Kingsley Amis

Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) is an English novelist and poet best known for his satirical novel Lucky Jim (1954). Throughout his long and prolific career, Amis dabbled in several genres but always maintained a traditional approach to plot and characterization. Amis is remembered as one of the most influential writers in Britain's postwar literary scene. His son, Martin Amis (1949-Present), also became a famous writer known for his darkly comic novels.

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Table of contents

    Kingsley Amis: Biography

    Here is a look at the most important events in the life of Kingsley Amis.

    Early life and education

    Kingsley Amis was born on 16 April 1922 in London and raised in Norbury, a small community south of London. The writer recalls feeling a great deal of boredom in his dull middle-class upbringing and found escape in literature at an early age. Amis excelled at school and published his first short story in the school magazine at 11.

    Following his father's footsteps, Amis attended the City of London School for a year before winning a scholarship to study English at Oxford University in 1941. Historically, the student body of Oxford was exclusively made up of children from Britain's wealthiest and most powerful families. Amis' lower middle-class background made him stand out, and the writer developed a deep suspicion of the upper classes. This sense of class tension would become a recurring theme in many of his works.

    Kingsley Amis, Oxford University, StudySmarterFig. 1 - At Oxford, Amis found himself surrounded by the children of Britain's rich and powerful families.

    During his time at Oxford, Amis joined the Communist party and became a vocal supporter of Joseph Stalin. He also met the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985), who would become a lifelong friend.

    As well as novels and poems, Kingsley Amis produced many essays and nonfiction pieces on the joys of food and wine!

    Lucky Jim and marriage

    After three years of military service during WWII, Amis returned to Oxford to complete his studies and graduated in 1947. By this time, he was fully committed to becoming a writer. He took a lecturer position at the University of Swansea and married Hilary Bardwell. The couple had three children together. Their middle child, Martin Amis (1949-Present), would grow up to be a renowned writer.

    Kingsley Amis, Home, StudySmarterFig. 2 - 24 Grove Uplands, Swansea, the house where Amis wrote Lucky Jim

    Amis' early attempts at writing focused mainly on poems and verse, and he published the collection A Frame of Mind in 1953. His breakthrough came with the novel Lucky Jim (1954). The darkly comic story of a lower-middle-class history professor who rallies against the stuffy and pretentiousness of academia drew from Amis's own experiences and was an instant success for the writer.

    How did Amis' time as a student at Oxford and his time teaching English influence the writing of Lucky Jim?

    Lucky Jim earned Amis the Somerset Maugham Award for Fiction and sold well in Britain and America. The press classified Amis as a member of the "Angry Young Men" movement, a group of postwar British novelists and playwrights who railed against Britain's rigid class system. Amis always resisted this label, but he was a member of the poetry collective known as "The Movement."

    "The Movement" was led by his close friend Philip Larkin and the group contained poets like Donald Davie (1922-1995) and Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001). They rejected all forms of modernism and experimentation associated with poets like Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)and embraced more traditional verse forms.

    In 1958 Amis taught creative writing at Princeton University and lectured at universities up and down America's East Coast. He continued to satirize the intellectual set and the limitations of social class in subsequent novels That Uncertain Feeling (1955), I Like It Here (1958), and Take a Girl Like You (1960). Like Lucky Jim, these comic works featured cynical young men frustrated at life.

    Satire is a form of art that uses irony and humor to illustrate an unpleasant truth. It is usually employed against powerful institutions or individuals. Famous examples of literary satires include A Modest Proposal (1729) by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and Joseph Heller's (1923-1999) Catch-22 (1961).

    Genre fiction and politics

    As Amis' popularity grew, he began to drink heavily and conducted several extramarital affairs. This behavior led to the breakdown of his marriage with Hilary. Following their divorce, in 1965, he remarried the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923-2014). Throughout the 1960s, he began to dabble in genre fiction, publishing several sci-fi novels and short stories and tried his hand at mystery horror. He enjoyed great success writing spy novels for the hugely popular James Bond franchise, though these were published under the pseudonym "Robert Markham."

