Plomer, William

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William Plomer

When South African writer William Plomer (1903–1973) published his first novel, Turbott Wolfe, in 1925, he expressed his vehement anger at the country's policies of racial apartheid. In I Speak of Africa, a book of short stories he published two years later, that sentiment was echoed.

William Charles Franklyn Plomer was born on December 10, 1903, in Pietersburg, in South Africa's Northern Transvaal. His father, Charles Plomer, was a magistrate who specialized in native affairs, and his mother was Edythe Waite-Brown Plomer. The family had limited finances, but his parents wanted the best education possible for their son. Charles Plomer's job required a lot of travel, so Plomer's early schooling was entrusted first to a governess, then to his maternal aunt and uncle, Hilda and Telford Haman, who ran a preparatory school at Spondon House, near Derby, England, where he was left by his parents at the age of five. Plomer later recalled that his feelings of isolation and his sense of being a loner stemmed from that early separation. He returned to Africa with his parents and attended St. John's College in Johannesburg. By that time, he had a new brother, Peter. Plomer considered this an idyllic time, as he was free to pursue his interests at the liberal school.

When World War I arrived in Europe, so to did the Plomer family. Initially Plomer was sent to Beechmont, a school he loathed. He later noted that it was probably at Beechmont that he adopted his habit of secrecy. Following this, he went on to the Rugby School where he stayed until 1918, when his family's finances weakened from the war to the point where he could no longer remain there. He finished his education back at St. John's. By this time in his life, Marcel Proust had become Plomer's favorite writer; he now began to consider the possibility of becoming a writer instead of a painter, as he had originally planned.

Became Farmer and Writer

Plomer turned down his father's offer of an Oxford University education and became a farmer, settling in the Stormberg Mountains and joining a local Settler's Association. He also worked as a trader with Zululand. In 1926 Plomer and Roy Campbell founded the satirical magazine Voorslag ("Whiplash") and were later joined in the venture by fellow South African Laurens van der Post. Shortly after Plomer published his second book, Afrikaner critics and readers alike dismissed the sentiment of both his books as offensive. At this point, Plomer separated from his friends and fellow writers and ventured to Japan, where he lived for two years, teaching and writing and traveling through the country. His first job was at the Tokyo School of Foreign Language, followed by a post at an exclusive private high school. While in Japan, Plomer immersed himself in the nation's culture and learned everything he could about the exotic country. In his later years, he would talk of Japan as his "university" and recall with appreciation the education that country gave him. Much of Japan's influence can be seen throughout the body of his work.

In 1929 Plomer returned to London by way of Manchuria, Siberia, Russia, and Poland. He had been offered the chair of the department of English literature at Tokyo's Imperial University, but he turned down the offer. After visiting France, Germany, and Italy, he decided to live in Greece, but eventually returned to England. Although he continued to travel, London remained his home base until his death.

During the 1930s Plomer continued to write, especially short stories and poetry; but he became almost as well known for editing the diaries of Francis Kilvert, a Victorian clergyman who was a veritible unknown until Plomer's publication of Kilvert's diaries. Well bolstered by his literary friends as well as part of the socialist Bloomsbury group, Plomer's homosexuality was no secret, particularly after he wrote of his experiences in his poetry collection The Dorking Thigh.

World War II and Beyond

During World War II Plomer served the British Admiralty in the Royal Navy Intelligence Division from 1940 until the war's end in 1945. He then returned to a position he had held since 1937 as a literary adviser for Jonathan Cape publishers in London; he would remain at Cape until 1973, the year he died. He also used his writing talents to collaborate with composer Benjamin Britten, penning the librettos for several of Britten's compositions, including, Gloriana, a 1953 opera in three acts that was performed during the coronation celebration for Queen Elizabeth II; 1964's Curlew River; 1966's The Burning Fiery Furnace; and 1968's The Prodigal Son.

In 1956 Plomer returned to Johannesburg and the University of the Witwatersrand and worked as visiting lecturer for the academic year. He enjoyed becoming reacquainted with the places in South Africa he loved as a youth but ultimately left once again for England.

Prolific Career in Publishing

As a writer Plomer published numerous volumes of his own writings as well as collaborations with other authors; as an editor he met many other writers and helped to impact their works. In addition to those already noted, his works included the poetry collections The Family Tree (1929), Visiting the Caves (1936), and Taste and Remember (1966); the short-story collections Paper Houses (1929), The Child of Queen Victoria, and Other Stories (1933), and A Brutal Sentimentalist and Other Stories (1969); and the novel, Sado, which was first released in 1921 and published the following year in the United States as They Never Came Back. Other writings include his memoirs Double Lives (1943) and At Home, published in 1958; and 1963's Conversation with My Younger Self. In 1976 he republished his two volumes of memoirs as The Autobiography of William Plomer.

Became Subdued in Age

During his early career Plomer traveled in literary circles that found him rubbing shoulders with some of the most well-known English writers of the early 20th century. In his later years, Plomer lived far more quietly, eventually returning to the Anglican faith in which his mother had raised him. In his mature period, Plomer's "poems became less satirical, more tender and mellow. And he acquired a sympathy with elderly, kindly people who lived in undistinguished bungalows far removed from the worlds that he had known: the immense vistas of Africa, the traditional grace of Japan, the arrogance of Bloomsbury, and the mingled glitter and squalor of high Bohemian London."

Plomer's professional life engaged him with several literary and author's groups, including the Royal Society of Literature; the Kilvert Society, which he served as president; the Society of Authors; International P.E.N.; and the Poetry Society, which he also served as president from 1968 to 1971. He was the recipient of several honors, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Durham and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1963. Plomer was also made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1968. With Alan Aldridge, in 1973 he won the prestigious Whitbread Award in the Children's literature category for the book, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast. Durham University Library has included within its collection several of Plomer's books, and those he collected, dating between 1870 and 1973. Plomer died on September 21, 1973, in England.


Alexander, Peter, William Plomer: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 1975.

Plomer, William, The Dorking Thigh and Other Satires, J. Cape, 1945.

Reference Guide to English Literature, St. James Press, 1991.


"Plomer Collection," Durham University Library Web site, (January 13, 2004).