Authors: John Wain

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist, biographer, literary critic, and short-story writer

Author Works

Long fiction:

Hurry on Down, 1953 (pb. in U.S. as Born in Captivity)

Living in the Present, 1955

The Contenders, 1958

A Travelling Woman, 1959

Strike the Father Dead, 1962

The Young Visitors, 1965

The Smaller Sky, 1967

A Winter in the Hills, 1970

The Pardoner’s Tale, 1978

Young Shoulders, 1982 (pb. in U.S. as The Free Zone Starts Here)

Where the Rivers Meet, 1988

Comedies, 1990

Hungry Generations, 1994

Short Fiction:

Nuncle, and Other Stories, 1960

Death of the Hind Legs, and Other Stories, 1966

The Life Guard, 1971

King Caliban, and Other Stories, 1978


Harry in the Night: An Optimistic Comedy, pr. 1975

Johnson Is Leaving: A Monodrama, pb. 1994


Young Shoulders, 1984 (with Robert Smith)

Radio Plays:

You Wouldn’t Remember, 1978

A Winter in the Hills, 1981

Frank, 1982


Mixed Feelings, 1951

A Word Carved on a Sill, 1956

A Song About Major Eatherly, 1961

Weep Before God: Poems, 1961

Wildtrack: A Poem, 1965

Letters to Five Artists, 1969

The Shape of Feng, 1972

Feng: A Poem, 1975

Poems for the Zodiac, 1980

Thinking About Mr. Person, 1980

Poems, 1949-1979, 1981

Twofold, 1981

Open Country, 1987


Preliminary Essays, 1957

Gerard Manley Hopkins: An Idiom of Desperation, 1959

Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography, 1962

Essays on Literature and Ideas, 1963

The Living World of Shakespeare: A Playgoer’s Guide, 1964

Arnold Bennett, 1967

A House for the Truth: Critical Essays, 1972

Samuel Johnson, 1974

Professing Poetry, 1977

Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784, 1984 (with Kai Kin Yung)

Dear Shadows: Portraits from Memory, 1986

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Lizzie’s Floating Shop, 1981

Edited Texts:

Contemporary Reviews of Romantic Poetry, 1953

Interpretations: Essays on Twelve English Poems, 1955

International Literary Annual, 1959, 1960

Fanny Burney’s Diary, 1960

Anthology of Modern Poetry, 1963

Selected Shorter Poems of Thomas Hardy, 1966

Selected Shorter Stories of Thomas Hardy, 1966

Thomas Hardy’s “The Dynasts,” 1966

Shakespeare: “Macbeth,” a Casebook, 1968, revised 1994

Shakespeare: “Othello,” a Casebook, 1971

Johnson as Critic, 1973

The New Wessex Selection of Thomas Hardy’s Poetry, 1978 (with Eirian James)


John Barrington Wain was a British man of letters of major importance, most famous for his early novel Hurry on Down and for his prize-winning biography of Samuel Johnson. He was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, on March 14, 1925, the son of Arnold A. Wain and Anne Wain. A man of humble background, Arnold Wain had become a dentist, the first professional person in his family. Generous and compassionate, he served as a preacher in the Church army, a city councillor, and a magistrate, and he became a model for his son, who paid tribute to his father in Dear Shadows.{$I[AN]9810000716}{$I[A]Wain, John}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Wain, John}{$I[tim]1925;Wain, John}

After attending school at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Wain, who had been rejected by the army for poor eyesight, went to Oxford and entered St. John’s College. At Oxford University, he met Charles Williams and was tutored by C. S. Lewis. He also came to know Richard Burton and with him participated in Shakespeare productions under the direction of the dynamic, unconventional don Nevill Coghill. Nevill inspired his students to love Shakespeare and, by acting on his convictions in the face of criticism from his peers, became another role model for Wain. In 1946 Wain received his B.A.; from 1946 to 1949, when he received his M.A., he was Fereday Fellow at Oxford. Meanwhile, in 1947, he married Marianne Urmston and became a lecturer in English at the University of Reading, where he remained until 1955. He resigned this position to become a freelance writer. The next year, his marriage was dissolved.

With the publication of a book of poetry in 1951, Mixed Feelings, Wain’s meteoric rise in reputation began. It was followed by another volume of poetry, which despite its conventionality was praised for voicing the anguish of humankind in the twentieth century. In 1953 he published the picaresque novel Hurry on Down, the story of an aimless university graduate who wanders through British society seeking a niche where he can feel at home. Despite Wain’s protests, this book brought him the label of “angry young man” (applied to those postwar writers who were attacking the English class structure). Critics predicted a bright future for Wain; many of them assumed that he would be the primary writer of his generation. During the decade, he produced three more novels and a critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1953, he was chosen to edit a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) program featuring new writers. That same year, he edited two books of essays and a two-volume literary annual.

In 1960, Wain married Eirian James, with whom he eventually had three sons. His new happiness was reflected in what is probably his best book written during this period, Sprightly Running, which surveys the first thirty-five years of his life honestly and often joyfully. In the 1960’s, Wain’s energy was evidenced by a steady outpouring of work, including seven editions of works by writers as diverse as Alexander Pope, Fanny Burney, Thomas Hardy, and William Shakespeare and two books of criticism. As the decade proceeded, he published four volumes of poetry, which steadily became more experimental in form than his earlier works, as well as more concerned with social and political matters. He also brought out two collections of short stories and wrote three novels, which like the poetry were more serious and more pessimistic than his previously published fiction. Yet reviewers continued to be lukewarm about both his poetry and his fiction.

