Modest writer and editor who rediscovered Jean Rhys
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