Mod­est writer and ed­i­tor who re­dis­cov­ered Jean Rhys

The Week - - Obituaries -

It would be hard to quan­tify Francis Wyn­d­ham’s in­flu­ence on 20th cen­tury English lit­er­a­ture, “but it was per­va­sive”, said The Times. As an ed­i­tor at An­dré Deutsch and The Sun­day Times Mag­a­zine, he had close work­ing re­la­tion­ships with a wide range of au­thors, from Jean Rhys – who hadn’t pub­lished a book for years when he sought her out in the late 1950s – to V.S. Naipaul, Ed­ward St Aubyn and Bruce Chatwin, whose manuscripts he was the first to read. His own literary out­put was slim, said The Daily Tele­graph: he didn’t pub­lish his first work, a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, un­til the 1970s, al­though he had writ­ten it decades ear­lier as a teenager wait­ing to be called up. Out of the War “per­fectly cap­tured” the mood of drab pro­vin­cial towns in wartime. Ten years later, he pro­duced Mrs Hen­der­son and Other Sto­ries, and then, in 1987, a novella – The Other Gar­den, which won him the Whit­bread First Novel award, at the age of 63.

Born in London in 1924 and brought up in Wilt­shire, Wyn­d­ham was the son of a re­tired sol­dier and diplo­mat. It was from his ma­ter­nal grand­mother, the writer Ada Lev­er­son, that he re­ceived literary en­cour­age­ment. She had been a friend of Max Beer­bohm, and one of the few to stand by Os­car Wilde dur­ing his trial. She died when he was nine. “I adored her – and later, I slith­ered into that literary world, which she was in, too,” Wyn­d­ham said. He was ed­u­cated at Eton (which he dis­liked) drafted into the Army while at Ox­ford, then dis­charged when he was di­ag­nosed with TB. In his novella, he drew on his dreamy ru­ral child­hood, his ill­ness and the in­tense re­la­tion­ship he formed with an older woman, who died of TB. He never went back to Ox­ford and in­stead be­gan his literary ca­reer by writ­ing re­views for the TLS; in the 1950s, he be­came a reader at An­dré Deutsch. He had read Jean Rhys’ 1939 novel, Good Morn­ing, Mid­night, and liked it so much he tracked her down to Devon (hav­ing ini­tially pre­sumed her dead). They cor­re­sponded and she be­gan send­ing him pages from her new book – Wide Sar­gasso Sea (1966).

From Deutsch, he moved to Queen mag­a­zine and then, with his friend Mark Boxer, to The Sun­day Times, where he wrote pro­lif­i­cally, and nur­tured the tal­ent of oth­ers, in­clud­ing Don Mc­cullin, James Fox and Chatwin – whom he em­ployed as arts con­sul­tant. In 1977, af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of his best­seller In Patag­o­nia, Chatwin wrote to Wyn­d­ham from Siena: “I spent my soli­tary lunch think­ing of the enor­mous amount I owe to you.” Yet Wyn­d­ham played down his con­tri­bu­tion to his friend’s suc­cess. As the writer Rachel Cooke ob­served when she went to in­ter­view him, in his flat above a dry cleaner in Not­ting Hill Gate, his mod­esty was in­nate: “Praise a cer­tain kind of nov­el­ist and he will smile in a way that says: ‘Well, of course you en­joyed my book; it’s by me.’ Francis Wyn­d­ham is not this kind of nov­el­ist. Tell him that you en­joyed his slim novel, or his short sto­ries, and his wide, rec­tan­gu­lar face, which can look lugubri­ous in re­pose, will split in two in a de­light so gen­uine you could al­most warm your hands on it.”

Wyn­d­ham: nur­tured tal­ent

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