Despite the attractiveness of Sprightly Running, it was not until the 1970’s that Wain attained the eminence which had been predicted for him. Although along with favorable comments, critics continued to voice disappointment in his poetry and his fiction, which seemed to stop just short of brilliance, Wain was acknowledged as a distinguished man of letters. In 1973 he was honored with the place of professor of poetry at Oxford. Then came a work which fulfilled Wain’s early promise. Interestingly, it was a work of criticism, his perceptive biography of Samuel Johnson, which was universally admired and earned for Wain the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was followed by a novel, The Pardoner’s Tale, which was admired by most critics, some of whom called it his best fictional work, and then by another well-reviewed novel, Young Shoulders, in 1982. In 1981 a work in another genre, Lizzie’s Floating Shop, had been published; it won for Wain the Whitbread Award for children’s literature. Readers also were delighted with another autobiographical volume, Dear Shadows, which, like its predecessor Sprightly Running, was not presumptuous but honest, warm, and frequently insightful.

Wain’s beloved wife Eirian died in 1987; he then married Patricia Dunn the following year. Despite ill health and diminished vision, Wain labored on at his, ultimately, final project, the three novels that constitute the Oxford Trilogy: Where the Rivers Meet, Comedies, and Hungry Generations. This epic work covers three decades in the life of Peter Leonard, from his undergraduate years at Oxford in the mid-1920’s, through World War II, to the ending in 1956. The novels include a multitude of characters who all speak their minds about politics, world news, and the progress of society. In 1994, the year the last volume of the trilogy was published, Wain died of a stroke at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

Throughout the acclaimed Johnson biography, Wain had emphasized the need for courage in a tragic world, for reason in an irrational world, and for tradition in a world which is changing, not necessarily for the better. These Johnsonian themes are also Wain’s themes. In Dear Shadows, Wain writes about eight people, four famous and four unknown, who were important in his life. In them, he saw the qualities he admires: his father’s courage and sense of duty, the Stratford landlady’s commonsensical look at hasty passion, and Nevill Coghill’s determined revival of the Shakespearean tradition in twentieth century Oxford. Although none of Wain’s imaginative works has quite fulfilled the expectations of the critics who so praised his first novel, the fact that year after year he brought out works in various genres which are always respectable and often very good suggests that his place in literary history is secure. He did not limit himself to one area but influenced his age through works of many kinds, not least of which is his scholarly biography of one of the greatest men of letters in English literature, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

BibliographyAmis, Kingsley. Kingsley Amis: Memoirs. New York: Summit Books, 1991. Gives a vivid glimpse of in-fighting among aspiring writers. Amis hints wryly that Wain envied the bestsellerdom of Lucky Jim that placed his own first novel, Hurry on Down, into the shade.Bayley, John. “Obituary: John Wain.” The Independent, May 25, 1994, p. 14. In this biographical sketch of Wain’s life and literary career, Bayley compares him with Kingsley Amis and praises his biography of Samuel Johnson.Burgess, Anthony. The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Expanded from an earlier study, Burgess’s work groups Wain with other class-conscious British fiction writers.Gerard, David E. John Wain: A Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1987. Contains a comprehensive annotated bibliography of Wain’s work. Lists materials of critical and biographical interest, including radio, television, and sound recordings. Also includes other critical and biographical references and reviews of works by Wain.Gindin, James J. Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. Gindin’s chapter “The Moral Center of John Wain’s Fiction” discusses Wain’s use of morality as a thematic and structural device and claims that each novel contains a central statement of the moral worth of the individual.Hatziolou, Elizabeth. John Wain: A Man of Letters. London: Pisces Press, 1997. The first extensive biography to come out after Wain’s death. Includes an index.Heptonstall, Geoffrey. “Remembering John Wain.” Contemporary Review 266 (March, 1995): 144-146. A brief discussion of Wain’s central themes of faithlessness and the assumption that there are no assumptions; discusses Wain’s rejection of realism and his intention to speak imaginatively.Pickering, Jean. “The English Short Story in the Sixties.” In The English Short Story, 1945-1960, edited by Dennis Vannatta. Boston: Twayne, 1985. The most comprehensive study of Wain as a writer of short fiction.Rabinovitz, Rubin. “The Novelists of the 1950’s: A General Survey.” In The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950-1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. Rabinovitz places Wain in the context of novelists who embraced traditional values rather than those who experimented with unconventional ideas or forms, aligning Wain’s novels with those of Arnold Bennett and eighteenth century picaresque novelists.Salwak, Dale. Interviews with Britain’s Angry Young Men. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1984. This useful resource characterizes Wain as an “eighteenth century man.” Engages Wain in a discussion of the role of criticism in the author’s life, his goals as a writer, his response to the phenomenon of the Angry Young Men, and the sources and themes in several of his novels.Salwak, Dale. John Wain. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Part of Twayne’s English Authors series, this work is the first book-length study of Wain and is a useful introduction to Wain’s career.Taylor, D. J. After the War: The Novel and English Society Since 1945. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993. An attempt to define the nature of postwar writing. Wain is grouped with William Cooper and Kingsley Amis as being antimodernist, or opposed to the psychological emphasis and stylistic complexity of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and antiromantic.Walzer, Michael. “John Wain: The Hero in Limbo.” Perspective 10 (Summer/Autumn, 1958): 137-145. In his consideration of Wain’s first three novels, Walzer maintains that Wain develops a new kind of picaresque hero.
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