Pritchett's father was a steady Christian Scientist and unsteady in all else. Walter and Beatrice had come to Ipswich to be near her sister who had married money and lived in Warrington Road. Within a year Walter was declared bankrupt, the family moved to Woodford, Essex, then to Derby, and he began selling women's clothing and accessories as a travelling salesman. Pritchett was soon sent with his brother Cyril to live with their paternal grandparents in Sedbergh, where the boys attended their first school. Walter's business failures, his casual attitude to credit, and his easy deceit obliged the family to move frequently. The family was reunited but life was always precarious; they tended to live in London suburbs with members of Beatrice's family. They returned to Ipswich in 1910, living for a year near Cauldwell Hall Road, trying to evade Walter's creditors. At this time Pritchett attended St. John's School. Subsequently Pritchett attended Alleyn's School, Dulwich, and Dulwich College but he stayed nowhere for very long. When his father went to fight in World War I, Pritchett left school. Later in the war Walter turned his hand to aircraft design, of which he knew nothing, and his later ventures included art needlework, property speculation, and faith healing.
Pritchett was a leather buyer from 1916 to 1920, when he moved to Paris, where he worked as a shop assistant. In 1923 he started writing for the Christian Science Monitor, which sent him to Ireland and Spain. From 1926 he wrote reviews for the paper and for the New Statesman, which later appointed him literary editor.
Pritchett's first book described his journey across Spain (Marching Spain 1928) and Clare Drummer (1929) was about his experiences in Ireland. Whilst in Ireland he met his first wife, Evelyn Vigors, but it was not to be a happy marriage.
Pritchett published five novels but he claimed not to enjoy their creation. His reputation was established by a collection of short stories (The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories 1932).
In 1936 he divorced his first wife, and married Dorothy Rudge Roberts; they had two children. The marriage lasted until Pritchett's death, although they both had other relationships. His son is the journalist Oliver Pritchett and his grandson (son of Oliver) is the cartoonist Matt Pritchett.
During World War II Pritchett worked for the BBC and the Ministry of Information whilst continuing to submit a weekly essay to the New Statesman. After the war he wrote widely and he started taking teaching positions at universities in the United States: Princeton (1953), the University of California (1962), Columbia University and Smith College. He was fluent in German, Spanish, and French, and published a biography of Honoré de Balzac in 1973, but he did not need to know the language of his subjects. He wrote successful biographies of Ivan Turgenev (1977) and Anton Chekhov (1988), although he did not know Russian and had never visited the Soviet Union.
Pritchett was knighted in 1975 for his services to literature and became Companion of Honour in 1993. His awards include Heinemann Award (1969), PEN Award (1974), W.H. Smith Literary Award (1990), and Golden Pen Award (1993). He died of a stroke in London on March 20, 1997.