Authors: William Sansom

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English short-story writer, novelist, and essayist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Fireman Flower, 1944

Three, 1946

Something Terrible, Something Lovely, 1948

South, 1948

The Passionate North, 1950

A Touch of the Sun, 1952

Lord Love Us, 1954

A Contest of Ladies, 1956

Among the Dahlias, 1957

The Stories of William Sansom, 1963

The Ulcerated Milkman, 1966

The Marmalade Bird, 1973

Long Fiction:

The Body, 1949

The Face of Innocence, 1951

A Bed of Roses, 1954

The Loving Eye, 1956

The Cautious Heart, 1958

The Last Hours of Sandra Lee, 1961

Goodbye, 1966

Hans Feet in Love, 1971

A Young Wife’s Tale, 1974


Jim Braidy: The Story of Britain’s Firemen, 1943 (with James Gordon and Stephen Spender)

Pleasures Strange and Simple, 1953

The Icicle and the Sun, 1958

Blue Skies, Brown Studies, 1961

Away to It All, 1964

Grand Tour Today, 1968

The Birth of a Story, 1972

Proust and His World, 1973

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Light That Went Out, 1953

It Was Really Charlie’s Castle, 1953

Skimpy, 1974


William Sansom (SAN-suhm) wrote novels, essays, travel books, and children’s books, but he is also arguably one of the most important writers of short stories to emerge from England after World War II. He was born on January 18, 1912, in London, England, the son of Ernest Brooks and Mabel (Clark) Sansom. The product of a comfortable middle-class upbringing, Sansom attended Uppingham School. After he graduated in 1940 Sansom studied for a short while on the Continent, where he cultivated an interest in the arts. Without receiving a degree, Sansom returned to London after only a few months. Sansom worked in a bank for a short while before deciding to assist the fire department in the monumental task of putting out the fires caused by the Blitz of 1940-1941. His account of what he saw as an auxiliary fireman, in a book entitled Jim Braidy, marked the beginning of his literary career.{$I[AN]9810000851}{$I[A]Sansom, William}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Sansom, William}{$I[tim]1912;Sansom, William}

Sansom spent the next five years honing his skills as a short-story writer. In his first collection of short stories, Fireman Flower, Sansom once again attracted public attention through his vivid portrayal of the horrors of the bombing of London. The subjects and moods of these early stories focused on death and terror. Although Sansom was criticized for his wordy style, he was praised for the precision with which he analyzed character and motive.

Two more volumes of short stories came out in 1948. The stories collected in South center on the reactions of typical Englishmen to situations outside their normal realm of experience. The majority of the stories in Something Terrible, Something Lovely deal with characters who are thrust into horrible situations. The power of these stories is derived from the fact that they contain realistic descriptions of people and places.

Sansom’s first novel, The Body, is also the most highly praised. The Body is a psychological portrayal of Henry Bishop, a suburban Londoner who suspects his wife of twenty years of infidelity. Even though some critics deplored the novel’s “slick” style, most hailed The Body as a study in jealousy that had no contemporary peer. Sansom received more critical acclaim with the publication of his second novel, The Face of Innocence. This story of a handsome young woman who marries an old friend of the narrator emphasizes the humor and wit that were only hinted at in his first novel.

Many critics believed that the quality of Sansom’s work declined between 1951 and 1954. In A Touch of the Sun, a collection of twelve short stories ranging from the macabre to the comic, Sansom once again exhibits his flair for observation as well as a tendency to manipulate two-dimensional characters. A novel, A Bed of Roses, also received only a lukewarm reception by the critics. The stories in A Contest of Ladies vividly convey a sense of place, but the characters, like the ones in A Touch of the Sun, fail to come to life.

In 1955 Sansom discovered the source of a second income when an American editor looked at some of Sansom’s stories that were set in Naples. Sansom’s talent for description was so evident in these stories that the editor suggested that Sansom write travel pieces for him. Within a few months, Sansom was writing travel pieces for major American magazines.

