Peter Vansittart Biography
Peter Vansittart comments:
Nationality: British. Born: Bedford, 1920. Education: Marlborough House School; Haileybury College, Hertford; Worcester College, Oxford (major scholar in modern history). Career: Director, Burgess School, London, 1947-59; formerly, publisher, Park Editions, London. Awards: Society of Authors travelling scholarship, 1969; Arts Council bursary, 1981, 1984. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1985. Agent: Sheil and Associates Ltd., 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF.
I Am the World. London, Chatto and Windus, 1942.
Enemies. London, Chapman and Hall, 1947.
The Overseer. London, Chapman and Hall, 1949.
Broken Canes. London, Lane, 1950.
A Verdict of Treason. London, Lane, 1952.
A Little Madness. London, Lane, 1953.
The Game and the Ground. London, Reinhardt, 1956; New York, Abelard Schuman, 1957.
Orders of Chivalry. London, Bodley Head, 1958; New York, AbelardSchuman, 1959.
The Tournament. London, Bodley Head, 1959; New York, Walker, 1961.
A Sort of Forgetting. London, Bodley Head, 1960.
Carolina. London, New English Library, 1961.
Sources of Unrest. London, Bodley Head, 1962.
The Friends of God. London, Macmillan, 1963; as The Siege, NewYork, Walker, 1963.
The Lost Lands. London, Macmillan, and New York, Walker, 1964.
The Story Teller. London, Owen, 1968.
Pastimes of a Red Summer. London, Owen, 1969.
Landlord. London, Owen, 1970.
Quintet. London, Owen, 1976.
Lancelot. London, Owen, 1978.
The Death of Robin Hood. London, Owen, 1981.
Harry. London, Park, 1981.
Three Six Seven. London, Owen, 1983.
Aspects of Feeling. London, Owen, 1986.
Parsifal. London, Owen, 1988; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1989.
The Wall. London, Owen, 1990.
A Choice of Murder. London, Owen, 1992.
A Safe Conduct. London, Owen, 1995; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, 1995.
The Dark Tower: Tales from the Past (for children). London, Macdonald, 1965; New York, Crowell, 1969.
The Shadow Land: More Stories from the Past (for children). London, Macdonald, 1967.
Green Knights, Black Angels: The Mosaic of History (for children).London, Macmillan, 1969.
Vladivostok (essay). London, Covent Garden Press, 1972.
Dictators. London, Studio Vista, 1973.
Worlds and Underworlds: Anglo-European History Through the Centuries. London, Owen, 1974.
Flakes of History. London, Park, 1978.
The Ancient Mariner and the Old Sailor: Delights and Uses of Words. London, Centre for Policy Studies, 1985.
Paths from a White Horse: A Writer's Memoir. London, Quartet, 1985.
London: A Literary Companion. London, Murray, 1992.
In the Fifties. London, Murray, 1995.
In Memory of England: A Novelist's View of History. London, JohnMurray, 1998.
Survival Tactics: A Literary Life. London and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, P. Owen, 1999.
Editor, Voices from the Great War. London, Cape, 1981; New York, Watts, 1984.
Editor, Voices: 1870-1914. London, Cape, 1984; New York, Watts, 1985.
Editor, John Masefield's Letters from the Front 1915-1917. London, Constable, 1984; New York, Watts, 1985.
Editor, Happy and Glorious! An Anthology of Royalty. London, Collins, 1988.
Editor, Voices of the Revolution. London, Collins, 1989.
Editor, Kipps, by H.G. Wells. London, Everyman, 1993.
Though I have published non-fiction, novels alone excite my ambitions; not plays, short stories, poems, manifestos, sermons. My novels have been appreciated, if not always enjoyed, more by critics than the reading public, which shows no sign of enjoying them at all. This must be partly due to my obsession with language and speculation at the expense of narrative, however much I relish narrative in others. Today I take narrative more seriously, though still relying, perhaps over-relying, on descriptive colour, unexpected imagery, the bizarre and curious, no formula for popular success. The Game and the Ground, The Tournament, Lancelot, and Quintet, have succeeded the most in expressing initial vision and valid situation in fairly accessible terms. Others—A Verdict of Treason, A Sort of Forgetting—had interesting and provocative material, clumsily handled. The Story Teller, my own favourite, failed through excess of ambition, A Little Madness and Sources of Unrest, through too little.
My novels range in time from the second millennium BC, to AD 1986. They share the effect of time, and the apparently forgotten or exterminated on the present, time transmuting, distorting, travestying, ridiculing facts and ideas, loves and hates, generous institutions and renowned reputations. I was long impressed by the woeful distinction between the historical Macbeth and Shakespeare's: by the swift transformation of E.M. Forster's very English Mrs. Moore into an Indian goddess. Such phenomena relate very immediately to my own work, in which myth can be all too real, and the real degenerate into fantasy.
