John Wyndham is one of the godfathers of British science fiction, famous for his accessible, thoughtful apocalyptic novels and the broad spectrum of his short stories. In Hidden Wyndham, Amy Binns reveals the man behind the big ideas.
I first read John Wyndham as a teenager. I devoured The Day of the Triffids (…that opening line) and went on to inhale The Midwich Cuckoos and The Kraken Wakes (probably my favourite; but it’s a close-run thing). Over the next few years, I found copies of The Chrysalids and Web; I eventually got my hands on Chocky and kicked myself when I discovered that Trouble With Lichen had been ageing in the sun on a shelf in my grandmother’s back bedroom all along.
They’re books I turn to when I’ve got a book hangover, or when I want the comfort of familiar stories. And in spite of focusing on alien invasions and social collapse they are oddly comforting taken at face value: John Wyndham curated his apocalypses carefully, more interested in questions of evolution than in shocking with violence. He was a master of knowing when to look away with an ellipse, and of deploying a nostalgic tone to his protagonists’ reflections as their worlds disintegrated around them. However chilling some of the concepts underneath, they came in very palatable packaging.
His fiction suggests he would have been a likeable chap, much like his protagonists: clever, unruffled, quietly getting on with the disaster at hand.
Amy Binns’s excellent biography seems to confirm this.
A famously private man, Wyndham (or John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris to give him his full name – having so many, he regularly used different names as aliases, even co-authoring a book as John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes) rarely accepted interviews and eventually vetoed the use of author photographs on his books. Having worked briefly in advertising, he seems to have had a cynical disdain for self-promotion – and as his work flew off the shelves and onto celluloid (thanks to the efforts of his agents) he was largely vindicated in this. But Hidden Wyndham makes it clear how hard he worked for his eventual success.
While the blurb emphasises Wyndham’s relationship with Grace Wilson, in fact Amy Binns has meticulously researched the author’s life from birth to death. The result is a triumph, revealing the influences that would play out as themes in his fiction: his fractious, self-involved parents; the social camouflage required of a misfit at boarding school; the thin veneer of civilisation exposed by the war; and his unorthodox love affair with the woman he would only marry when they both retired. Similarly, his circumstances – privately educated; sufficiently well-to-do to board at the Penn Club for years as a struggling writer; mistrustful of the everyman’s ability to vote sensibly – explain the middle-class sensibilities of his work.
The book is full of excerpts from his letters, granting a rare insight into a man who worked hard to stay out of the public eye. They are set carefully in context, using Wyndham’s own words to bring the facts to life with his familiar turn of phrase. They reveal his character (every bit as likeable as expected) and his concerns for a world fast changing beyond recognition. He is by turns playful, incisive, concerned, morose, but he is always unapologetically devoted to the elegant, independent woman who lives next door.
Amy Binns is quite clear she feels that Grace Wilson was the model for most of Wyndham’s heroines. She certainly makes the case for the influence their relationship had on his work: the snippets from The Chrysalids describing the connection between David and Rosalind feel almost prurient placed side by side with Wyndham’s love letters. Her careful selection of quotes neatly illustrate how his experiences were echoed in his fiction. The result is a well-written exploration of a life that I inhaled in two days, which left me unsurprisingly keen to pick up one of his novels (my only surprise is that I think I want to read Chrysalids or Lichen rather than Triffids or Kraken).
There are a couple occasions where I felt Hidden Wyndham faltered. The first is a turn of phrase: Binns repeatedly refers to Bedales graduates as snowflakes. The term has been so abused by certain sections of the internet that this feels like an intrusive value judgment by an otherwise unobtrusive narrator. She may have intended it affectionately (as it’s clear throughout the book that she is very fond of her subject), but it’s such a loaded term it sat badly with me.
The second was the switch from a chronological to thematic approach in the chapters dealing with Wyndham’s career after the war. On the plus side, this allowed for a consolidated review of his journey first as a novelist and then as a writer of short form and as a force within the British science fiction community. However, I found it a little disjointed and at times repetitive as the narrative revisited topics already covered in previous chapters. On balance, I think it was probably the right approach to provide a review of Wyndham’s work within the context of his life; but it is perhaps a little under-edited.
Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed Hidden Wyndham as a glimpse of an author I have long admired, but also as a window on to a time – only one hundred years removed! – that already feels unexpectedly alien in so many respects. Yet some things never change. Should my beloved ever forget my birthday, I can only hope he writes me an apology as hilarious and loving as the one Jack wrote Grace.
I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. Hidden Wyndham by Amy Binns is out now in the UK.
Check out more reviews for Hidden Wyndham from other participants in the blog tour: