The Strange Case of Peter Vansittart

Martin Seymour-Smith

  • Aspects of Feeling by Peter Vansittart
    Peter Owen, 251 pp, £10.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 7206 0637 3

Peter Vansittart, novelist, historian and writer for children, has been singled out for praise by critics as diverse as Philip Toynbee, Francis King, Angus Wilson and Andrew Sinclair. All feel that he lacks the large audience he deserves. Yet the curious reader, anxious to gain more information about this somewhat enigmatic writer, of undoubted power (and above all vision), may easily find himself defeated. He is not even included in the massive – if frequently trivial and banal – Contemporary Novelists. He is omitted from surveys of literature (even by those who have praised him). This is certainly undeserved neglect: but could it also be that critics find it difficult to explain him?

Vansittart began his writing life with a novel, I am the world (1942). Since then, he has written 20 more, as well as a history book and several volumes of stories for children. He was a history scholar at Oxford, and then a teacher (a headmaster) for some twenty years. His name is quite well-known, and most people have read at least one of his books. His writing is evidently of high quality and originality, and he has not often attracted hostile comment. So it seems that the neglect into which he has fallen – this is in itself perhaps better-known than any specific book he has written – is owed partly to the fact that few, if any, know in what tradition or group to place him. He is less ignored, then, really, than genuinely puzzling and therefore not much commented upon. Beyond the scope of a review, critics do not know what to say about him. And they can be forgiven for it.

In his historical novels, which are by no means typical of the genre (if they were, he would be richer and more popular than he is), Vansittart shares an attitude with the strange Polish novelist Teodor Parnicki. Parnicki does not pretend to be writing ‘history’ at all: he treats the past as part of his own present, and therefore never even attempts to ‘recreate’ it. When he feels like it, he freely mixes anachronism, invention and fantasy with meticulously documented fact (usually, let it be admitted, of periods about which no one but himself knows anything). Vansittart has himself said that he is ‘unconcerned’ with the ‘picturesque and antiquarian’, and has quoted Croce’s dictum that ‘all history is contemporary.’ The very least of his intentions is to give any kind of ‘true’ picture of the past. He is instead anxious to convey the manner in which the present is permeated by the past – and this is one of the many themes of his most recent novel.

But it does prove very hard to place Vansittart in any tradition or group. All the obvious influences are there, as well as a few more unusual ones: Sienkowicz as well as Kafka, the Carlyle of Sartor Resartus as well as Dickens – and so forth. But these writers have been thoroughly assimilated. He doesn’t resemble anyone at all closely; he reminds the reader of no one of this century. There is sometimes, it seems, a price to pay for this kind of originality. Although markedly eccentric, he is not just that. ‘When will this extraordinary writer receive his due?’ a critic has asked; nor is the question in the least surprising. Vansittart himself must be puzzled by the paucity of attention accorded to him. ‘Easily upset in life, I am fortunately undismayed by critical neglect, or by reviewers,’ he has written. But there is certainly a too personal note about the way in which he handles the ‘literary world’ in his new novel: the passages dealing with it are the least successful (and the least original) in that very remarkable book. Although Vansittart is undoubtedly unlucky – as gifted English eccentrics often are – he also has himself to blame for the fact that people seldom think of him until confronted by his books. He is in a sense oblivious to contemporary literature, although clearly he reads it. Doubtless he needs this obliviousness to preserve his originality: it is nonetheless a defect in his sensibility, and this is apparent whenever he has to deal in a precise manner with a contemporary phenomenon. Doubtless British literary life since the war has been every bit as awful and false as Vansittart wants us to think. Still, it has not been so in the way he too irascibly tries to demonstrate; and there has been no publisher remotely like the ones of whom he provides caricatures. This whole exercise reads like that of a person far away from the literary world.

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