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Vansittart, Peter

Entry updated 19 June 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1920-2008) UK author best known for his densely written historical novels, whose polymathic metaphoric richness brought an aesthetic seriousness and density to that form; his consistent failure to gain a wide readership, over a career that lasted more than six decades, must qualify any claim that he transformed the historical novel as a whole – though it seems certain that those who read him were deeply influenced by his example. Vansittart's first novel, however, is sf, a form he used rarely: I Am the World: A Romance (1942) generalizes its political speculations by placing the action in an allegorized and unnamed country, seemingly though abstractly a kind of vast Nordic Ruritania whose capital city has been dominated for 1200 years by a vast "Statue"; in this abstract but ominous venue, a dictator – clearly based on Hitler – whose charisma is nearly supernatural and who may possess Superpowers creates an ambiguous Utopia; anti-Semitic tropes, never repeated in Vansittart's long career, stain the tale. The Game and the Ground (1956) – set in an indeterminate venue which may be Near Future, or an Alternate History version of a Britain haunted by gangs of feral children after a great Future War – again focuses on the rise to power of an another Hitler figure; the tale is told with a bleached ambivalence almost subliminally reminiscent of Ernst Jünger's On the Marble Cliffs (1939). More bristlingly evocative of a similarly decayed world, Aspects of Feeling (1986) turns on the machinations of a Godgame figure who represents the Crystal Knot, an ancient society of soi-disant Secret Masters.

Of indirect sf interest are five later novels, in which highly intricate manipulations of Time – hovering ambiguously between Time Distortion and Timeslip – are used to shape narratives around characters who exist, under different semblances through various historial and/or mythic epochs. The Story Teller (1968) offers no sf explanation for the longevity of its central character – who lives over 500 years and the stages of whose life are analogous to the development of northern European civilization – but the tale powerfully articulates, as its complexities mount, a kind of mythopoeisis of the Matter of Europe. This strategy is reworked with considerable intensity in three further novels that interweave Time and serial ImmortalityLancelot (1978), The Death of Robin Hood (1981) and Parsifal (1988) – but which do so in terms more understandable through the languages of fantasy (see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy on Vansittart) though – minus the gearings of sf Time Travel – they can all be seen as Time Opera meditations as their protagonists as they transfiguringly shift backwards and forwards through time and space. In Hermes in Paris (2000), Vansittart once again provided a model of human history as a mosaic of incessantly reiterated tales whose casts, although they may metamorphose, do so only to return, the revenant in this case being the god. Of this work, The Death of Robin Hood in particular prefigures the entangled chthonic world of an sf fantasist like Zoe Gilbert, whose Mischief Acts (coll of linked stories/fixup 2022) inhabits similar territory; his influence on authors like Tom Cox, Paul Hazel and Robert P Holdstock – though less direct – seems clear.

Vansittart was appointed OBE in 2008. [JC]

Peter Vansittart

born Bedford, Bedfordshire: 27 August 1920

died Ipswich, Suffolk: 4 October 2008

works (highly selected)

collections and stories


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