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In his memoirs, Paths from a White Horse, Peter Vansittart comments enlighteningly on the genre with which he is most closely associated, the historical novel. He knows that it has come to be disdained by many readers because of its long tradition of crude sentimentality and easy picturesqueness, with language that is either over-spiced with random archaism in vocabulary and syntax or else bled white for the sake of coining a supposedly timeless idiom. Worst of all, the desire to present the "facts" is too often allowed to come between the novelist and his primary duty of creating significant fictions. Though Vansittart is uncommonly well informed about history, it has never been his intention to attempt to rehabilitate the historical novel by basing his work on a sounder foundation of scholarship. Instead, appreciating that the objects and methods of history and fiction are distinct, for all that the starting point in both enterprises is a serious contemplation of the past, he is content to leave research and verification to the historians and claims for novelists the right to speculate over the facts that are available. He argues that he is entitled to let his imagination brood over events, situations, and characters, discovering by poetic insight mythic continuities that could be too daring for academic minds. This can happen in especially interesting ways when the past is reflected through the personalities of highly individualised characters whose outlook necessarily colours every interpretation of what is related. For Vansittart, the historical novel is, moreover, not exclusively concerned with the depiction of the past. Far more excitingly, he always presents past and present as a continuity, and while relishing the otherness of remote ages and of the people who lived through them, he makes his historical fiction a vehicle for an alert commentary on our present discontents.
The Death of Robin Hood, for instance, is an ambitious attempt to unify experiences by portraying a huge tract of time, with fantasy and realism mingled to create myth. First comes a spell-binding evocation of the forest in primal times when strange rites are already seen as failing to arrest the processes of change and decay. The second part of the novel, "John in the Castle," depicts the paranoid terrors of a tyrant who cowers behind stone walls, dreading the prospect of conflict with the unruly bands that have taken refuge in the forest. Here there is fine descriptive writing, but it is John's state of mind that is the centre of attention. Next, not pausing to make the linkage explicit, Vansittart moves on to the Luddite riots of 1811 when Nottinghamshire workers rose up and smashed the new machines that were taking away their livelihood and then, as the forces of repression gathered, ran off in droves into the forest. Finally, reverting to the environment he had portrayed with satiric verve in Broken Canes, Vansittart shows the old values under attack in the closed world of an independent school just before the outbreak of World War II. With its abrupt transitions, The Death of Robin Hood can be puzzling, but the immediacy of the emotions and the vividness of the scenes carry the reader along. Lancelot is more straightforward. It takes as its starting point Field-Marshal Wavell's observation that "Arthur was probably a grim figure in a grim, un-romantic struggle in a dark period of history," and, once again, it presents within a framework of exciting events an enquiry into the meaning of change and apparent decay. Three Six Seven is set in A.D. 367, a year of cataclysm for Roman Britain.
Parsifal is a novel that has some affinities with The Death of Robin Hood. The cryptic first chapter makes an explicit reference to Richard Wagner, but then the narrative doubles back to present, in chronological sequence, a series of portrayals of the Arthurian quasi-hero through the ages, from a curiously indeterminate prehistorical era to the fall of the Nazis. With his precise choice of vocabulary and tight-lipped style, Vansittart, without here trying very often for pictorial effects, creates compelling fiction. It evokes a world sadly out of joint, with legendary and literary elements curiously combined and with the extraordinary blend of reinterpreted myth and remorseless psychological realism which is the hallmark of Vansittart's historical novels.
Vansittart is by no means only a historical novelist, and his gift for description and his disabused insight into human motivations are equally well revealed in the portrayal of the life of the bourgeoisie in modern times in such novels as Quintet. The first of its five parts is set in Africa in the immediate post-war era when Britain was shedding its colonial responsibilities, and institutional decay is generally the framework within which flawed human beings pursue their complex ways.
As well as presenting a personal vision of man's lot and exploring the possibilities of narrative technique in challenging fashion, Vansittart possesses a most distinguished prose style. Provided every thought of complacent exuberance and lush imagery is banished, it might well be called poetic, for here there is a rare regard for the communicative power of the exact word in precisely the right place. Nouns in particular he values, not cluttering them with adjectives but letting them stand stark and unmodified to convey meaning. This gives an impression of elemental vigour which is apt in Lancelot, for example, and the tight-lipped statements suggest pressures that can be held in check only with difficulty just as dark hints leave us to draw dire conclusions for ourselves. In The Death of Robin Hood the prose, which is very stylised at first, becomes more and more relaxed as we move towards modern times, though Vansittart continues to use words with scrupulous care for their effect. In his novels there is humour too, but usually the laughter is uneasy, in situations that are becoming uncomfortable. Quite a prolific novelist, Vansittart has kept a voice that is distinctively his own.
The title of A Choice of Murder might lead one to guess it is a genre mystery, but in Vansittart's hands it is far from it. The protagonist is Timoleon of Syracuse, an actual historical figure who in the fourth century B.C. liberated his home in Sicily from Carthaginian domination. He also murdered his older brother, and the author examines his life to find out why. A Safe Conduct jumps forward to the eve of the Renaissance in Germany, again focusing on a real person. The heretic Hans Bohm was, along with contemporary Thomas Munzer, a precursor of twentieth-century political radicalism; in Vansittart's version, however, he becomes one who prepares the way for a more powerful prince, Albrecht.
updated by Judson Knight
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