The Rock Pool, 1936
Enemies of Promise, 1938 (essays)
The Condemned Playground, 1945
Previous Convictions: Selected Writings of a Decade, 1963
The Evening Colonnade, 1975
The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle, 1944 (fiction, autobiography, and essays)
Cyril Vernon Connolly is perhaps best known as England’s “golden boy” of literature, who never fulfilled his early promise to be the finest writer of his generation. Instead he led a life of indolence, self-pity, and indulgence. He was born to Matthew Connolly, a professional soldier, and Muriel Vernon Connolly, who was descended from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family. He began his education at a good school, St. Cyprian’s, where Eric Blair (later to be known as George Orwell) was a schoolmate. His formal education was an important influence on his life, and at his next school, Eton College, he gained a reputation for literary promise. He became part of the social elite of Eton, a member of the eminent inner circle “Pop,” even though his family was not particularly prominent and he was not much of an athlete. He was, however, widely admired as the liveliest intellect in the school, and much was expected of him.
Connolly next attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he flourished as one of the brightest undergraduates. His reputation was blighted, however, when to everyone’s surprise he took only a third-class degree. His career began rather unpromisingly, first as a child’s tutor and then as a personal secretary to American writer Lloyd Logan Pearsall Smith. By the late 1920’s, Connolly was working regularly as a journalist in London, and he began to build a reputation as a reviewer for the New Statesman. In 1930, he married Jean Bakewell, an American who had a modest private income, and they lived on that and his earnings as a freelance writer, settling for a time in the South of France.
In 1936, Connolly’s novel The Rock Pool appeared, a clever satire about Britons living in an artists’ colony on the Riviera. It showed promise, but no more promise than the work of his contemporaries Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, and Graham Greene, all of whom had been schoolmates of Connolly at one time or another. His second book, a collection of essays entitled Enemies of Promise, gained a wider reception as one of the best and most perceptive attacks upon the English public school system.
Connolly continued to work as a journalist in London, and in 1939 he founded Horizon, which became the finest literary magazine of the 1940’s and certainly one of the best British journals of the twentieth century. He edited it until its termination in 1949, an achievement that would have been regarded as sufficient proof of a distinguished literary career. Yet Connolly was convinced of his capacity for greater things. He never seemed able to settle down to the hard labor of writing a great novel, however, in part because his personal life was chaotic (he was married three times) and because he was too fond of indulging in the pleasures of literary celebrity.
Connolly’s greatest success came with The Unquiet Grave, which first appeared in Horizon, supposedly written by someone called Palinurus. It was to become something of a cult classic, an intriguing mix of fiction, autobiography, and occasional essay. In it, the author took on the character of a sophisticated man contemplating the failure of his life within the context of a charming, wide-ranging medley of quotations from classical to contemporary times. The book includes a brilliant display of French allusions passed off with effortless elegance and a range of emotion beginning in despair, swinging into tender reminiscence of past pleasures, and ending in an operatic gesture of worldly-wise resignation. If he could not write the great novel, he at least proved that he ought to have been able to write it, given the range of learning and magnanimous wisdom that The Unquiet Grave displays.
In his later years, Connolly contented himself with journalism, and he was, until his death from heart trouble in 1974, the chief book critic for the London Sunday Times. He is acknowledged as one of the finest essayists of his time, but often with the qualification that he ought to have done more with his gifts. He came to be recognized as a minor figure in English letters of the late twentieth century. His reputation continues to rest on Enemies of Promise, one of the finest studies of a peculiar British phenomenon, the public school, and The Unquiet Grave, a brilliant twentieth century addition to the world of humane, elegant thought in which style is as important as content.