Peter Kemp (review date 26 February 1981)
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SOURCE: "Wounded Children," in Listener, Vol. 105, No. 2707, February 26, 1981, p. 288.
[Below, Kemp reviews The Fate of Mary Rose and discusses Blackwood's style of detached writing about very emotional subjects, particularly wounded children.]
Wounds appall and fascinate Caroline Blackwood: her imagination can hardly tear itself away from them. Confronted with life's damage, she seems like the woman in one of her stories who—after a bungled operation—cannot close her eyes and is afraid to weep in case of dangerous inflammation. With unsparing lucidity, her books pore over maimings, physical and psychological. An early essay, 'Burns Unit', itemises hideous injuries—breasts like 'giant vermilion blisters', bodies 'the colour of blackened bacon'—then goes on to assess reactions to these horrors. The useless anguish of the patients' relatives is set against the emotionless efficiency of the medical staff. To the latter, precision is 'incomparably superior to compassion'; 'even the coldest and most impersonal curative action' is 'less inhuman than sentimental and empathising inaction'. It is just such valuably unfeeling responses that Caroline Blackwood imitates as a writer. Swabbing her emotions with the antiseptics of logic, she opts for the precise and impersonally curative. Detachment is worn like a surgical mask. Though her novels all argue for compassion and involvement, they operate through unflinching probings into physical and emotional damage.
Like the cameras monitoring danger-list cases in 'Burns Unit', Caroline Blackwood's fictions regularly focus on wounded children. In her novels, they are always under threat, frighteningly vulnerable to the ravages of time, accident and other human beings. Bitterly smarting from the hurt of a broken relationship, the woman who narrates The Stepdaughter is shamingly made to see how her partner's neglected child has been far more badly mauled by life. Exploring the fusty recesses of an Ulster Protestantfamily, Great Granny Webster brings to light spectacular instances of warping by early influence. Like The Stepdaughter, too, it seethes with emotional disturbance. Under the taut prose—pegged down by sharp factual detail—lunacy, neurosis and suicidal melancholia strain furiously. Despite this nervous intensity, both books—controlled accounts of hysteria—are often hysterically funny.
Her new novel, The Fate of Mary Rose, is very much in this tradition, though adding some ingredients her previous fiction has been short on—a good plot and fast narrative pace. At its centre is an ugly murder: six-year-old Maureen Sutton is abducted, sexually assaulted, killed. This extreme instance of a child's vulnerability is used to set in motion a more complex demonstration of the same idea. What the book aims to show is that there are more ways of destroying a child than homicidal assault. Like the Alsatians hunting for the killer, nemesis is finally unleashed at smug parental irresponsibility.
The book makes much use of adroit counterpoint. Its febrile story is narrated by a man who is emotionally tepid. A self-centred historian, he is taught—hilariously and harrowingly—the importance of other people's pasts. When the story opens, Rowan—early thirties, elegant, single-mindedly careerist—is complacently ensconced in a double life. In London, there is Gloria, whom he doesn't want to marry, but enjoys spending time with; in Beckham, there is Cressida, whom he doesn't enjoy spending time with, but has married—because she was pregnant with his child, Mary Rose, now six years old like the murdered girl. Beckham is a show-piece village: bees drone reassuringly in the wistaria; the tock of cricket balls sounds across the green. Reputable folk with decent incomes prosper decorously behind the period façades. Under her oak beams, dotingly maternal Cressida launders Mary Rose's clothes by hand, plies her with health food and wholesome sentiments.
Maureen's murder bespatters this idyll. Everywhere, niceness is shattered as—magnet-like—the presence of the sexual maniac draws psychosis, disturbance, hysteria to the surface. Horror-comic happenings, escalating frantically, propel the book through weird turnings to a grim ending.
Picking over perverse attitudes to childhood, the novel nods sarcastically towards James Barrie. Beckham is a 'never-never land'; an injured child resembles Wendy shot down by the Lost Boys. Mary Rose is linked ironically with her fictional namesake—not carried off from the real world by fairies, but taken over by the demons of psychiatric breakdown. Images from necromancy keep materialising in this book: appropriately, since it deals with the way people can be hag-ridden by childhood trauma.
Cressida, for instance, boiling cauldrons of black dye, becomes more and more witch-like. She also becomes—as her behaviour skids increasingly out of control—more and more appallingly funny. As her black obsessions swell up to crescendo so does the book's comedy. The novel's final sections are almost unbearably hilarious: again, because of counterpoint. In a last desperate effort to keep uninvolved, Rowan dispatches his secretary, beige-clad, temperate Fay Wisherton, to stay with the now feverishly funereal Cressida, unstoppably voluble, behind her black veil, on the subject of sexual atrocity. At times, as you laugh, you reflect a little uneasily on one of the book's lines, a reference to 'the beautiful finesse that mitigates the cruelty of the bullfighter'. But this is never just sadistic entertainment. The aghast guffaws the book provokes are safety-valve laughs relieving a remorselessly built-up pressure. Ferociously moral behind its harsh jokes, The Fate of Mary Rose gives new life to the cliché, 'agonisingly funny'.
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Caroline Blackwood 1931–1996
(Full name Lady Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood) Anglo-Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Blackwood's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 9.
An Angio-Irish writer and journalist, Blackwood is best known for her short stories and novels, which offer gothic descriptions of modern relations told with sharp wit and black humor. She is known as well for her journalistic accounts of such controversial subjects as nuclear arms protesting and fox hunting.
Blackwood was born in Northern Ireland on July 16, 1931, to aristocratic parents. Her mother Maureen was heir to the Guinness fortune and Blackwood's father Basil was a friend of Evelyn Waugh's and the grandson of Lord Dufferin, rumored to be the illegitimate son of Disraeli. Blackwood was educated in boarding schools and embarked on a career in journalism after completing her education. She published her first collection of short stories and essays, For All That I Found There, in 1973 and her first novel, The Stepdaughter, three years later. Blackwood was married three times: to the painter Lucian Freud, whom she divorced in 1956; to the American composer and pianist Israel Citkowitz with whom she had three daughters and divorced in 1972; and to late poet Robert Lowell with whom she had a son. Blackwood lived in Paris, London, and Northern Ireland before settling in the United States. She died of cancer in Manhattan in 1996.
Blackwood published ten books, including three short story collections, three novels, three works of nonfiction, and a cookbook. In 1973 she published For All That I Found There, a collection of short stories and autobiographical accounts of her life in Ulster. She followed this with the epistolary novel The Stepdaughter in 1976 and a collection of short stories Great Granny Webster (1977). Both works focus on women and their struggles to deal with family members. She published a third short story collection Good Night Sweet Ladies in 1983; many of these stories also deal with family relations. Blackwood employed a similar narrative device in her two novels The Fate of Mary Rose (1981) and Corrigan (1984). In each the narrator calls into question the events of the story, adding an element of suspense which is instrumental in establishing a dark, gothic mood. Blackwood also published three works of nonfiction: On the Perimeter (1984), which concerns a group of women protesting nuclear weapons at an American military base in England; In the Pink (1987), an anecdotal account of fox hunting in England; and The Last of the Duchess (1995), an account of the life of Wallis Simpson and Blackwood's efforts to interview the ailing Duchess. Blackwood employs a faux-naifstyle in her non-fiction, feigning naivete as a means of circumventing controversial opinions about her subject matters.
Blackwood's first book, For All That I Found There, garnered much favorable attention. Critics admired her keen observations about her fellow humans and her biting wit. She received similar accolades for her novel The Stepdaughter, which some critics consider to be her best work. Commentators were particularly impressed with the novel's dark humor. Many critics did not believe that Great Granny Webster and The Fate of Mary Rose measured up to the standard Blackwood set in her earlier works. In particular, reviewers were critical of Blackwood's element of suspense in The Fate of Mary Rose. Critics have praised Blackwood's objectiveness in her first two nonfiction works. While some critics believe that In the Pink contributed little new knowledge about fox hunting, they praised the author for providing a balanced view of the sport. However, reviewers criticized Blackwood for inaccuracies and speculation in In the Pink and particularly in The Last of the Duchess. In her review of The Last of the Duchess, Zoë Heller claims that Blackwood's "… ill-advised response to her lack of hard facts, is to fill in the holes with speculation and gossip … as if her duty as a journalist did not extend beyond reproducing hearsay."
Edith Milton (review date 26 July 1981)
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SOURCE: "Fathers and Daughters," in The New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1981, pp. 8-9.
[In the following excerpt, Milton argues that Blackwood successfully develops conflict between the characters in The Fate of Mary Rose but deviates from her initial concerns and fails to conclude the "who-dunnit" satisfactorily.]
