William Norman Trevor Sansom
1912 - 1976
Short-story writer and novelist
Born at Camberwell, London, the third son of Ernest Brooks Sansom, naval architect, and his wife, Mabel Clark, of Barrow. He was named Norman Trevor and at some time later date added the name of William. Educated at Uppingham School, he saw much of Europe when quite young, travelling with his father. Though he enjoyed writing he did not settle immediately to a writing career. He worked in a bank, as an advertising copy-writer - employment which taught him not to waste words - and played a piano in a night club. World War II was a watershed in his life; he joined the National Fire Service and saw the bombing of London at very close quarters. Later, he made the acquaintance of Cyril Connolly (q.v.) and John Lehmann and this led to the appearance of some of his stories in New Writing and Horizon. It was soon seen that here was a highly original writer with a keen and unflinching eye for the human condition, able to encompass with equal ease the whimsical, the macabre and the exotic. His experiences during the blitz in London undoubtedly influenced his work.
His first volume, Fireman Flower, appeared in 1944 and two years later his promise was rewarded by a literary bursary of £200 a year under an arrangement between Hodder & Stoughton and the Society of Authors. Further tales, some with Kafkaesque undertones (Kafka had a marked influence on his early works) were published in 1946 under the title of Three, Stories. In 1947 Sansom brought out Westminster in War for which he was allowed access to official records.
By now he was a full-time writer enhancing his reputation with Something Terrible, Something Lovely and South. Both were published in 1948. One showed his mastery of the bizarre and other other, a series of brilliant Mediterranean sketches, his gift for travel writing. But he was no writer for the eager tourist; he wished to evoke the spirit of the place; he was unlikely to be found perched on a camel. The year 1949 saw the publication of arguably his best novel, The Body, a study in jealousy which showed his ability to transcend the bounds of the short story.
None the less he continued to practise in the genre which had made his name. He was always versatile; he could as well convey the rivalries of a beauty contest as the sadness of the solitary life.
In 1963 a collection of his stories as published with a perceptive introduction by Elizabeth Bowen (q.v.). Among others, the collection contained the chilling 'The Vertical Ladder' in which a youth is dared to climb a gasometer, and hauls himself, sweating, upwards to find that the rungs of the ladder end before the summit.
In 1954 he married and later moved to Hamilton Terrace, London. It was at this period of his life that he turned his attention to ballads, revue sketches and songs, and a script for one his novels The Loving Eye published in 1956. In later years his health deteriorated by he continued to write with professional regularity. If no masterpiece appeared he showed repeatedly that he could produce tales that were unmistakably Sansomian, taut, brilliant in description (he was never without his notebook), and displaying that unerring eye of the London landscape that always fascinated him and characterised throughout his career his best tales. He did not abandon books on travel; if Grand Tour Today, published in 1968, and Away to it All, published four years earlier, did not perhaps equal South or The Passionate North (1950) this may have been because he now travelled with rather less zest than formerly. Even so, his keen eye missed little and his humour and his curiosity never deserted him. Sansom is widely recognised as being among the best short-story writers of his time, a time when some said the short story was in decline.
Sansom was of medium height, in later life stoutish and neatly bearded affecting Edwardian clothes. Like many another he was not greatly at ease with those whom he did not know well but to his circle of friends he was charming, hospitable, and excellent company, revealing at times an imaginatively comical side to his nature. As a close friend remarked, he had grace of manner - as indeed, as a writer, he had grace of style. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He married in 1954 Ruth Evelyn Blake (Ruth Grundy, the actress), the daughter of Norman Denis Grundy, chartered accountant. They had one son, and there was also a stepson by Ruth's previous marriage. He died 20 April 1976 in St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 1971 - 80, (Oxford, 1986), 'William Sansom' by Colin Watson