Peter Vansittart: Influential figure in English literary life who brought an air of seriousness to the historical novel

By the time of his death, Peter Vansittart belonged to a practically exclusive literary category: the defiantly highbrow novelist who, sustained by a private income and supportive publishers, writes more or less to please himself. Such qualifications are usually a guarantee of direst obscurity. Certainly, none of Vansittart's 40-odd books sold more than a few thousand copies or even went into paperback. At the same time, in a career that spanned six and a half decades, he remained an influential figure on the margins of English literary life: not the least of his achievements was the virtual reinvention of the post-war historical novel.

He was born in 1920 in Bedford, although the family – consisting of mother, son and step-father – soon removed to the South Coast. Vansittart distrusted his step-father and never got on particularly well with his mother: the formative influence on his early life was an enterprising governess, Miss Ida Howe, whom he credited with teaching him to read.

The loneliness he experienced as a child was compounded by his parents' decision to set sail for the Gulf, where his step-father had taken a job in the oil industry. Henceforth, term time was spent at boarding schools and holidays in the West Country with the family of a naturalist doctor. In rural Devon, for the first time in his life, Vansittart believed that he experienced "real freedom".

Denied a place at the Royal Naval College at Dartford on the grounds of bad eyesight, he proceeded instead to Haileybury, the Hertfordshire public school. Here his contemporaries included his lifelong friend the poet and editor Alan Ross. Much influenced by the charismatic left-wing historian John Hampden Jackson, later director of extra-mural studies at Cambridge University, he won a major scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford.

By this stage his parents had returned to England and settled in Hampstead. Browsing in a local shop named Booklover's Corner during the school holidays, the teenage Vansittart met "a tall, thin, abrupt" assistant who tried to sell him a copy of Trader Horn in Madagascar rather than the P.G. Wodehouse novel that his customer preferred. The assistant, Vansittart later discovered, was George Orwell.

Vansittart dated his literary leanings to childhood, when he wrote and declaimed plays in an empty house. I Am The World (1942), his first novel, was written during a brief, year-long stint at Oxford and in a subsequent period in Blitz-era London spent working in the Fire Service. Vansittart declined to make the changes that its editorial sponsor, V.S. Pritchett at Chatto & Windus, had suggested and the novel was poorly received: "I can without hesitation say that this is the worst book ever published," one critic wrote. Undeterred by this rebuff, Vansittart became a familiar figure on the wartime Fitzrovian scene, meeting such luminaries of the milieu as Julian Maclaren-Ross and being given reviewing work by Orwell, in the latter's capacity as literary editor of the left-wing weekly Tribune.

Out drinking with his editor near Tribune's offices in the Strand, Vansittart had several opportunities to monitor Orwell's guilt-ridden, class-conscious personality in action. On one occasion Orwell told his younger friend that "with an accent like that and a tie like that you will never be accepted by the working classes". The effect of this bracing homily was rather spoiled by the barman, who immediately addressed Vansittart by his Christian name and Orwell as "Sir". On another occasion, Vansittart was waiting in Orwell's office when the novelist L.H. Myers invited them both to have dinner with him at the fashionable restaurant that he co-owned. Orwell's reply, made without reference to Vansittart, was "Oh no, Leo, we're not going to come and eat your black-market food".

Surviving on low-level literary work and poorly paid teaching, Vansittart was frequently hard up. Shortly after the war's end, urged on by the Sinhalese writer Alagu Subramaniam, he came up with the ingenious idea of writing what was, in effect, a begging letter to his fellow Haileyburian, the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Extraordinarily, Attlee produced a one-off payment of £150 from an obscure charitable fund known as the Royal Bounty.

However, Vansittart continued to make the greater part of his income from the classroom. Between 1947 and 1959 he was director of Burgess Hill School in Hampstead, an independent, co-educational establishment run on liberal lines. There was a brief marriage to a fellow teacher, Jacqueline Goldsmith, by which he acquired a stepdaughter. Shortly before his 40th birthday, fortified by a modest inheritance, he settled down to become a full-time writer.

Vansittart's early novels had had contemporary settings. I Am the World is about a dictator. Broken Canes (1950) surveys the world of progressive education. As time went on, his forte became history and legend. Pastimes of a Red Summer (1969), often thought to be one of his best novels, is set in Revolutionary France. The declining Roman Empire gave him the material for Three Six Seven (1983) and The Wall (1990). Lancelot (1978), The Death of Robin Hood (1981) and Parsifal (1988) explored his fascination with myth. None of them could be described as easy reading – Vansittart's style is often cryptic, his interest lies in symbol and myth rather than straightforward narrative – but their importance in bringing a new air of seriousness to a chronically embarrassed genre should not be underestimated.

In addition to his novels, Vansittart wrote copiously in a variety of other forms. There were a number of children's books, some excellent anthologies (Voices from the Great War, 1981, Voices 1870-1914, 1984), and an anecdotal social history, In the Fifties (1995). Though it paints an evocative picture of his childhood, his autobiography Paths from a White Horse (1985) is more revealing of his literary enthusiasms than his personal life.

Peter Vansittart was a tall, striking and faintly aristocratic figure with leonine hair that retained its colour into old age. Often asked to dilate on the famous literary names he had known, he maintained an enviable scrupulousness, only pronouncing personal judgements at the close of an otherwise objective summing-up: "I didn't like him, you know." Geographically, he divided his time between Hampstead and an antique cottage in the Suffolk village of Kersey. Conditions there were somewhat spartan, exacerbated by Vansittart's disregard of conventional domestic usage. "I don't think I've ever bought a pint of milk in my life," he told a visitor who had suggested a cup of coffee.

Beyond this orbit, he preserved the ability – rather like the characters in Anthony Powell's novels – to pop up unexpectedly in all kinds of unusual places. Coming down to breakfast one morning in the 2000s at a Bloomsbury hostel patronised by back-packing American students, a younger friend discovered him eating a plate of bacon and eggs. "I've just been visiting my girlfriend in Windsor," he volunteered.

Vansittart's last years were concentrated on his final novel, Secret Protocols (2006). This, published in his 86th year, assembled many of his abiding historical interests, in the story of a son of an English mother and a high-caste Germanic father who, having grown up in pre-war Estonia, witnesses many of the great events of the late 20th century. Dense and allusive, often seeming to be written in a kind of private code, yet containing passages of startling poetic beauty, it was acclaimed as one of his finest works.

The odd, subterranean quality that some critics detected in Secret Protocols was characteristic of Vansittart himself. He was a courteous but reserved man who believed, as he once wrote, that life was a series of disappointments made bearable by the challenges they established. One suspects, on the evidence of his autobiographical writing, that Vansittart would have defined "disappointment" as the failure to connect or otherwise communicate.

His books, on the other hand – again, the obvious comparison is with Powell – are distinguished by deep reservoirs of feeling and moral seriousness, however much occluded by the barriers of style. It is impossible to think that English literary life will ever throw up anyone quite like him again.

D.J. Taylor

Peter Vansittart, writer: born Bedford 27 August 1920; OBE 2008; married Jacqueline Goldsmith (marriage dissolved; one stepdaughter); died Ipswich 4 October 2008.

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