    Kingsley Amis, James Bond, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Amis wrote several James Bond books, including The James Bond Dossier (1965) and Colonel Sun (1968).

    By the 1970s, Amis was firmly part of the intellectual set and establishment he had satirized in his early novels. He grew increasingly conservative with age and rejected communism after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. He became anti-communist, supporting American policy in Vietnam and spoke out against government subsidies for the arts.

    Later years and death

    In his later years, Amis' drinking affected his work and health. He divorced Elizabeth Howard in 1980 and suffered great regret over the end of his first marriage to Hilary Bardwell. Amis eventually moved in with Hilary and her new husband in a deal brokered by their son, Martin. With the couple's support, Amis was able to curb his drinking and wrote prolifically during the last decade of his life. In 1990 he received a Knighthood and published his memoirs the following year. After suffering a mild stroke, Amis's health declined, and he died on 22 October 1995, aged 73.

    On its list of "50 greatest British writers since 1945", The Times newspaper placed Kingsley Amis at no. 9!

    Kingsley Amis: Themes

    Kingsley Amis worked in many genres during his career but continually returned to themes of social class and gender politics.

    Social satire

    Early in his career, Amis was critical of Britain's rigid class system. In novels like Lucky Jim, he used humor to undermine self-important members of the upper-class and intellectuals. Like Amis himself, many of his protagonists are cynical outsiders who observe the absurdities of daily life with a quick wit. His characters are often trapped or limited by what they can say, which allows Amis to explore the comic tension between their inner thoughts and outward expressions.

    Even during his later career, when Amis dabbled in genre fiction, he infused satirical undertones. In The Alteration (1976), he envisions an alternative history where the Reformation never happened, and Catholicism still controls all aspects of life in England. Amis uses the novel to mock the inherent corruption of organized religion.

    This dark humor and satire developed into pessimism as he grew older. Amis' outlook became increasingly bleak as he viewed the future as a horror-filled wasteland. While he started out criticizing the class system that favored the rich, he later became critical of modern progress.


    During his life, Kingsley Amis was often accused of misogyny by critics who felt the writer wrote flat and unrealistic female characters. Many of his works deal with problems of modern relationships and are told from a male perspective. His protagonists are often men who feel trapped in unhappy marriages or relationships. Like the writer, they are unfaithful to their wives and obsessed with sexual conquests.

    His works often look at the difficulty of communication in relationships and the struggle to stay connected. Some have defended Amis' centered male leads as satirical creations meant to poke fun at the limitations of masculinity. Still, Amis' reputation as a misogynist was so strong that it caused several American publishers to turn down his 1984 book Stanley and the Women.

    One of Kingsley Amis' most complex and public relationships was with his son, Martin Amis. Martin is considered one of Britain's best contemporary novelists; however, the father-son pair rarely saw eye-to-eye on matters of style and content.

    When Martin began to find success as a novelist in the 1970s, many critics drew a comparison to his father's early novels. Both writers use sharp wit and dark humor to satirize social institutions and their times. They are both known to include profane language to shock their readers, and their works have been accused of misogyny and an overly bleak outlook on life.

    London Fields (1989), Martin's most famous and successful book, was dedicated to his father, but Kingsley never read it. His attempts to read his son's works often ended badly. An oft-repeated story involves Kingsley starting to read Money: A Suicide Note (1984). Martin's dark satire of capitalistic greed includes many elements of postmodern style, including the author's appearance as a character. As soon as Kingsley reached the moment when the character of Martin Amis appeared, he threw the book across the room in disgust!

    Kingsley hated the experimental nature of postmodernism, the movement Martin was a key figure in. He viewed literature as entertainment and rigidly stuck to traditional forms of storytelling and characterization throughout his character. He did confess to enjoying Martin's highly experimental sci-fi novel Time's Arrow (1991).

    Martin's memoirs, Experience (2000), details the ups and downs of their relationship, with the author concluding that despite the public spats, Kingsley was privately very proud of his son's success.

    Kingsley Amis: Books

    Kingsley Amis published over 20 novels in a wide range of genres throughout his career. Here is a look at his most successful books.

