REVIEW

The life of 1950s sci-fi writer John Wyndam is the subject of a perceptive and revealing biography by Amy Binns

John Wyndham, author of The Day of the Triffids, was a private man. Picture: Getty Images
John Wyndham, author of The Day of the Triffids, was a private man. Picture: Getty Images
  • Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters, by Amy Binns. Grace Judson Press. $32.99.

Many people will be aware of John Wyndham's novels,The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos, which were bestsellers on publication in the 1950's and have remained in print ever since. They have also inspired several TV, radio and film adaptations, as well as film homages such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead.

John Wyndham (1903-1969) was seen as the publishing successor to H. G. Wells in "scientific novels", but unlike Wells, a great publicity seeker, Wyndham was essentially a private man, termed "the invisible man of science fiction".

Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters is surprisingly the first biography of Wyndham. Dr Amy Binns, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, has combed the Wyndham archive at the University of Liverpool to good effect to provide new material on Wyndham's life, and especially the hidden love of his life, Grace Wilson.

Wyndham's traumatic childhood deeply impacted his personality and beliefs. He was pretentiously christened "John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris" by George, his dogmatic solicitor father with a flawed career, and his mother Gertrude, the indulged daughter of a wealthy Birmingham foundry owning family. The fractured marriage soon foundered on George's profligate behaviour and an acrimonious divorce ensued, including a widely publicised public court case.

After the divorce, Wyndham's mother took to living in hotels and spa resorts in order to settle "her nerves". Wyndham was packed off to a series of boarding schools, where he was very unhappy, until he ended up from 1915-18 at the progressive co-educational public school Bedales.

After school, and a few low-level jobs, he began an initially precarious living as a fiction writer. He lodged for nearly 40 years at the Quaker Penn Club, in London's Tavistock Square, where he met, at the age of 27, his long term partner Grace Wilson, who had studied English at Oxford. They became lovers, but they lived in separate rooms at the Penn club and kept their love secret until their marriage, when both had reached the age of 60 .

Wilson was a senior teacher at a girls school, and would have had to give up her career if she had married. Wyndham was not earning enough from his pulp fiction novels and short stories in the 1930s and would have had to get a day job, which he resisted, in order to support them both. Binns reveals the depth of the relationship through Wyndham's letters to Wilson, especially during World War II. Wilson destroyed her letters to Wyndham after his death in 1969.

She was the inspiration for his strong female characters, such as Josella Playton in The Day of the Triffids. Wyndham saw, as Binns writes, "marriage as a bondage that diminished women into little more than brainwashed slaves. His own mother, Gertrude, acted as a terrible warning". Mothers in his novels were shown as incapable of caring even for themselves, let alone their children, as depicted in The Chrysalids.

In World War II, Wyndham was an official censor during the day, which strengthened his feelings for secrecy, and during the night a fire warden, before becoming part of the Normandy landings and subsequent German conflict. He was demobbed in 1946, but his experiences in the war, including witnessing the survivors of concentration camps, influenced his 1950s "catastrophe novels".

Wyndham's novels, although often lacking complex characterisation, dramatically reflect humanity's fragility when a simple unforeseen change threatens the collapse of civilisation, whether that change be caused by bio-engineered Triffids and mass blindness, an alien incursion or species evolution. The current coronavirus crisis is a supreme example of a Wyndham plot device. Wyndham is essentially Darwinian, and nearly always adopts the least-socially-acceptable option, as in The Kraken Wakes, which also reflects climate change concerns through rising sea levels.

In Wyndham's The Chrysalids, religious fundamentalism holds sway in a small misogynistic agricultural community after a nuclear war. Women's modest clothing is decorated with embroidered crosses, and they are held solely responsible for any child birth mutations. To be different is to be destroyed.

As Binns writes, "The oppressive religious setting, the brutal punishment of transgressing women and the consequences of environmental damage prefigure Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale".

Wyndham always identified with the outsider child from his troubled childhood. In The Midwich Cuckoos, filmed as The Village of the Damned, and The Chrysalids, readers empathise with the "alien" children. The children must learn to hide their secret abilities even from their parents.

The man behind all the novels kept himself well hidden, even as he became more popular and had to speak on radio and at conventions alongside figures such as Arthur C. Clarke. Binns' perceptive biography unveils the invisible man, highlighting an author whose writings resonate as much today as they did in the Cold War settings of the 1950s.

This story 'Invisible man' of science fiction first appeared on The Canberra Times.