Both Julian Gloag's contemplative new novel, Lost and Found, and Caroline Blackwood's horror tale, The Fate of Mary Rose, are set in rural villages invaded by contemporary ugliness, but the more telling similarity is that they are also both about fathers and fatherhood and that each touches upon the rape of a little girl. In Mr. Gloag's book, rape is only the worst of many outrages, and springs from the brutish, stultifying impact of rustic life. In Miss Blackwood's book, rape is central, an emanation of insanity spawned in urban chaos. Both novels suggest that men cannot accept the fact that violation is a serious threat in their daughters' lives, and that, failing to recognize it, they become in a sense accessories to violation. In its own way each novel offers some poignant insights with considerable skill, and in its own way each novel fails….
The ingredients of The Fate of Mary Rose should also combine into a more satisfying book than in fact they do Like Caroline Blackwood's quite perfect earlier novella The Stepdaughter, which made palpable its protagonist's eerie self-imprisonment in the glass-walled tower of a New York penthouse, The Fate of Mary Rose appears to focus on the destruction of a young girl, while in fact it explores obliquely the insane compulsions that destroy the adults responsible for her.
The novel moves between the male narrator's London apartment and the tiny, tidy village of Beckham, where his wife, Cressida, lives a life of housewifely sacrifice, devoted to the moral and dental hygiene of their 6-year-old daughter, Mary Rose. Through the narrator's eyes, we soon see enough to suspect that behind the jars of homemade preserves and beneath the hand-washed sheets, Cressida nurtures a monstrous obsession. The narrator tells us that his fatherhood, like his marriage, is purely technical; that he is having a quite ordinarily chaotic love affair with a bright young model, and that his life operates, not very comfortably, on a sort of stubborn apathy. But it becomes apparent that he, too, is playing host to an obsessive illusion. While Cressida tries to nourish her sad little life by acting the part of the perfect mother, the narrator hides himself behind an equally false mask of callow masculinity. Beyond his role in conception, he tries to tell himself, fatherhood demands only that he pay the bills and make a ritual monthly appearance for form's sake.
His careful posture of unconcern is the mirror image of Cressida's mad fiction of loving care; the two fantasies, feeding each other, destroy every relationship they touch, and when an unknown attacker rapes and murders a little girl who lives in the public housing near Cressida's cozy cottage, the pair are themselves exploded to reveal the truth beyond their facades. Simple terror lies under Cressida's maternal charade and a hysterical need to indoctrinate her small daughter with her own fear of men and of life. Behind his own mask of indifference, the narrator, who in fact feels a growing concern for his child, also hides fear—fear not merely of women, but of himself and the violence he may do to them.
"She was really the child of the media," the narrator says of the murdered child. "She emerged from the glass of the television set in my livingroom." And her violation and death, like the Council Estate where she lived, are an intrusion of modern hideousness into the artfully preserved myth of rural beauty and bucolic harmony. But like the dovetailing fantasies of the narrator and his wife, the village's violent crime and its delusion of peace almost define and explain each other, like opposite sides of a false equation.
Miss Blackwood portrays the antagonism between her characters with sometimes brilliant irony; in particular, the conflict between the narrator and his wife, which is exaggerated to seem insane and archetypal at the same time, is presented as both a deviation from what society sees as normal behavior between the sexes and also its prototype.
But having set the stage for an intricate and ambiguous drama, Miss Blackwood fails to develop it. In the last third of the novel, her concern with the narrator's murky morality is suddenly overwhelmed by a suspense plot and Beckham's allegorical landscape becomes the backdrop of a rather ordinary thriller. Rather ordinary, I should add, except that instead of providing the final revelation of who did what, why and how, in the usual way of thrillers, the novel veers again and returns for a few last inconclusive pages to the psychological concerns of its beginning.
Disappointed, with an appetite whetted by possibilities that are not fulfilled in The Fate of Mary Rose, one has no recourse but to hope for satisfaction in Miss Blackwood's next novel.
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For All That I Found There (short stories and essays) 1973
The Stepdaughter (novel) 1976
Great Granny Webster (novel) 1977
Darling, You Shouldn't Have Gone to So Much Trouble [with Anna Haycraft] (cookbook) 1980
The Fate of Mary Rose (novel) 1981
Goodnight Sweet Ladies (short stories) 1983
Corrigan (novel) 1984
On the Perimeter (nonfiction) 1984
In the Pink: Caroline Blackwood on Hunting (nonfiction) 1987
The Last of the Duchess (biography) 1995
Grace Ingoldby (review date 16 September 1983)
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SOURCE: "Ogres," in New Statesman, Vol. 106, No. 2739, September 16, 1983, p. 23.
[In the excerpt below, Ingoldby describes the characters from Good Night Sweet Ladies as well-developed and the story as funny, but suggests that Blackwood does not develop conflict within the stories sufficiently.]
Caroline Blackwood's characters are a neatly observed group of humans, vain, selfish and self-deluding, who peep at the truth about themselves and then quietly, quickly, close the door. They are great betrayers of themselves, their animals and each other, and stylish inventors of strategies which just enable them to circumnavigate the truth. Taft, the social worker, protects himself from intimacy ('as a lover he merely obliged') by the invention of the tragic loss of his wife, which always gets him out of a hole; Mrs Burton can persuade herself that a dinner appointment is more important than a dying dog. Such strategies invite prodigious guilt which in several instances is quite enough to put the characters off their food. Mrs Burton cannot even face her soup, which appears as a dangerous lake into which she must dive to save her croutons. She doesn't dive but watches hopelessly as the last sinking square of bread appears first as her mother (waving?) and then as her dying dog. Good Night Sweet Ladies is very funny and the writing, as always, is stylish and close to the bone, but there is a sense in this collection that perhaps this time she might have gone just a little further than she has. Her vision is, one suspects, blacker than she is yet prepared to admit—almost as if Saul, having seen the light on the road to Damascus, decided, disappointingly, to keep it to himself.
Malise Ruthven (review date 21 September 1984)
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SOURCE: "Cassandras at Camp," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4251, September 21, 1984, p. 1048.
[Below, Ruthven reviews On the Perimeter, a nonfiction account of women campaigning against an American cruise missile base in England.]
Caroline Blackwood first visited the Cruise missile protest camps at Greenham Common in March this year. Her curiosity had been aroused by the "loathsome and frightening" adjectives applied to the women peace campaigners in the newspapers. Auberon Waugh had said the women smelt of "fish paste and bad oysters". Other less gifted polemicists had described them as "screaming destructive witches", "sexstarved harpies" or just a "bunch of lesbians". They were accused of being in the pay of Moscow, or of being red spies who lived like dogs and smeared the town of Newbury with excrement.
In her partisan, but far from one-sided, account of the Greenham camps [On the Perimeter], Blackwood relates what she found out through talking both to the women and to their opponents. Nightmarish terrors of nuclear war or accident had driven the protestors to exchange home and family for the cold, the mud, the damp and squalor of the "benders", the home-made tents made from branches and sheets of polythene which are the only dwellings available to the women because tents and caravans have been forbidden by the local council. Here they withstand the harassment of policemen and bailiffs and the sexual taunting of the soldiers, as well as the sheer tedium of maintaining a round-the-clock vigil at the entrance to the base, because "they found it impossible to have faith in the untested theory that deterrents give humanity endless safety". The only relief in this monotonous existence is the occasional visit to the courtroom in Newbury or a spell in Holloway Prison which many regard as a rest camp.
As Blackwood sees it, the protest is a matter of feeling rather than politics. The women's attitude may appear simplistic, but they have a "common sense approach" which stems directly from their daily experience. "It was the protest of all women who have ever looked after children. It gave a black warning that came direct from personal experience. 'If you let children play with dangerous instruments, it won't be very long before there is a hideous accident.'"
In contrast with this down-to-earth view of nuclear matters, Blackwood's account of the childishness of the people defending the base arouses deep misgivings. The soldiers behind the wire keep the women awake at night by shouting obscenities. Once, on leaving the base in a military coach, they bared their bottoms in a gesture that had clearly been rehearsed with parade-ground precision. Even the American children living in the base appear to have been trained to make the "Fuck You" sign as they pass by in the school bus.
Not all of this silliness is on the anti-protestor side. The ideological lesbians cloud the issue by ostentatiously hugging and kissing in the courtroom or at the approach of the TV crews. But, according to Blackwood, all the women arouse a degree of hostility far in excess of any inconvenience they may cause to soldiers, policemen or residents living near the base. Shopkeepers and publicans refuse to serve them; hooligans unexpectedly join forces with the establishment and actualize the verbal insults by smearing the benders with excrement and pig's blood. A huntsman goes berserk in one of the camps, flaying the women with his whip while abandoning his hounds to the oncoming traffic. One of the leaders of RACE—Ratepayers Against Greenham Encampments—leans out of her top-floor window and actually cheers one of the missiles as it leaves the base.
