, 1973.

Strangers. London, Quartet, 1974.

Lord Richard's Passion. London, Quartet, and New York, Knopf, 1974.

The Pursuit of Happiness. London, Quartet, 1975; New York, MasonCharter, 1976.

Nobody's Fault. London, Quartet, and New York, Mason Charter, 1977.

Today the Struggle. London, Quartet, 1978.

The Beautiful Words. London, Deutsch, 1979.

A Short Time to Live. London, Deutsch, 1980; New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1981.

Two Women and Their Man. London, Deutsch, and New York, St.Martin's Press, 1982.

Joanna's Luck. London, Piatkus, 1984.

Coming Home. London, Piatkus, 1986.

That Year in Paris. London, Piatkus, 1988.

Short Stories

Scenes from Bourgeois Life. London, Quartet, 1976.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Foot," in English Story 8, edited by Woodrow Wyatt. London, Collins, 1948.

"The Bee-Keeper," in English Story 10, edited by Woodrow Wyatt. London, Collins, 1950.

"Discrete Lives," in Bananas (London), 1978.

"Five Days by Moonlight," in Encounter (London), November 1978.

"Living Together," in Woman (London), 1979.


The Shelter (produced London, 1982).

Radio Plays:

Anna, 1982; Taking Over, 1984; Lisa, 1984; Generations, 1986.


Guilty Men, 1957: Suez and Cyprus, with Michael Foot. London, Gollancz, and New York, Rinehart, 1957.

Potbank (documentary). London, Secker and Warburg, 1961.

Big Two: Life in America and Russia. London, Cape, 1962; as The Antagonists, New York, Potter, 1962.

Two Ears of Corn: Oxfam in Action. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1965; as In Famine's Shadow: A Private War on Hunger, Boston, Beacon Press, 1967.

Life on the Dole. London, Davis Poynter, 1972.

Rhodesia: The White Judge's Burden. London, Christian Action, 1972.

The Oil Rush, photographs by Fay Godwin. London, Quartet, 1976.

The Sami of Lapland. London, Minority Rights Group, 1982.

Chances: An Autobiography. London, Verso, 1987.

A Radical Life: The Biography of Megan Lloyd George. London, Hutchinson, 1991.

Michael Foot. London, Gollancz, 1994.

Editor, Kingsley Martin: Portrait and Self-Portrait. London, Barrie and Rockliff, and New York, Humanities Press, 1969.

Editor, Privacy. Newton Abbot, Devon, David and Charles, 1974.

Translator, The Second Chinese Revolution, by K.S. Karol. New York, Hill and Wang, 1974.


Critical Studies:

Chapter by Kiernan Ryan, in The Socialist Novel in Britain edited by H. Gustav Klaus, Brighton, Harvester Press, 1982.

(1981) I have become known as a political novelist, although only two of my books—Joseph and Today the Struggle—could be defined strictly as political novels, and some others are deliberately limited to the study of personal relationships. Probably, this reveals how rarely most British novelists concern themselves with the political framework of life. Taking account of that framework does, I think, extend the novel's range. But I also think, decidedly, that a novel ceases to be a novel when it does not have human character and human experience at its center. Those interested in my views on the matter are referred to a Guardian interview, 9 July 1979.

I have never planned a recurrent theme in my writing, but when I consider it I believe that there is one: the nobility and irony of idealism. I take both the nobility and the irony to be realities. This is the subject of Strangers, the novel with which I am least dissatisfied and by which I should wish to be judged.

* * *

Mervyn Jones is a fine storyteller whose skill has continued to improve over a career that spans half a century. While some of his novels are about a broad variety of characters, and tend to be built on his journalistic experience, his specialty seems to be the problems of those people who have enough time and money to enable them to reflect on life. The conflicts between their ideals and their experiences, or between values related to ideals, are the themes of The New Town, Mr. Armitage Isn't Back Yet, Strangers, Joanna's Luck, and the short stories "The Syndrome" and "Happiness Is …" How these people reconcile themselves to reality while retaining their ideals or, more often, how they retain ideals that have less and less to do with their actions and decisions is of primary interest to Jones. He has said that the theme of the nobility and irony of idealism is a recurrent one in his writing, and crucial to his depiction of this theme is his calculated distance from his characters. They are intellectual rather than emotional; their thoughts are clear, their emotions suppressed; and if they seem to lack depth, it may be because this lack is an aspect of the modern middle-class idealist.

Strangers, the novel by which Jones has said he would like to be judged, is the best example of his study of the problems of idealism. Andrew Stanton is a pacifist who refuses to live in his native South Africa, and whose refusal to fight in the Second World War has alienated him from his conservative family. He has devoted himself to the ideal of fighting the pure evil in the world with the pure good of compensatory charitable actions. His first wife was a frail survivor of a concentration camp, who was killed by a sniper in Israel. His young second wife, Val, marries him out of her own idealism and faith in him. When Andrew leaves to work with refugees in Uganda, Val is left with a house full of charity cases: a pregnant teenager on the run from her parents, an American on the run from the draft, and a foreign student who runs off with a local schoolgirl. As Andrew and Val struggle in their separate situations, both are confronted with the futility of charity, but while Val sheds specific failures to become more hopeful, Andrew, after a major success, is cruelly struck by the failure of his ideals.

A Short Time to Live is a more cynical view of the idealist. A charismatic journalist with a conscience, Michael Kellet, dies mysteriously on a Pacific island. Each of the old school-friends, teacher, ex-wife, and widow who attend his funeral is carefully examined, as the solution to the mystery gradually becomes apparent. None of them cherishes much of any ideal, except the old teacher, secure in his faith in education, and each is laid bare with a cold, journalistic precision that could have been that of the dead Kellet.

Joanna's Luck is a study of one of the children of the idealists of the 1960s. Joanna's mother and father are ex-hippies, described with the snide acceptance of a disillusioned young woman of the 1980s: the one is still smoking dope and wearing beads at forty-eight, the other has shed it all to become a prosperous businessman. Locked in the thoughts of their era, they cannot comprehend why Joanna cares so much about finding a rewarding job or about wanting to feel close to a man before she goes to bed with him. Joanna is bright, but muddled in her emotions, lonely and drifting. It is not until she drifts into situations that force decisions that she begins to analyze her own emotions and beliefs with the same clarity that she had applied to her work in social research. Jones has always written sympathetically about women, but here he extends that to a deeper, fuller portrayal of a character.

The Beautiful Words is probably Jones's finest book, combining his excellent storytelling with interesting characterization. Here he contrasts a sensitive, full description of his main character, Tommy, with flatter, colder perceptions of the many people Tommy encounters but cannot understand. Tommy is a handsome boy of seventeen with the mind of a very small child. After a life of being shunted among relatives, he becomes a homeless drifter. All that his confused mind can offer for consolation in times of loneliness, fear, and despair are the "beautiful words" his one kind aunt taught him to memorize. He wanders into the home of a prostitute, who cares for him and has him do her cleaning, but her pimp uses him for a robbery and he gets beat up by the police. Lost, he lives with the dossers and drunks on London's Embankment until he finds an empty house and becomes a squatter. Others move in and care for him in a haphazard way, finally dumping him on Belle, a rich and greedy old woman who uses him as a watchdog. The story is about how all of these people deal with the responsibility of innocence as much as what it is like for poor Tommy to be an innocent, and Jones tells the sad story with compassion.

Because of their topical nature, some of Jones's novels date quickly, but not those which delve deeply into the effort of modern people trying to find something to believe and to live by it. For the craft of his storytelling alone, Jones continues to be well worth reading.

—Anne Morddel

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal