HIDDEN WYNDHAM: LIFE, LOVE, LETTERS
By Amy Binns
Grace Judson Press 2019
Not without reason was John Wyndham (real name John Wyndham Beynon Harris) known as the “invisible man of science fiction”. Even friends like Arthur C. Clarke were unaware he had been living with a partner for thirty years, till he married Grace Wilson at the age of 60. “Incredibly, after years of friendship, I knew very little of John – I had no idea he had a girlfriend!”
Few writers have what could be called an exciting life, though some do have peculiar ones – and few are more peculiar than Wyndham’s.
His parents split-up when he was only young, but even before this momentous event he spent most of his childhood at boarding schools, between seven or eight in total. He knew little about a normal family life, neither parent being close to him. After graduating at university, he lived an almost monklike life at the Quaker-run Penn Club in London, where he rented a room (cleaned by the club’s servants) and enjoyed communal meals – a life significantly similar to that he had known at school. He lived in a fairly spartan single room in the club for the next thirty years, broken only with his time in the army during World War Two, though he returned back to it after being demobbed. Most of that time he and Grace had adjoining rooms. Only after they were married did they buy a house of their own for the last few years of his life. Grace was a schoolteacher and it was partly because they weren’t married that their relationship had to be kept secret as it would have meant instant dismissal for her if it ever came out in those days. Why they didn’t marry till after she retired is puzzling, except that Wyndham had little respect for the institution of marriage after what he witnessed of his parents.
During the 1930s, despite a steady sales mainly to American science fiction magazines he had no significant success as a writer, and it was only because he lived a frugal life at the Penn Club and had a modest allowance from his wealthy maternal grandfather he was able to survive. Most of his stories were sold under pseudonyms, mainly John Beynon, though he did write several novels, mainly hardboiled detectives with touches of the fantastic, none doing particularly well. It was not until after the War, when he wrote his breakthrough novel The Day of the Triffids as John Wyndham that he suddenly became a success, going on to write The Midwich Cuckoos, The Kraken Wakes, Chocky, and The Chrysalids. Being almost obsessively private, though, he shied from publicity. In 1957 the World Science Fiction Convention was held in London and Wyndham was elected President of its committee, yet apart from presenting prizes his presence was remarkably lowkey. As Amy Binns writes: “There are several galleries of pictures online, but it’s notable how little the president of the affair features. Jack is there handing out prizes at the luncheon, and introducing the guest of honour, John W. Campbell, but he seems to be missing from the fun. He is not amongst the dancers at the ball or sitting with the drinkers and merrymakers. He doesn’t feature in anecdotes or memories.”
Amy Binns’ biography is detailed, interesting and sympathetic to a writer she obviously likes and admires. It is impressively researched, with some excellent black and white photographs, including magazine and book covers, and a detailed analysis of his major novels and short stories, noting any significant links they might have with his life.
It is all in all a fascinating book, shedding considerable light on one of the most important science fiction writers of the second half of the twentieth century, a man whose influence still extends far beyond his death in 1969 aged 65. He redefined science fiction, especially in Britain, and is one of the few writers whose works never date, with several adaptations of both The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos (aka Village of the Damned) on TV and film, not to mention the radio, and no one would be a surprised to see more of both in the future. It is one of the best literary biographies I have ever read and a must for anyone interested in the history of science fiction, especially in the UK.
Dr Amy Binns teaches journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston. She has a wide range of research interests, including difficult behaviour on social media, interwar feminism and local reporting. She is the author of one previous book, Valley of a Hundred Chapels: the Lives and Legacies of the Nonconformists.
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