The anti-protestors seem to lose all sense of proportion. For them it is the women's encampments, rather than the base itself that has become an eyesore. It is not the nine miles of fence and barbed wire, the acres of concrete, the hideous hangers and screaming jet aircraft that have desecrated this English common, once the haunt of the Pied Fly-Catcher and Little Ringed Plover, but the handful of sodden and bedraggled women, with their frumpy clothes, their pots of tea and their benders.
Why have these women aroused such irrational furies? Partly, no doubt, it is due to the same mythopoeic power that has made them saints and martyrs for peace groups all over the world. The hysterical response to the women, both by government and local establishments may really be due to underlying fears about nuclear war and the effectiveness of deterrence as a policy. Cassandras, as Blackwood points out, have never been popular. But there also appear to be deeper levels at which the rage of the anti-protestors is aroused. This spontaneous and voluntary association of females, without formal leadership or hierarchy, seems to threaten the soldiers, the local gentry, the bourgeoisie of Newbury and even its hooligans far more than the missiles, although the latter would be a prime target in the event of nuclear war. Can it be that the women are really right in seeing the Bomb and its phallic projectiles as the linch-pin of a system of patriarchal dominance? Caroline Blackwood does not ask such questions, but her absorbing, witty and compassionate narrative leads one to search for answers in this direction.
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Ableman, Paul. "Unthrilling." Spectator 246, No. 7965 (7 March 1981): 24.
Describes the characters in The Fate of Mary Rose as believable, if not sufficiently developed, but argues that the novel's conclusion fails to resolve the issues Blackwood raises.
Andrew, Nigel. "A Deal of Nastiness." Listener 118, No. 3032 (8 October 1987): 25.
Praises In the Pink as well-written, enjoyable, and balanced.
Barrow, Andrew. "The Sleeping Booty." Spectator 274, No. 8699 (1 April 1995): 32-3.
Argues that The Last of the Duchess is a "deceptively simple" story told with unusual wit and black humour.
Carr, Raymond. "Up the Airy Mountain, Down the Rushy Glen…." Spectator 259, No. 8308 (10 October 1987): 34-5.
Commends Blackwood's treatment of fox hunting in In the Pink as fair and balanced despite some inaccuracies.
Craig, Patricia. "Domestic Evils." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4065 (27 February 1981): 220.
Praises The Fate of Mary Rose as an improvement on Blackwood's previous novels.
Kemp, Peter. "Wounded Children." Listener 105, No. 2707 (28 February 1981): 288.
Discusses Blackwood's style of detached writing about very emotional subjects, particularly wounded children, in The Fate of Mary Rose.
Mellors, John. "Ex-leg and Toeprints." Listener 111, No. 2841 (19 January 1984): 26.
Remarks on Good Night Sweet Ladies and states that the most memorable of the stories is the least macabre.
Mellors, John. "Ladies' Knights." Listener 112, No. 2883 (8 November 1984): 28.
Argues that Blackwood's character development in Corrigan is uneven.
A review of On the Perimeter, by Caroline Blackwood. Publishers Weekly 228, No. 10 (6 September 1985): 65.
Comments favorably on On the Perimeter.
Vaill, Amanda. "Windsor Knot." Chicago Tribune (2 April 1995): 3.
Argues that the interviews are the best part of The Last of the Duchess while Blackwood's overview of Simpson's life is the weakest.]
Waugh, Harriet. "Pitiless." Spectator 251, No. 8101 (15 October 1983): 23-4.
Describes the stories in Good Night Sweet Ladies as too sad and bleak, and argues that although Blackwood employs imagery successfully, she evinces no sympathy for her characters.
Nicholas Spice (review date 18-31 October 1984)
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SOURCE: "Arsenals," in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 19, October 18-31, 1984, pp. 16-17.
[In the following excerpt, Spice compares Blackwood's views on women, as presented in On the Perimeter, to those presented in John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick.]
It can't be doubted that On the Perimeter and The Witches of Eastwick are quite different kinds of book. They were destined to be sold, reviewed and read separately. They have fallen together here by chance and a certain editorial logic, and though at first they appear strange bedfellows, they turn out to breed fruitfully with one another. They should be bought and read together, for they are both in their different ways texts for (and perhaps of) the end of time, books of the Apocalypse. Between them they raise many important issues about the nature of men and women and the nature of nature: On the Perimeter by virtue of a chilling subject-matter fixed with a steady eye, The Witches of Eastwick through the potency of John Updike's imaginative release.
On the Perimeter records what Caroline Blackwood found at Greenham Common and in the town of New bury, when she visited the nuclear protest encampments there in March this year, shortly before the town council attempted to evict the women for good. One of the incidents Blackwood describes involved a coachload of soldiers from the base. As the bus emerged from the main gate and passed the women camped outside, the soldiers took down their trousers and exposed their backsides:
The military buttocks loomed at us from the windows of the bus. They looked like huge white one-eyed sea monsters in a tank. The nasty ink black eyes of the anuses stared at us. They were very malevolent and they seemed to be surrounded by murky perimeters that varied in their shades of darkness.
Place beside this an episode from The Witches of Eastwick. Darryl Van Home has been playing tennis on his indoor court one winter afternoon, with Sukie Rougemont, a witch. After the game he asks Sukie a favour:
'Kiss my ass,' he said huskily. He offered it to her over the net. It was hairy, or downy, depending on how you felt about men. Left, right …
'And in the middle.' he demanded.
The smell seemed to be a message he must deliver, a word brought from afar, not entirely unsweet, a whiff of camel essence coming through the flaps of the silken tents of the Dragon Throne's encampment in the Gobi Desert.
Caroline Blackwood and the women at the Greenham Common main gate have no difficulty interpreting the message the soldiers feel compelled to deliver them. It shouts at them coarsely from very near—of contempt, hatred, aggression and fear. To the women, the incident is just another example of the sadistic male behaviour they have had to put up with from the military ever since the start of their peace vigil, two and a half years ago. It is a form of assault, on a continuum with rape. Like the victims of rape, they are afraid to appeal to the law for redress, because the law, being male, secretly sides with the men who abuse them, and is liable to tell them they asked for what they got.
Reading the second passage one could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that in John Updike's imagination there are women who do not mind having a man's bottom shoved into their faces. But, unlike On the Perimeter, which is written in a style halfway between documentary and polemic, designed to leave the reader in no doubt about how what it describes is to be understood, The Witches of Eastwick is a hyperbolical fiction which floats us into a constant state of interpretative uncertainty. If Sukie doesn't want to kiss Darryl's ass, she can, we know, transform it at the murmur of an abracadabra into a pancake or a huge marshmallow or a backgammon board. So what are we to make of her compliance? Is she degrading herself, or are we to regard such practices as quite ordinary? Is Darryl trying to humiliate her? Or is he just a great big baby wanting his bottom kissed by a surrogate mummy? Is John Updike trying to humiliate Sukie? Does she really think Darryl smells like a Chinese camel? Or is it John Updike who thinks that's what Darryl would smell like? What, in any case, is the camel doing inside the tent? And does John Updike really intend to propel the whole episode through metaphorical hyperbole to the edges of the hilarious and the absurd?
The equivocal character of Updike's vision in The Witches of Eastwick has provided widely divergent accounts of the book in the American press. By some it has been cast as a comedy of manners, a charming period divertissement on life in middle-class America during the Vietnam era. Others have seen it as a diseased farce, a bilious Thersitical outpouring, soured by a deep-seated misogyny. I think it is both these things and more, all at the same time, which is why reading it is such a queasy experience, like eating an over-ripe mango, at once richly appetising and prone to make one gag….
In its portrayal of the feminine, The Witches of Eastwick is something of a tour de force. There are four major female characters in the book, each given distinct life. Moreover, Updike gets inside the skins of his women and tells us what it feels like. Yet the plot moves contrary to this sympathy for the female, tugging us in the direction of a virulent misogyny. It is as though Updike created his characters out of love, setting them in motion only to punish them. He makes them strong but deprives them of the will to use their strength constructively. He grants them independence, then causes them to squander it and finally takes it away from them again altogether. Having endowed them with creativity, he reveals what they do with it to be mediocre. He forbids them to love their children or keep their houses clean. Worst of all, he refuses them morality and fathers upon them a deed (the hexing of Jenny Gabriel) as evil as anything in the history of Western literature.