Sansom’s literary reputation was greatly enhanced by the publication of The Loving Eye and The Cautious Heart. The Loving Eye is the satirical story of a middle-aged invalid, who becomes obsessed with a twenty-one-year-old girl whom he observes outside his window with binoculars. In The Cautious Heart, Sansom once again employs humor to comment on the nature of love. This story of a nightclub pianist, his girlfriend, and her drunken escort is powered by the same sexual tensions and jealous acts that appeared in such successful works as The Body and The Face of Innocence.

By the 1960’s, Sansom’s reputation was so well established that each publication was eagerly awaited by the reading public. His last major work was a biography of Marcel Proust entitled Proust and His World. Sansom’s compulsive observations and sensuous descriptions seem to have made him ideally suited to this undertaking. He died in London on April 20, 1976.

Sansom’s best work reflects his keen ear for the idiom of post-World War II, lower-middle-class England and his sharp eye for detail. Equally adept at comedy, satire, and the macabre, Sansom was praised for his technically flawless prose–though critics deplored Sansom’s habit of reducing human nature to a subject for social analysis. Even though he had been touted throughout his life as the logical successor to D. H. Lawrence, Sansom never really fulfilled the promise that was contained in his earliest stories and in his best novel, The Body. If Sansom is not classed as one of the world’s greatest writers, perhaps the reason has less to do with skill or ability and more to do with his interest in the life of the average Englishman, not with the totality of human experience.

BibliographyAllen, Walter. The Short Story in English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Discusses Sansom’s “Old Man Alone,” “The Wall,” and “How Claeys Dies”; argues that Sansom transmits a Poe-Bierce horror in a Defoesque way.Beachcroft, T. O. The Modest Art: A Survey of the Short Story in English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. A brief discussion of Sansom’s prose style; claims he is a master of sensuous and atmospheric effects; comments on his being influenced by Kafka and the similarity of his comic stories to those of V. S. Pritchett.Bernard, Jeffrey. “Low Life: Very Much in Love.” The Spectator 274 (June, 1995): 54. In this tribute, Bernard remembers meeting Sansom.Chalpin, Lila. William Sansom. Boston: Twayne, 1980. This short volume is a clear approach to Sansom’s life and work, particularly tracing the development of his fictional techniques. Contains a comprehensive treatment of the early fiction, the novels, and travel books, and the later short stories. Chalpin stresses the influence of Edgar Allan Poe rather than Franz Kafka. Chalpin, like many other commentators, laments the critical neglect of a first-class short-story writer. Includes a chronology of his life and work and a bibliography.Hanson, Clare. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Discusses “Fireman Flower” and “The Wall” as stories that are concerned with the relationship between illusion and reality, chance and design.Mason, Ronald. “William Sansom.” In Modern British Writing, edited by Denys Val Baker. New York: Vanguard Press, 1947. A provocative commentary on Sansom’s symbolism and realism used in the early fiction. Mason traces the writer’s development from the Fireman stories and evaluates his growth from a miniaturist to a seasoned artist.Michel-Michot, Paulette. William Sansom: A Critical Assessment. Paris: Société d’Édition, 1971. This doctoral dissertation was published as a thorough analysis and examination of all Sansom’s work, excepting the last five years of his productivity. It is an exhaustive account of his short fiction, novels, and essays. Michel-Michot, like most critics of Sansom, believes that his penchant is for the short story, not the novel. The author interviewed Sansom and provides in-depth material concerning theme, symbolism, technique, and criticism.Peden, William H. “The Short Stories of William Sansom: A Retrospective.” Studies in Short Fiction, no. 4 (1988): 421-431. Since there is little contemporary criticism on Sansom, this article, although brief, is a high-density approach to his short fiction. Peden’s conclusion is that all Sansom’s fiction is enjoyable to read and reread. He particularly commends Sansom’s short stories as “alive with excitement” and considers his fictional world unforgettable.Vickery, John B. “William Sansom and Logical Empiricism.” Thought 36 (Summer, 1961): 231-245. Sansom’s early fiction is discussed in terms of his surrealistic phase. Although Sansom is not a university graduate of Cambridge or Oxford, Vickery believes that these centers exerted an influence on Sansom philosophically instead of the continental influence of rationalism or of the later existentialism.
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