    Lucky Jim (1954)

    Amis' first novel establishes the writer as an essential voice on the British literary scene. The book tells the story of Jim Dixon, a lower-middle-class history professor who feels out of place and frustrated in the upper-class world of academia. Trapped in a loveless relationship and under threat of losing his job, Jim struggles to find meaning and direction in life.

    Lucky Jim is a comic satire on the class system and pretentiousness of English universities, which Amis had experienced at Oxford. While class is usually associated with morality, Amis turns this on its head and shows the privileged members of the upper class as devious and shallow. The novel introduced the world to Amis' dark humor and biting wit.

    The Old Devils (1986)

    Alun Weaver is a successful actor who decides to retire and return to his hometown in Wales. The novel follows him over a few months as he encounters his old friends from university who are full of regret and jealousy. As they reminisce about missed opportunities and romanticize the past, Weaver takes advantage of his celebrity status.

    The Old Devils is a highly personal novel for Amis. As well as dealing with the writer's thoughts on aging, it explores his tumultuous personal relationships and battles with alcohol addiction. Amis' mixture of witty humor and deep contemplation earned the writer the Booker Prize in 1986.

    Kingsley Amis: Poetry

    Kingsley Amis originally wanted to be a poet. Though the press grouped Amis in with the "Angry Young Men" collective of the 1950s, the writer was more closely linked to the poetry set called "The Movement."

    Amis published six volumes of poetry during his career. His style is marked by straightforward prose that makes his work instantly accessible to all readers. Like his early novels, his poems often use humor and satire to poke fun at everyday life in England. "Something Nasty in the Bookshop" is told in a first-person perspective as a man observes the differences in genres available to men and women. In "The Huge Artifice," Amis explores his anger at God and the world's injustices. He uses the poem to argue that people should find meaning and commit to human relationships instead of religious piety.

    Kingsley Amis: Quotes

    Kingsley Amis was known for his biting wit and social satire. As a master of prose, he infused everyday actions with a deeper meaning. Here is a look at some of his important quotes.

    "Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection." - Lucky Jim (Ch. 6)

    Jim Dixon is Amis' most famous creation. The cynical and witty history lecturer feels put upon by everything- his job, his girlfriend, and even existence itself! Lucky Jim displays Amis's trademark wit and social commentary as well as his complex and beautiful prose.

    "If you can't annoy somebody with what you write, I think there's little point in writing." (Interview with Radio Times Magazine, May 1971)

    Kingsley Amis was renowned for being a difficult and provocative figure on the British literary scene. He hated awards ceremonies, despised the press, and had an extremely turbulent relationship with critics. Amis viewed his writing as a means to agitate and critique society's most powerful institutions and figures.

    Kingsley Amis - Key takeaways

    • Kingsley Amis is an English novelist and poet known for his witty satires.
    • Raised in a middle-class family, Amis felt out of place when he won a scholarship to the prestigious Oxford University. This experience would inform much of his outlook and writing.
    • His most famous novel is Lucky Jim, the comic story of a history professor who hates the stuffy pretensions of academic life.
    • Amis' son, Martin, also became a renowned English writer.
    • Many of the author's later works draw from his personal experience of infidelity and alcoholism.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Kingsley Amis

    Who is Kingsley Amis?

    Kingsley Amis is an English novelist and poet is best known work is the comic novel Lucky Jim. 

    Are Martin Amis and Kingsley Amis related?

    Yes, Kingsley Amis is Martin Amis' father. 

    What did Kingsley Amis write?

    Kingsley Amis produced many satirical novels like Lucky Jim which poked fun at the British class system. Later in his career he wrote the Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils

    Who was Kingsley Amis' wife?

    Kingsley Amis was married and divorced twice. His first marriage to Hilary Bardwell lasted from 1948-1965. His second marriage to novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard lasted from 1965-1980.  

    Where is Kingsley Amis from?

    Kingsley Amis was born in London and raised in a small community called Norbury.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In which city was Kingsley Amis born? 

    Kingsley Amis earned a scholarship to ________ University. 

    As a student, Kingsley Amis became friends with which famous poet? 


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