To leave the Eastwick succubae soaking in Darryl Van Horne's eight-foot oak tub, pleasantly stoned and drinking Margaritas, and to move to the half-starved peace women at Greenham Common huddled in their makeshift polythene tents with little to eat, no means to stay dry and no water to wash with, is to cross a fair portion of the entire spectrum of what contemporary Western society currently has to offer in the way of images of women. Nor at Greenham Common is there any ambivalence about the significance of the feminine. The symbolism the protest proclaims—of women as the guardians of peace, men the wagers of war—is a traditional one, and one that most people, even those who revile the Greenham women most bitterly, accept, just as they accept that Mrs Thatcher, in becoming a tough and warlike leader, had perforce, like Lady Macbeth, to unsex herself, an assumption fatuously confirmed by President Reagan some years ago when he called Mrs Thatcher 'the best man amongst us'. Though Caroline Blackwood finds the militant lesbianism of a few of the Greenham women regrettable because it blurs the real issues at stake, she tends to obscure matters herself by reinforcing the interpretation of events near Newbury as a confrontation between female and male. Her description of the busful of bums, for example, amplifies the incident beyond a point where we can view it dispassionately. By conflating the image of a male posterior with the missile base (a terminus ad quem for the species) she turns the incident to splendid rhetorical advantage. But rhetoric only excites us and we need above all to keep clam. There may be more sinister and complex forces at work in the nuclear arms race than the need for the male to assert itself.
The soldiers' bottoms might more provokingly remind us of the part played by anality in the build-up of nuclear arsenals. 'Cleaning up' and 'mopping up' and similar expressions are standard jargon in military operations. If it wasn't for the mess they create afterwards, nuclear weapons would provide the species with an unprecedented means to cleanse itself. Hence the frisson of fascinated horror that met the invention of the neutron bomb—the ultimately 'clean' weapon. It is especially interesting how frequently the local residents interviewed by Caroline Blackwood complain about the Greenham women on the grounds of their dirtiness, smell, disorderliness and mess. One of the reasons given by the council for evicting the women was that the camps constituted 'an environmental health hazard'. The nuclear missile base is at least neat and clean.
One of the most disturbing moments in The Witches of Eastwick occurs when Alexandra, who has been resisting the plan to cast a spell on Jenny, finally gives in: 'She said, "Oh hell. Let's do it." It seemed simplest, a way of cleaning up another tiny pocket of the world's endless dirt.' Of all the witches Alexandra is the closest to nature. Natural forces are said to flow through her. But nature in Updike's universe is no less ambiguous in her purposes than woman. Rapturous descriptions fill this book, setting up a natural world of breath-taking gorgeousness and delicacy, while the characters are obsessed with nature's cruelty, her ruthless and obscene flux. 'Nature kills constantly, and we call her beautiful,' muses Alexandra. She sees signs of cancer everywhere. In the Unitarian church Van Horne gives a sermon entitled 'This is a terrible creation'. The subject is parasites. As Brenda Parsley coughs up bees and butterflies while trying to give a sermon on evil, Jenny Gabriel, who is dying, wonders who can be responsible for this new outburst of magic. She reflects: 'Perhaps none of the three was willing this, it was something they had loosed on the air, like those nuclear scientists cooking up the atomic bomb to beat Hitler and Tojo and now so remorseful, like Eisenhower refusing to sign the truce with Ho Chi Minh that would have ended all the trouble, like the late-summer wildflowers, goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace, now loosed from dormant seeds upon the shaggy fallow fields where once black slaves had opened the gates for galloping squires in swallowtail coats and top hats of beaver and felt.' On Greenham Common a very different view of nature prevails. The Greenham women are also Green women. Feeling themselves to live in the shadow of imminent annihilation, they cling to a belief in nature as wholly benign, having recourse to the thought of the Common before the base was built, as a fortifying symbol of all they are fighting for. The idea that the Cruise missile might be in some way consonant with nature's purposes would appal them. I hope they are right to be appalled.
Caroline Blackwood's chief stylistic resource is simplicity. She writes as though she were an immensely clever and articulate child or an enfant sauvage launched upon the world for the first time in adulthood. In her approach to life on and around Greenham Common she affects a total lack of pre-conception, which leads her to express more than usual surprise at the things she finds. When people speak, she takes it for granted they mean what they say, and goes on to wonder why they said it. When something happens, she takes it at face value, deducing its significance from an ingenuous scrutiny of surface characteristics. This allows her to give the impression (often, in fact, sly) of letting things speak for themselves, and it helps her to tie down to particulars what could so easily have drifted into pontificating and prejudice. Corrigan, her latest novel, has the same simplicity and clarity of exposition as On the Perimeter, making it read a little like a children's book, with that overaccentuation also typical of people talking to foreigners or to the slightly deaf.
Corrigan tells the story of how an elderly widow, Devina Blunt, is conned by a sham Irish cripple called Corrigan. Arriving in her genteel Wiltshire drawing-room out of the blue, Corrigan sets to work milking Mrs Blunt of large sums of money by persuading her that she is helping support a home for the handicapped called St Crispin's. Corrigan is not in fact a cripple and St Crispin's is a pancake house behind Paddington Station, but the business of providing for it, and the enjoyment of looking after him, give Mrs Blunt a new sense of purpose and a reason to go on living, both of which she had lost after the death of her dear husband, 'the Colonel'. By the time Mrs Blunt dies of a heart attack while drinking champagne with Corrigan, she has, it seems, rumbled his game. But rather than expose his deceit, she has preferred to humour it, because of the meaning and pleasure it gives her. The other character to be deeply affected by the arrival of Corrigan is Mrs Blunt's daughter, Nadine, a sadly constrained young lady, whose life has dried out completely in the stifling atmosphere of marriage to an arrogant shit. In the process of coming to terms with the changes in her mother's behaviour brought about by Corrigan, Nadine discovers she too has unused potential, and she at last summons the strength to break out of her ghastly marriage. Corrigan argues for the wisdom of ingenuousness, the importance of the immediate, the superiority of means over ends. The virtues, in fact, of the Greenham Common peace protest.
Frank Longford (review date November 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802
SOURCE: "The Greenham Peace Women," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 245, No. 1426, November, 1984, pp. 273-74.
[In the following review, Longford favorably reviews On the Perimeter, arguing that Blackwood raises questions about many larger issues.]
It is impossible to imagine a more vivid account of the Greenham Peace Women than that supplied [in On the Perimeter] by Lady Caroline Blackwood after intensive study on the spot. The women had been described to her in advance as 'belligerent harpies,' 'a bunch of smelly lesbians,' as 'ragtag and bobtail,' but from the moment she arrived on the scene she was disarmed and one part of her critical faculties suspended. Her compassion was overwhelmingly aroused. 'I found that nothing had prepared me for the desolation of the camps the women inhabited. At first sight, the camps of the Greenham women looked like derelict piles of refuse that had been allowed to collect on the side of the road. The "benders" they inhabited were like crazy little igloos made of polythene.' As tents and caravans had been forbidden by the local council, 'they had erected these small and eccentric dwellings by draping a sheet of plastic over bending boughs which they had pegged into the mud.' Some of the benders were not more than two feet off the ground and had to be entered on all-fours. 'It was astonishing to see a grey-haired woman going into her bender with the scuttling movements of a rabbit vanishing into its burrow.' From then on, the story is one of unrelieved discomfort and extreme self-sacrifice. None of this one need question for a moment.
When I myself visited one of the camps it was moderately warm and fairly dry. It did not take much imagination to guess what conditions would be like when the weather was really nasty. Lady Caroline abstains from passing explicit value judgements. Her sympathies, however, whatever they may have been before her visits, are unrestrainedly in favour of the women and their anti-nuclear cause. She recognises the possibility that the 'great Powers' might defeat the protest, but she adds the defiant afterthought: 'The glorious victory could only be pyrrhic.' The women, with one exception, are presented as noble characters. The exception is provided by the lesbians, about whom Lady Caroline is unexpectedly sharp. She considers that they have done the anti-nuclearcause no good at all by their provocative gestures and parade, in season and out, of their personal tendencies.
The other characters in Lady Caroline's story are presented in a most unattractive light. The soldiers who, on one occasion, drove past with bare bottoms, show their contempt for the women, the police, the Americans, and the local inhabitants. In one or two cases, the latter revealed a sneaking sympathy but, on the whole, they and everyone other than the women, appear as ludicrous, at best. Frequently, as coarse and unfeeling. She quotes a British ex-magistrate who 'looked at all the hordes of police with a shudder.' She has been described as being sent to gaol many times since she had become a Greenham woman. 'I wonder,' she said, 'if this country can continue to have nuclear weapons without turning into a police state. More people ought to ask that. Who cares whether it's wrong to be lesbian and all that trivial, frivolous nonsense? All that's always only used to camouflage the issues that really matter.'
This must be the same lady who escorted me round, who afterwards had lunch with me and whom I later visited when she was once again in prison. She is a deeply impressive person, a former nurse, happily married, with five grown-up children and an admirable family life. A strong Catholic. But neither from her then nor from any of the other women did I extract any reasoned argument for the course they were pursuing. I am not suggesting that this lady or some of the others would have been incapable of sustaining such an argument, but it is part of the peculiar strength of the Greenham camps that they do not have any 'leaders.' There is an extraordinary solidarity, even more feminist than that of the Ulster Peace Women, with whom I could not help comparing them in my mind. Whether deliberately or otherwise, a united front is preserved by not emitting statements that could prove divisive. The problem of arguing with them becomes, therefore, almost impossible.
