Poor Desmond MacCarthy—so gifted, so charming, so full of promise—never quite came off. To be considered promising when young is at best a mixed blessing. Edith Wharton claimed that, as a young woman of her day, one of her greatest benefits was in never having been considered promising at all: it gave her time to develop in her own way and outside the pressure of expectation. Desmond MacCarthy never lived outside that pressure, and applied a good bit of it on himself. His aim, the assumption others made about him, was that he would one day create some masterpiece of literature—perhaps a richly complex novel or a key work of imperishable criticism—that would both make his mark and redeem his promise. He never did it; never, in fact, even came close.

Desmond MacCarthy stands in what is by now almost a tradition in England of literary flops. Just before him there was J. C. Squire, his predecessor as literary...


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