How is it possible that an acclaimed twentieth-century master of the English short story, whose work was loved and admired by critics and writers as different and as demanding as Ford Madox Ford, Malcolm Cowley, Frank O’Connor, and Doris Lessing, could turn up all but lost to us today? From the start of his career, A. E. Coppard was compared favorably to Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and D. H. Lawrence, and was viewed as Chekhov’s and Maupassant’s legitimate British heir. Between 1921 and Coppard’s death, in 1957, he published more than twenty short-story collections. His “Collected Tales” was published in the United States, by Knopf, in 1951; thanks to a letter-writing campaign led by Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club headliner that year—a very big deal at the time, critically and commercially, and rare for a non-American writer, rarer still for a book of short stories.
And yet until the early nineteen-eighties I had read only one of Coppard’s stories, the heartrending “The Higgler,” which was anthologized in a collection called “Great British Short Stories.” Then I taught a seminar on the modern American short story in the Columbia Graduate Writing Program and assigned Frank O’Connor’s “The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story” to help guide the students through work by writers like Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and so on. At that time, there was a short-lived renaissance in the writing, publishing, and reading of short stories, and students in creative-writing workshops were eager to learn how it was done. O’Connor compared Coppard’s sensibility to that of his contemporaries, including Frost and Edward Thomas, writing that “he shared their obsession with personal freedom—freedom from responsibilities, freedom from conventions—particularly sexual conventions; freedom from duties to state and church, above all, freedom from the tyranny of money.” Coppard, O’Connor writes, “was fascinated primarily by women’s secretiveness: it is the theme of most of his great stories.” These were themes that my students, and the American writers on their syllabus, were obsessed with, too. It was time to read some A. E. Coppard.
Easier said than done. Most of his books were long out of print, even in England, and his “Collected Tales” could be found only in an abused copy in the Strand. (This was pre-eBay and Amazon; quickie print-on-demand facsimile editions of out-of-copyright books were not yet a thing.) Eventually, I got my hands on the “Collected Tales,” which is more of a selected than a collected, with stories chosen and briefly introduced by Coppard himself. I also found a tattered copy of “The Black Dog and Other Stories,” published in the U.S. in 1923, by Knopf. Between the two volumes, I had access to most of his best stories, early and late.
Reading them for the first time was a revelation. In almost all of them, the influence of Hardy and Maupassant is wide and deep, especially in the dark ironies and unintended consequences that upend the quiet lives of desperation led by ordinary working men and women and their sad-eyed children, trailing behind. Like Maupassant, Coppard was a careful, affectionate, compassionate observer of the lives of women, particularly poor, abandoned, or “fallen” women, both young and old. And, like Hardy—and, to a lesser degree, Lawrence—he took pure delight in the English countryside. A true countryman, he possessed a vast personal knowledge of all of England’s green. As Lessing noted, “Coppard knew England through walking over it.” He was, in the tradition of Coleridge and Wordsworth, a tireless lifelong tramper.
But there was something uniquely characteristic of Coppard’s stories, which I’d rarely seen in male writers, especially of his generation—and, perhaps, of any generation. He was, as O’Connor said, “fascinated . . . by women’s secretiveness,” although I would put it rather differently. In many, if not most, of Coppard’s best stories, the protagonist is a man or a boy whose life is confounded by his inability to see into the heart and mind of the woman or girl he loves. But it’s not because of her secretiveness. It’s because the male is too obtuse, self-absorbed, and overloaded with fantasy and projection, or too dishonest and insecure, or merely too professionally and financially ambitious, to see what’s before his clouded eyes. Coppard himself, however—and, thus, the reader—sees clearly into the depths of the beloved woman’s vulnerable heart and mind, even while the lovestruck suitor or the befuddled husband or the overprotective father or the dismissive brother or son cannot catch a glimpse. Until it’s too late, that is, and the lover and beloved must go their separate ways. As a result, at the center of these stories there is a profound, heartbreaking loneliness, male and female alike. A loneliness, one senses, that is shared by the author.
Alfred Edgar Coppard was born into extreme poverty in 1878, in Folkestone, Kent, the eldest of four children. His mother was a housemaid. His father, a tailor, deserted the family when Coppard was six, forcing his mother to support the family by herself as a presser and with parish relief. Coppard’s was a Dickensian childhood. Taken from school at the age of nine and apprenticed to a paraffin-oil vender, he was later shipped off to live with an uncle in London, where he worked at a series of jobs as a messenger boy and eventually as a clerk for small businesses and manufacturing firms. At fifteen he was earning side money as a professional sprinter, of all things, and using that money to buy books. The boy with three years of formal education had fallen in love with literature—specifically, he wrote in his autobiography, with Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Hardy’s “Life’s Little Ironies,” and the poems of Robert Bridges and Walt Whitman. He read voraciously and indiscriminately and memorized whole swaths of poetry that he could, and would, recite for the rest of his life.