I am sure that anyone inclined to sympathise with the Greenham women will be drawn further in that direction by Caroline Blackwood's eloquent portrayal. Those who feel no such sympathy will be fortified in the belief that it is a purely emotional demonstration. But the sacrifice is real enough. Caroline Blackwood does well to give us such a telling glimpse of what it signifies.
Madeleine Simms (review date November 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 259
SOURCE: A review of On the Perimeter, in British Book News, November, 1984, p. 665.
[Below, Simms provides a favorable review of On the Perimeter.]
In March 1984, novelist Caroline Blackwood visited the Greenham Common women's peace camps for the first time. She was appalled by the conditions in which these women lived, and impressed by their courage and commitment. She decided to examine the impact of these camps, not on the internationalpeace movement nor on the women's movement, but on their immediate neighbours in and around the country town of Newbury where the camps are sited. She talked not only to the women themselves, but also to local residents, shopkeepers, members of local pressure groups, including RAGE (Ratepayers Against Greenham Encampments), and sat in the local magistrates' courts when some of the women were arrested.
She was astonished to find that ratepayers who objected to peace camps on both political and amenity grounds appeared to have no objection to the miles of concrete and tangled barbed wire that the missile bases had brought to their common. She also witnessed systematic abuse of the women by members of the armed forces stationed at Greenham, who were never restrained or disciplined by their officers into civilized behaviour. [On the Perimeter] must make even those who disagree with the Greenham women's political views pause to consider what kind of civilization it is that we are defending by these means. It should certainly be read and its implications considered by all who profess to have strong views about Cruise missiles, whatever side they are on.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
SOURCE: A review of Corrigan, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LIII, No. 4, February 15, 1985, p. 145.
[In the following review, the critic states that although Blackwood's plot in Corrigan is predictable, her dialogue and observations are well-written.]
The life-enhancing, restorative con-man—generous despite his fakery, a giver of much-needed love and confidence—is a familiar figure in Anglo-American storytelling, from Dickens to Twain to The Music Man. And here [in Corrigan], though Blackwood (The Stepdaughter, Great Granny Webster) stylishly fleshes out the basic tale with ironic charm and some shrewd psychology, she eventually returns to the usual formula—complete with an O. Henry-ish windup of sentimental revelations. Devina Blunt, still grieving over the death of her beloved colonel-husband, has sunk into a life of gloomy idleness and near-invalidism in her lovely little country house. Her daughter Nadine, a very rare visitor and the unhappy wife of a selfish London journalist, has felt "totally defeated and frustrated by her inability to alleviate her mother's suffering." (She also feels long-standing anger and jealousy about her parents' all-consuming mutual devotion.) But then timid Mrs. Blunt gets a visit from handsome, articulate, passionate Corrigan—an Irishman in a wheelchair who delivers an eloquent fundraising pitch for St. Crispin's, an under-equipped London hospital for the disabled. Corrigan makes Mrs. Blunt feel ashamed of her defeatist sloth; he urges her to become a pen-pal for a depressed St. Crispin's inmate; soon she's reawakening to life—learning to drive, turning her overgrown garden into a vegetable-farm, singing songs and reciting poetry with Corrigan … who has by now taken up disabled residence on Mrs. Blunt's renovated ground floor. But daughter Nadine, of course, is horrified by her mother's new domestic setup, by charismatic Corrigan's possessive power over Mrs. Blunt. So, after the now-happy widow dies of a heart attack, Nadine goes looking for the vanished Corrigan—discovering that he and St. Crispin's are utter frauds, that her mother knew the truth all along … and that she herself might benefit from some of Corrigan's-liberating influence. (Says Nadine's model-friend Sabrina, another Corrigan convert: "What he gave her was priceless. Does it really matter that he never had a hospital, just as long as she got such great pleasure from working for it?") Most readers will catch on to Corrigan's scam from the start; many will find blatant implausibilitiesin its elaborate details. But, though creaky as suspense and predictably syrupy at the fadeout, this scenario gives Blackwood the opportunity to dish up more than a few fine scenes of gentle-humored dialogue, edgy domestic confrontation, and wryly detached observation in the British manner.
Carolyn Gaiser (review date 14 July 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
SOURCE: "Victim or Victor?," in The New York Times Book Review, July 14, 1985, p. 19.
[In the following review, Gaiser examines Blackwood's depiction in Corrigan of victimization and malice.]
In Corrigan, her fourth novel, the Irish writer Caroline Blackwood continues to expose the menace lurking beneath the seemingly benign surface of everyday life. Domesticity, for Miss Blackwood, has never been cozy; she listens for the ticking of the time bomb in the teapot. Her brilliantly executed thriller The Fate of Mary Rose offered a devastating portrait of a marriage of convenience in which a child and her father become the victims of a crazed mother's obsession.
The nature of victimization—and by implication of good and evil—is a recurring theme in Miss Blackwood's work. In Corrigan she has written a delightfully ingenious variation on a familiar story—the aging widow preyed on by a charming confidence man.
Devina Blunt has withdrawn completely from life since her beloved husband, the Colonel, died three years earlier. She rarely leaves "her pretty little period house" in the English village of Coombe Abbot; "sometimes it frightened her that she now lived so much in the past." She even welcomes the sound of Mrs. Murphy (her "astonishingly noisy" cleaning woman) "crashing about downstairs in the kitchen," for it gives her "the illusion that her house was still the centre of some kind of important activity."
Like Sleeping Beauty, Mrs. Blunt is awakened from her grieving sleep by a handsome stranger—a prince disguised in a wheelchair. The ebullient Corrigan comes to her cottage to ask for contributions to St. Crispins, a nursing home where he says he was once a patient. "They helped me so much there," he confides. "At the beginning, just after I had my accident, all I really craved were the poppies of oblivion. But they made me realise that I shouldn't see myself as ashes where I'd once been fire."
Admiring his gallantry and happy-go-lucky attitude, Mrs. Blunt begins to "feel ashamed of her own aimless life. Corrigan, despite his handicap, was doing something worthwhile." Estranged from her only child, the unhappily married Nadine (who lives in London), Mrs. Blunt warms to his overtures.
Though Mrs. Murphy remains loudly skeptical about the Irishman's intentions, Mrs. Blunt sets about remaking her life under Corrigan's tutelage. She starts a correspondence with Rupert Sinclair, a patient at St. Crispins, and decides to "overhaul" her garden, extend the property, plant fruit and vegetables for the hospital patients. Conquering her timidity, she even learns to drive in order to help Corrigan with fund raising. She also learns to share his passion for poetry and his enjoyment of good champagne. On two issues, however, she remains intractable—her visits to her husband's grave and loyalty to Mrs. Murphy.
Among Mrs. Blunt's "unsuspected, untapped talents," Corrigan discovers a fluency in French and a flair for drawing; he urges her to read Pascal, then persuades her to take up painting. Through a London art gallery, her pictures of flowers find actual buyers. What began menacingly takes flight and becomes an enchanted fable about the transforming power of love.
When Nadine receives an ecstatic letter from her mother describing her new life and declaring her intention "to throw myself into charitable works," she dispatches her best friend, the successful fashion model Sabrina, to investigate: Sabrina's report that the flirtatious, "very good-looking" Corrigan is now living with Mrs. Blunt (who has renovated her house to accommodate his disabilities) both frightens and enrages Nadine. Nor is she soothed by Sabrina's insistence that their relationship is completely platonic.
"It's as if Corrigan feels she belongs to him," Sabrina explains. "It's as if he thinks like Pygmalion, he has somehow created her." And so completely has Sabrina fallen under his spell that she has decided to give up modeling and return to school.
What Nadine discovers about the mysterious Corrigan and his complex relationship with her mother at the end of her life provides a denouement filled with surprises and irony. The returns on Mrs. Blunt's investments are beyond price, for "like someone in the Bible, her eyes had been opened by Corrigan."
The apparent victim emerges as the true victor, while the presumed villain turns out to have a heart, if not golden, at least touchingly human. The time bomb in the teapot is not only defused, it puts forth green shoots and blossoms into a rose.
Miss Blackwood's sly wit and her affection for her characters bring a glow to these pages, a sunniness that manages to be believable without ever becoming sentimental. She has written a charming tour de force.
Elaine Kendall (review date 28 July 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
SOURCE: A review of Corrigan, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 28, 1985, pp. 3, 5.
[In the review below, Kendall explains the transformation of Devina Blunt from a depressed widow to a lively, caring woman.]
