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Gilbert Cannan (25 June 1884 – 30 June 1955) was a British novelist and dramatist.


Early life

Born in Manchester of Scottish descent, he got on badly with his family, and in 1897 he was sent to live in Oxford with the economist Edwin Cannan. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and King's College, Cambridge; he started on a legal career, but turned to writing in 1908, after a short spell as an actor.


Cannan worked first as a translator, and reviewed in London publications. Many of his novels are in part autobiographical, and fit into a novel sequence the Lawrie Saga, around the character Stephen Lawrie. Samuel Butler was a major influence on his fiction. In 1914, the novelist Henry James in an article in The Times named Cannan as one of four significant up-and-coming authors, alongside D.H. Lawrence, Compton Mackenzie and Hugh Walpole. [1]

He was employed as a secretary by J. M. Barrie, working with him in their efforts against censorship of the theatre by the Lord Chamberlain. A relationship developed in 1909 between Cannan and Barrie's wife Mary (née Ansell), a former actress who felt neglected in her marriage. Cannan had been wooing Kathleen Bruce, who at the same time was receiving advances from explorer Robert Falcon Scott. When Bruce decided to marry Scott, Mary Barrie's sympathy for Cannan developed a momentum of its own. Her husband sought to be reconciled, but relented and divorced her in a high-profile case, and she and Cannan were married in 1910. Cannan was caricatured as Mr. Gunn, a minor character in George Bernard Shaw's 1911 drama Fanny's First Play.

Gilbert Cannan and his Mill by Mark Gertler

During World War I he was a pacifist and then conscientious objector, and was involved in the National Council Against Conscription. He used his experiences in later novels, making the character Melian Stokes in Pugs and Peacocks a portrait of Bertrand Russell. He had known Ottoline Morrell from before the war. During it he moved in her circle, introducing her to D.H. Lawrence, and knew also Dora Carrington, Dorothy Brett and the artist Mark Gertler. Cannan's book Mendel was based on Gertler's early life (Mendel being his Yiddish given name), and explored his relationships with C.R.W. Nevinson and Carrington. Gertler painted Gilbert Cannan and his Mill; the picture is now in the Ashmolean Museum. The mill was at Cholesbury in Buckinghamshire, where Cannan was living in 1916, and which attracted a number of his intellectual circle (including Lawrence and his wife Frieda, and Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry). The picture also shows the Cannan's two dogs, Sammy on the left and a Newfoundland dog Luath whose coat was copied for Nana, the dog who served as the Darling children's nurse in Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.[2] In 1916, partly in response to the devastating effects of the war and the threat of conscription, Cannan suffered a mental breakdown, an experience which he vividly described in his book, The Release of the Soul.[3]

His marriage to Mary broke up during 1918, when he had an affair with Gwen Wilson; who then dropped him for Henry Mond.

After the war Cannan wrote and translated a great deal, and traveled. Another breakdown in 1923 proved untreatable and he spent the rest of his life confined to a mental hospital.


The poet May Wedderburn Cannan and her sister, writer Joanna Cannan, were cousins of his, daughters of the academic Charles Cannan (Dean of Trinity College, Oxford, and Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press); as was Professor Edwin Cannan, the noted LSE economist (and brother of Charles Cannan); Joanna's daughter Diana Pullein-Thompson was his biographer. Joanna Cannan's son, Denis Cannan also followed in his footsteps, becoming a dramatist in his own right.


  • Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland (1910-1913) translator
  • Peter Homunculus (1909) first novel
  • Heinrich Heine's Memoirs, edited by Gustav Karpeles (1910) translator
  • Devious Ways (1910) novel
  • Little Brother (1912) novel
  • The Joy of the Theatre (1913) essays
  • Four Plays (1913)
  • Round The Corner (1913) novel
  • Love (1914)
  • Old Mole (1914) novel
  • Old Mole's Novel (1914) novel
  • Satire (1914)
  • Young Earnest - The Romance Of A Bad Start In Life (1915)
  • Samuel Butler: A Critical Study (1915)
  • Windmills: A Book of Fables (1915) fantasy
  • Three Pretty Men (1916) novel
  • Mendel: a story of youth (1916) novel, closely based on Mark Gertler's early life
  • The House with the Mezzanine, and Other Stories by Anton Chekov (1917) translator with S. S. Koteliansky
  • The Stucco House (1917) novel
  • Freedom (1917)
  • The Anatomy of Society (1919)
  • Time and Eternity (1919)
  • Pink roses (1919)
  • My Life (1920)
  • Pugs and Peacocks (1921)
  • Sembal (1922)
  • Annette and Bennety (1922)
  • Noel - An Epic in Seven Cantos (1922)
  • Seven Plays (1923)
  • House of Prophecy (1924)
  • Diary of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud, translator


  1. ^ Haycock, A Crisis of Brilliance (2009), 182.
  2. ^ Birkin, Andrew, J. M. Barrie and The Lost Boys, Constable & Co, 1979
  3. ^ Haycock, A Crisis of Brilliance (2009), 254.


  • Gilbert Cannan: a Georgian prodigy (1978) Diana Farr (Diana Pullein-Thompson)
  • Haycock, David Boyd (2009). A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War. London, Old Street Publishing. ISBN 978-1-905847-84-6.

External links



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