In 1905, he married, and, in his late twenties, he went to Oxford, but not as a student. He was employed there as a clerk. He was an irascible autodidact with nascent literary ambitions and all the usual insecurities and defenses—elbows sharpened, no doubt, by his friendships with the collegiate literary intellectuals. In his autobiography, he confesses, “Here were all these boys, boys! with their poems and tales already in being. . . . some even in real books. Straightway I was fired, though not by any more worthy muse than the spirit of rivalry.” He wrote his first story at thirty-four—twelve thousand words—called “Fleet,” which was rejected by the English Review for being too long. But the floodgate had opened, and soon he was publishing poetry and stories, among them some of his best, such as “Dusky Ruth” and “The Wife of Ted Wickham,” in the most prestigious English and American journals of the day, including The Double Dealer, The Dial, and The Saturday Review. He might have come late to the party, but he had arrived. Ford Madox Ford remembered, “The first English writer to whom I wrote for a contribution to the Transatlantic Review was Mr. Coppard.”
Coppard was a master at prompting the reader to identify with or sympathize with a character—and then upending that response, as the situation that he was depicting came into clearer view. Halfway into “The Black Dog,” for instance, the locus for our sympathy shifts from the besotted middle-aged bachelor, the Honorable Gerald Loughlin, over to the young woman he’s obsessed with, “a mere girl, just twenty-three or twenty-four,” and then, near the end, shifts yet again, to the older woman whom the “mere girl” has roughly displaced. The movement incriminates the reader: we see that we have granted our sympathy too casually to the two characters who don’t deserve it and overlooked the fate of the one who does. It leaves one feeling almost ashamed. Similarly, in “The Higgler,” our sympathies and easy identification are first attached to the young, impecunious peddler, who, suspicious of his good fortune when a dying widow offers him her prosperous farm and the hand of her daughter, rejects both and settles for much less. In the end, it’s the lovelorn daughter we most care about; it’s her fate that moves us. The higgler’s fate is merely absurd and, somehow, deserved.
Characteristically, these two masterpieces, like most of Coppard’s stories, or “tales,” as he insisted on calling them, are told in the close third-person, and in the past tense. Yet we are constantly aware of a confiding narrator who is telling the story, someone who is not in any way a player in the story or a witness to its unfolding, just someone who has drawn his chair close to ours by the fire and has begun to speak in a most interesting way about a surprising thing that happened to someone else. In his introduction to “The Collected Tales,” Coppard argues that the short story, unlike the novel, “is an ancient art originating in the folk tale, which was a thing of joy even before writing, not to mention printing, was invented. . . . The folk tale ministered to an apparently inborn and universal desire to hear tales, and it is my feeling that the closer the modern short story conforms to that ancient tradition of being spoken to you, rather than being read at you, the more acceptable it becomes.” These stories, then, are told, not written—heard and not read.
They are artfully told, and they seduce the reader’s ear with great skill. The diction and tone are not archaic or exotic, but there is a distinctly Gaelic twist and inversion to the grammar and phrasing and a warm appreciation for the English countryman’s and countrywoman’s colloquialisms, with a striking lyrical flair to the descriptive passages. Ford suggests that Coppard’s language is “Celto-British,” and that seems right. But he deploys it with amazing grace and transparency—it never sounds like dialect or impersonation. Ford goes further and says that Coppard “is almost the first English writer to get into English prose the peculiar quality of English lyric verse.” Ford continues, “I do not mean that he is metrical; I mean that hitherto no English prose-writer has had the fancy, the turn of imagination, the wisdom, the as it were piety and the beauty of the great seventeenth century lyricists like Donne or Herbert—or even Herrick.” That, too, seems about right. The best of Coppard’s stories, such as “The Black Dog” and “The Higgler” and “The Field of Mustard,” are as fine as any in the English language.
There are few photographs of Coppard and no film footage that I’m aware of. He seems to have kept himself out of the camera’s way, no doubt deliberately. I’m grateful, therefore, for a word portrait by Lessing, which she made after taking a sponsored journey to Russia and Czechoslovakia with Coppard and several other leftist English writers, in 1950. “He was a small man, light in build,” Lessing writes. “At that time he was seventy-two, but looked sixty, and with a boyish face. Characteristically he would stand to one side of a scene, in observation of it, or quietly stroll around it, his face rather lifted, as it were leading with his chin, his nose alert for humbug, or for the pretensions of the rich or the powerful—about which he was not passionate but mildly derisive.”
One has to wonder how and why, not even sixty-five years after his death, a writer of Coppard’s widely acclaimed ability and significant body of work is so little known, even among writers. No doubt it has something to do with the erroneous, market-driven view of the short story as the illegitimate stepchild of the novel, a kind of practice field for the apprentice writer training to play in the big leagues of novel writing, rather than a literary form as distinct from the novel as poetry or drama or film. It may also be partially blamed on the fact that Coppard lived most of his life in country villages far from literary or academic nexuses, avoiding coteries, claques, and cliques. As Lessing observed, “What came out strong in him was his inability to play the role ‘writer.’ He didn’t like making speeches, he didn’t like formal occasions, or conferences or big statements about literature. He did like talking half the night to an old pre-revolutionary waiter about Tolstoy, or examining the plants that grew beside the field in a collective farm. He liked flirting in a gentle humorous way with the beautiful girl doctor at the children’s holiday camp.” He was, in other words, just the sort of man one would expect to have written his marvellous stories.
This essay is adapted from the preface to “The Hurly Burly and Other Stories,” by A. E. Coppard, out in March from Ecco.