Gentle, compliant and accomplished at all the wifely graces, Devina Blunt [the protagonist of Corrigan] never had the slightest ambition to be anything but the Colonel's Lady, a role she fulfilled to perfection. Widowed now for three years, she still half expects to hear her husband's footsteps in the hall. His tweeds hang in the wardrobe; his shoes gleam in their rack; his shirts fill the drawers. These days, her only excursion is a stroll to the village churchyard to place flowers on his grave. Devina has never learned to drive, and, until the Colonel's death, had never even written a check. He had always managed their lives as if marriage were a colony and he were the viceroy. Like many Englishwomen of her generation, Devina would have regarded a more equitable arrangement unnatural. Although her daughter, Nadine, is impatient with her, Nadine's life is hardly less dependent. The only difference is that Nadine's consciousness has been raised, making her miserable in the roles that her mother enjoyed.
Since the Colonel's death, Devina has been looked after by Mrs. Murphy, whose crude good humor hasn't shaken her employer's apathy. Wan and depressed, Devina daydreams her life away, recalling the dinner parties, jumble sales and flower shows that enlivened the tranquil routine of her marriage. She's in her nightgown when Mrs. Murphy shouts: "There's a crippled gentleman at the door. And he wants to see you." For a moment, Devina imagines the visitor is her beloved Colonel, disabled but alive. Forcing the absurd thought out of her mind, she finds an intense and vital Irishman installed in her living room, a box of paper flags in his lap. In an ingratiating lilt, he explains that he's canvassing the countryside on behalf of St. Crispin's Hospital, the private institution where his interest in life had been rekindled after his frightful accident. Corrigan is his name, and it's immediately clear that the cruel fates had left him the gift of gab and charm to spare.
In no time flat, Devina is offering Corrigan the Colonel's best claret and trying desperately to remember lines from the Irish poets. At the mention of her widowhood, Corrigan confides his anguish at the death of his mother, mutual grief creating an instant bond. Refusing her offer of a donation, he suggests that she contribute by corresponding with an inmate of St. Crispin's, a gift even more meaningful than cash. Obviously, Corrigan is not only a person of unusual sensitivity, but quite unaware of Mrs. Blunt's comfortable circumstances. Corrigan leaves with only that promise, briskly wheeling himself down the lane to finish his rounds.
Weeks go by before Devina's letter to the unfortunate Rupert Sinclair is answered, making the reply all the more welcome when it arrives. Sinclair is another kindred spirit: grateful, articulate and plainly a gentleman. "It's a pity all these men are crippled," Mrs. Murphy says, observing her employer's excitement and pleasure. Within two days, Corrigan himself is back, apologizing for the lapse between visits by explaining that he'd skidded off the road on one of his errands of mercy and barely escaped with his life. He's using a borrowed chair; his own was wrecked in the fall. After hearing the dramatic story over champagne and pate, Mrs. Blunt arranges to buy Corrigan a magnificent new chair, handling the matter anonymously through her solicitor to avoid embarrassing her guest. The delicate relationship escalates—long intimate letters back and forth to Rupert Sinclair; increasingly frequent and agreeable afternoons with Corrigan, who apparently finds the little country village of Coombe Abbot amazingly generous.
With a regular visitor to entertain, Devina's domestic talents revive. When Nadine drives down on one of her rare visits, she finds her mother and Corrigan cozily ensconced in front of the fire, sharing champagne and quoting Irish ballads to each other, a sight that profoundly disconcerts her. Nadine's subsequent visits are even more unsettling. A steel wheelchair ramp has been installed over the front steps; Devina has bought up several neighboring farms and is planting exotic fruit and vegetables for the hospital dining room. Most suggestive of all, carpenters are busily constructing an invalid's specially equipped bedroom and bath on the ground floor of the historic cottage. Corrigan is to be a permanent house guest. Devina has been bidding like a sheik at all the local estate sales, planning to resell her acquisitions for the benefit of St. Crispin's. Devina is a new person, her life transformed far more radically than Nadine ever could have wished.
And then abruptly and incredibly, Devina is found dead in her Victorian bedroom; Corrigan is nowhere to be found. With only the most rudimentary deductive skills, Nadine is left to discover who has been victim and who is the beneficiary in this ironic and artful psychological drama.
Marilynne Robinson (review date 1 December 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1739
SOURCE: "A Long and Wretched Vigil," in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1985, pp. 11-12.
[In the following review, Robinson argues that Blackwood ignores such larger political issues as Britain's military commitments and instead focuses on the violence and sexuality associated with the women protestors.]
Caroline Blackwood's On the Perimeter, though it is perfectly dreadful considered as prose and as journalism, merits attention all the same for the strange emotional charge it carries. The surreal warping of syntax, the dotty preoccupation with mud and sex and rude odors, are the testament to an anxiety so intense as to have lost a clear sense of its occasion.
Miss Blackwood's subject is a long and famous vigil by a band of women at Greenham Common, an American military base near Newbury, England, at which cruise missiles are deployed. Four years ago, in protest against their coming, a group of women and children walked 400 miles, from Wales, to establish a camp outside the base. Women are camped there still, maintaining a vigil notable for the extreme wretchedness of the conditions in which they live. Local authorities try to drive them away with bulldozers, midnight raids and confiscations. Local thugs set the surrounding bushes on fire. Still, women continue to live outside the gates of the base, in "benders," tiny shelters made of branches and plastic, in defiance of hostility, tedium, cold and mud, sustained by the gifts of well-wishers—of whom there are a great many—and by the fact that their protest has become a sort of pilgrimage site for like-minded people from the ends of the earth.
You would never know, reading this little book, how the world order creaked with stress as cruise missiles were planted through the west of Europe. You will not learn here that these protesters had hoped to prevent the nuclear missiles from arriving at all and that the machinations of the British Government in deploying them caused a notable uproar and ended in the trial and imprisonment of a young female bureaucrat who slipped information about the missiles to the press. You would never learn that there is an outside world at all, did its emissaries not arrive at Greenham Common with dogs and truncheons, or with brown bread and soup and £10 notes.
Nor does Miss Blackwood, who is a novelist and the widow of Robert Lowell, tell us much about Greenham Common itself. Who are these women? "Women often hardly knew each other's names on the camps…. They were just 'women' and they shared a terror of 'nukes' and that was all they had to unify them." Miss Blackwood makes the acquaintance of a nurse named Pat. When, later, she inquires after her, someone asks, "Do you mean older Pat?" She muses, "I imagined that I did, but they probably had many Pats on the base." There were as well a "mongol" (a person with Down's syndrome) and a girl who seemed mentally ill, punks with shaved heads and lesbians who, in Miss Blackwood's happy phrase, "seemed determined to overegg the sexual pudding." They kissed in public.
Never seeming to know it, Miss Blackwood describes a world in which things have fallen into rather lurid decay. Here is how she begins: "I was very curious to meet the Greenham women, for the press had decorated them with such loathsome and frightening adjectives, they had been made to sound almost mythical in their horror. They'd been described as 'belligerent harpies,' 'a bunch of smelly lesbians,' as 'ragtag and bobtall,' and 'the screaming destructive witches of Greenham.'… They were also described as being in the pay of the Soviet Union…. I found the charge that the Greenham women lived like dogs and that they were smearing Newbury with their excrement almost the most chilling one, although it had less grave political connotations."
Can this be true? Can the press really have charged the Greenham women with "smearing Newbury with their excrement"? Miss Blackwood is not very clear about the sources of these charges. For example, although the phrase "a bunch of smelly lesbians" appears to be quoted from somewhere, no newspaper is named. So perhaps she is merely creating phantom adversaries to add drama to her tale—reprehensible as technique, but not in itself alarming.
Then at the top of the next page, we find the English writer Auberon Waugh credited with the claim that "the Greenham women smelt of 'fish paste and bad oysters,'" which remark, Miss Blackwood says, "also haunted me for it had such distressing sexual associations." I must take her word for that. As to the health of political dialogue in which it is considered telling and appropriate to speak of one's adversaries in such terms, I have my own views. Miss Blackwood takes the stance of one entirely prepared to believe these reports. On approaching a gray-haired woman, she says: "If she was a Greenham witch, I hated the idea that she might get up and scream at me. If she was as destructive as I'd been told, she might give me a vicious stab with her knitting needles. But above all, I dreaded that she might suddenly behave like a dog and defecate."
Miss Blackwood spends vastly more time on the issue of whether or not the Greenham women truly do have an evil smell than she does on issues of seemingly greater moment. She pauses later in the book to ascribe the war fears of the women to a statement by Nikita Khrushchev disavowing overkill ("Once is quite enough. What good does it do to annihilate a country twice?"); and remarks by the Rev. Jerry Falwell to the effect that born-again Christians need not fear nuclear war or Armageddon. Of the citizens of Newbury, she says: "No one ever said that they found it frightening that Jerry Falwell claimed Ronald Reagan was a 'Born Again Christian.' They expressed no anxiety that an American president who felt he was going to be automatically 'raptured' might view nuclear war with a certain nonchalance." It is much, in our uncertain world, to ask anyone to share anxieties as attenuated as these are. After all, Khrushchev is long gone. And if President Reagan views death with nonchalance, he is still as willing as anyone else to take a rain check. I find little evidence that Miss Blackwood has inquired deeply into the concerns of politically minded people.
The real preoccupations of On the Perimeter are violence, sexuality and filth in various forms. In telling the story of "peace women" camped near a country town, Miss Blackwood has continual recourse to words like "loathing," "hatred," "terror," "repulsion." The two British paratroopers who watch her arrive are "like ferocious animals as they glared at the benders with an expression of venomous hatred." Their "nasty yellow-eyed expression" makes her speculate that "they saw the peace campers as leprous and felt that anyone who had any contact with them might spread the contagion throughout the community, and for this reason would be better exterminated." Nor are these yellow-eyed soldiers the worst of their troubles. "The hooligan youths from Newbury came down in the night and poured pigs' blood and maggots and excrement all over them"—enough, surely, to dispel the odor of sanctity. Of the soldiers' "bellowing their horrible obscenities," she says, "They seemed besplattered with their own oaths and soiled by their own sordid fantasies." She reports that "the brutal youths from Newbury … drove past the camps screaming maniacal abuse at the women," who, for their part, "loathed and feared" weapons and force as "manifestations of masculinity."
Take the book simply as artifact. Does it attempt to give a true image of reality? Are we really to believe that soldiers stand around with their faces twisted in hatred, day after day? Miss Blackwood describes them elsewhere as grumbling to the women about food on the base, even bringing them tea. We are told that the bailiffs who wreck the benders during working hours help to rebuild them on their own time. Details like these square better with ordinary life than do the Expressionist images of rage and hatred by which the book is dominated. Why do these palliative gestures not soften the anger with which these people are regarded? There is a cruelty in Miss Blackwood's own vision that she projects effortlessly onto others, as when she says, "On one of the camps I'd seen a mongol girl and I couldn't imagine what she was doing there. I wondered if she'd soon be spotted by a hostile photographer and presented as a typical Greenham woman." Yet the book was well received in Britain, so it must not seem grossly out of line to those in a better position to judge.
To understand the anxiety with which this book is so strongly charged, it is probably useful to consider what it does not acknowledge. For example, the idea that Britain is a potential target of Soviet missiles because American missiles are stationed there ignores the fact that Britain maintains nuclear missiles of its own, which it will not make subject to any arms control negotiation—to the Soviet Union's dismay, since they must be assumed to be intended for use against Russia in the worst case. Britain is therefore a target in its own right, and of its own choice.
Worse, Britain is a major producer of bomb-grade plutonium. During the period described in this book, the press was full of the news that the west coast of Britain had been, over 35 years, extensively contaminated with wastes from Sellafield, a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. Miss Blackwood's references to plutonium and leukemia reflect, I suppose, the widely reported discovery that children in the villages near the reprocessing plant have one chance in 60 of developing leukemia by the age of 15. If the superpowers were to vanish tomorrow, Britain's troubles would still be very great. These women claim to look the harsh truth full in the face, yet they deny by ignoring it the responsibility of their own Government—and, if Britain is a democracy, their responsibility too—for the continuing contamination of their coast, the sea and the Irish coast.
Miss Blackwood says the women "believed that by their presence on Greenham Common they were acting as symbolic candles that represented the conscience of humanity." Let me refine her simile. Greenham Common is a candlelight vigil kept in a burning house.
Robert Jones (essay date 9 May 1986)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2464
SOURCE: "The Illusion of Refuge," in Commonweal, Vol. CXIII, No. 9, May 9, 1986, pp. 279-82.
[In the essay below, Jones examines themes common to five of Blackwood's works and argues that Blackwood writes in a Gothic tradition in which doom is inherent and life has no greater meaning.]
Of the many lies our parents tell us, the myth of the happy life is the one we seem least willing to relinquish. If we no longer have much faith in historical progress, some still hope for the individual to beat the odds and live exempt from the injustices which afflict and define the past. Despite the detours and setbacks tripping everyone around us, we want to be optimistic for ourselves and believe that life has forward motion, that where we end will be some place further away and better from where we began.
Although we pay lip service to the genius of our most depressed artists, in our hearts most of us remain failed pessimists. Hope has many manifestations, of course, and the desire to live happily ever after can be seen at its most rudimentary level as the pursuit of affluence, and at its most transcendent as belief in God. But in a certain sense, both attest to the indefatigable belief in the second chance, in our hope that somewhere lies the miracle cure, the last-minute rescue. Often there is, but often there is not. We ignore too easily the possibility of the sneak attack in the dark, the accident waiting to happen. In even the most mundane murder mystery, the family member is often the killer.
At the end of Caroline Blackwood's novel, The Fate of Mary Rose, a father kidnaps his daughter to save her from becoming paralyzed by her mother's terror of violence. But the child has learned to fear even her father and so flings herself from the car to escape him. As he sees the tiny body sprawled on the pavement, he thinks:
And if the child were to survive … I wondered if she would ever manage to escape the demon-infested murky world of her mother, if for Mary Rose the plunge towards the tarmac would not always seem safer than life.
Our own lives are supposed to be a haven. But the refuge of the personal may be our most enduring illusion. The energy of human desire naturally seeks to protect us from the calamity, disillusion, and fear we have learned from experience. The curse is that trying to live happily, we are in constant flight from life itself.
This threat of the world outside has been the subject of Caroline Blackwood's previous novels. From the highrise apartment of The Stepdaughter to the Irish country house of Great Granny Webster to the middle-class bungalows of The Fate of Mary Rose, she cheerfully evokes the small terrors of the everyday and the more unwieldly evils stumbling anyone who ventures from their door. If she takes as her subject particular domestic dramas, and if her characters make bunkers out of their houses and rarely leave their rooms, it is only to demonstrate how the larger world is always with us. Lived history is not an abstraction functioning independently of the individual, but the narrative line which brings together the muddle of personal crises, feuds, and betrayals that are our heritage.
In describing Dunmartin Hall, the ancestral hall in Great Granny Webster, Blackwood writes:
Dunmartin Hall always had an aura of impermanence. The house had both the melancholy and the magic of something inherently doomed by the height of its own, ancient, colonial aspirations. It was like a grey and decaying palace fortress beleaguered by invasions of hostile, natural forces.
If experience can be said to have a core, or if our place in the world has a character which defines it, we see it perpetually in the permanence of human folly. To understand the past clearly is to see that human beings are afterthoughts to creation, anxious visitors forever trying to bring reason to a universe that finds its power in chaos. The creations we force upon the world, from art and architecture to imperialist fantasies and philosophical ideas, are nothing more than tombstones which mark our passage through an inherently hostile, natural world.
This apprehension of the fragility of the human form encircled and conquered by nature is the center of the Gothic imagination. Caroline Blackwood comes from the tradition of other Irish masters of this vision, like Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker, in her acceptance of evil as the foundation of the universe and primal fright in human souls as the energy at the beginning of all experience. The terror in the Gothic vision emerges from the awareness of our irrevocable separation from nature and helplessness as its victims. It is to this fact that experience continually returns and which exists as our natural, worldly inheritance.
In this almost primitive understanding of the mysteries of dread and the menace invading every moment of our lives, Blackwood is unnervingly anti-modern. Blackwood is rare among contemporary writers in that there are no elegies to loss in her work. If there is no indication of the betrayals common to the modern age's fall from grace, it is because the focus of her sight exists outside the history and locates the sinister in the world itself. And if her work is often chillingly comic and free of the beleaguered anguish we are used to hearing from our darkest writers, it is because nihilists are slow learners who have come late to the point. Their despair is always after-the-fact, the result of having once had hope and found it abolished by the capriciousness and malevolence of reality. The Gothic imagination continues to haunt us because it accepts doom and recognizes the world as it is and has always been. There is no exile from paradise in this vision, but an ever present horror into which each of us must awaken.
In the unrelenting integrity of her vision, Blackwood is most like Samuel Beckett. But there is a passivity in the face of nothingness in Beckett's work that is absent in her novels. To Blackwood seeing the nothing that is there is not the culmination of a vision, as with Beckett, but the originating word that has echoed since prehistory and which undercuts all human behavior. It is also, for her, the moment by which we come to consciousness.
In a letter from his cell in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote of the perspective of the world seen from the bars of his window:
Prison life makes one see people and life as they are, that is why it turns one to stone. It is the people outside who are deceived by the illusion of life in constant motion. They revolve with life and contribute to its unreality. We who are immobile both see and know.
The houses in Caroline Blackwood's fiction have a truth similar to Wilde's prison. Always the danger lies in stopping, in seeing existence freed of the vibrancy and distractions which hold us to our usual course. It is these revelations of immobility which reveal the self's movement as a paralysis of spirit and the reality outside it as a hallucination. The mystery is how we reintegrate ourselves into the casual order of life after these moments of doubt which strike the mind with the power of the truest enlightenment. For this is the impasse which holds most ordinary lives in suspension and in fear. But within this scope, within the delusions we mistake as reality and the bad faith we mistake as love, Caroline Blackwood's novels examine the possibilities of movement left to us, and whether it is conceivable to move one step forward without setting off another bomb.
In Blackwood's new novel, Corrigan, Devina Blunt has lived as a recluse all the years since her husband's death. Mrs. Blunt is like Blackwood's character in her short story, "Angelica," who haunts the graveyard where her husband is buried and imagines that "all around her, the dead were lying there in the mud, waiting to be alive again." In Devina Blunt and Angelica, Blackwood captures the sense of the mind's conquering of time, of how the limbo of grief reduces the present to a vigil over the past. So the life of memory becomes ongoing existence.
Her daughter rails against Devina's passivity and refusal to reenter society. But Devina refuses to yield to the present until it becomes more compelling than the past. So until she first hears the sounds of Corrigan's wheelchair rattling up the stones of her drive, she is content to wander about her property talking to her dead husband, as she waits for something miraculous to happen. Corrigan, with his crippled legs, silken compassion, and repertoire of dreadful metaphors, is the miracle who returns Devina Blunt to the world.
When Corrigan arrives to sell a lapful of little white flags to raise money for St. Crispins, the hospital that saved his life, Devina is overwhelmed by Corrigan's apparent selflessness and desire to do good in the world. He speaks to her of the loneliness of the infirm and his dream to raise money to build a library to repay St. Crispins's kindness. "At the beginning, just after my accident," Corrigan tells her, "all I really craved were the poppies of oblivion. But they made me realize that I shouldn't see myself as ashes where once I had been fire."
Corrigan speaks throughout with the emotionalism of an inferior poet who believes fervently in his own genius and weeps at the depths of his feelings. But it is just the kind of exuberant sentimentality that can intimidate those with more subdued passions. Corrigan's tireless optimism convinces Devina of the aimlessness of her life. She comes to believe that if she succumbs to Corrigan's dream she, too, might save her soul from ruin.
Corrigan possesses the confidence of all little-league gurus who know how to strike most directly at the isolated heart. And his manipulation of Devina flourishes beyond his most extravagant hopes. She develops the singlemindedness of the convert who discovers a cause greater than the self. Devina decides to put her acreage to work to produce fruits and vegetables for the patients of St. Crispins. And as the farm project expands, Devina rebuilds her drawing room into sleeping quarters for Corrigan and disfigures her entranceway with a ramp for his chair. But just as Corrigan appears to have infiltrated every aspect of her life and diminished her ties to her family, Devina is found dead in her room.
If the novel followed the predictable course of stories of this kind, Corrigan would be held responsible for Devina's death. And indeed, as Mrs. Blunt's daughter investigates Corrigan's past to prove his guilt, she discovers what the reader has suspected from the beginning: that St. Crispins is a seedy pan-cake house, not a hospital, and that Corrigan's paralysis is as fraudulent as his dreams. She also learns that none of this would have been news to her mother. The mystery of Corrigan is not how Devina Blunt dies, but why she transformed her life to accommodate someone she knew was a fake.
After he had become part of the household, Corrigan spoke with his customary pretentiousness of Pascal:
"Maybe I identify with him because he, too, had an unenviable physique. When he wrote 'Notre nature est dans le mouvement,' it is proof that he transcended his afflictions. Finish the sentence for me, Devina."
"'Le repos entier est la mort,'" Mrs. Blunt recited bashfully.
In Devina's return to vitality, Blackwood inverts Pascal's understanding of human nature existing within movement, and questions what it means to move about the world when it has no purpose. In so doing, she reveals a truth on the other side of hope: one which affirms the emptiness of life without thereby surrendering to that inertia which is death to the spirit. The issue central to Corrigan is how, then, do we act in the face of such hopelessness.
But Blackwood does not mean hopeless in the sense with which we are most familiar. It is not synonymous with the paralysis of despair. To be without hope in her sense is to discover in oneself the immobility Wilde speaks of in his letter from prison, a way of being or seeing that reveals our place in the world with the truest calm. It is absolutely opposed to the passivity that cripples the unloved Renata in The Stepdaughter or the weakling Mary Rose. Their helplessness allows them to be trampled and conquered, easy victims waiting for the "undesirable accident" that forever alters their lives.
Blackwood's novels unsettle us because she gives us the world as we suspect it exists in our most secret moments. She removes our usual recourse to consolation and security by quietly suggesting that there is nothing beyond the life into which we are born. In this isolation, we see ourselves like the people abandoned outside Wilde's prison, scrambling to find antidotes to the frailty and treachery that are the character of human experience.
To say that no resolution exists should come as no surprise, but even now we resist such matter-of-fact statements of our ill-fated purpose. It is a natural, protective response to dismiss such a view as pessimistic, but to do so evades the complexity of the issues Blackwood raises. There is a modesty in her acceptance of the insignificance of the human form that goes beyond any simplistic ideas of negativity. She makes us aware again of how dangerous the world is and of the impossible value we place on experience. In this light, our efforts to translate the ambiguity we know into the certainty we desire seem desperate in their intention.
Through Devina's knowing nod to Corrigan's paralysis, Blackwood implies that all transcendence is false transcendence. But we sustain the illusion of flight, even if it amounts to little in the end. In spite of himself, Corrigan leads Devina to the simple wisdom to say, "I have been fooled by none of this," and to go forward anyway until she decides she's had enough.
As he looked to the past before his death, Kafka wrote in his journal: "When considering the hopes I had formed for life, the one which appeared the most important was the desire to acquire a way of seeing … in which life would keep its heavy moments of rise and fall, but would at the same time be recognized, and with no less admirable clarity, as a nothing, a dream, a drifting state." The mobility that Blackwood imagines is just such a truce with existence: to find the elusive balance between the dazzle of nothing and the misbelief that our lives measurably touch the world.
Roger Longrigg (review date 25 September 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356
SOURCE: "The Unreliable in Pursuit …," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4408, September 25, 1987, pp. 105-07.
[In the review below, Lonrigg offers an unfavorable assessment of In the Pink, charging that the book is inaccurate and lacks purpose.]
In the Pink reads as though Caroline Blackwood wrote a series of loosely connected articles about foxhunting for a glossy magazine, had them rejected, and then decided to bind them together in hard covers. It is difficult to guess why else this book should have been written; it is too unreliable in detail to be informative, and maintains too strict a moral neutrality to have the interest of a tract. It can be recommended neither to those who know about hunting nor to those who want to know about it. The sort of information we are given is that Victorian women "galloped alongside the bewhiskered men casting seductive glances from under their provocative hunting veils".
There are extended interviews with "antis" and others—apparently chosen because they are unrepresentative of those who follow the sport. There is no account of the physical act of chasing foxes on horseback—there are accounts of two days spent in cars attempting to follow the hunt, but apparently no hounds or horses were sighted after the meet. Literary quotations appear for no reason and in no historical context; there is no evidence of broad reading or serious research.
Someone going hunting is described by Blackwood as a "hunter" or "huntsman"; in Britain the former is a horse (in America a sportsman with a firearm) and the latter a person in charge of a pack of hounds in the field. William Somerville, most eminent of early Georgian hare-hunters, is described as a Regency fox-hunter, and "Nimrod" (uniquely influential as a hunting writer in the 1820s) and even Peter Beckford are thought to have been Victorians. A "drafted" hound means one transferred to another kennel, not condemned to death. In the season a hound today does not "walk about thirty miles to the meet several times a week". There was no hunting tailor called Mr Pink. "The Earl of Spencer" would be surprised by that partitive.
Max Hastings (review date 14 October 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588
SOURCE: "Fox Trot," in Punch, Vol. 293, October 14, 1987, p. 72.
[In the following excerpt, Hastings charges that In the Pink is not on par with Balckwood's earlier works and fails to capture the romance of fox hunting.]
Caroline Blackwood … is a rich, somewhat fey lady who writes excellent magazine profiles and is the author of five novels. Her own family is seated in Northern Ireland, though she says that never since she was a child has she hunted, and then only after hares rather than foxes. But she became fascinated by the fact that more people in Britain today are following hounds than at any time in history, and installed herself in a large house in Leicestershire to write a book about the phenomenon.
The outcome [In the Pink] is a series of essays, some absurdly brief, about aspects of fox-hunting—hounds, quarry, devotees, and (not least) fanatical opponents. She was unimpressed by the "antis", whom she concluded, like others before her, are driven more by hatred of fox-hunters than enthusiasm for animal welfare.
But when she turns to hunting, she never comes close to gaining the feel for it that, say, Molly Keane possesses. First, although she writes with wonderment of its risks and the frightful serried ranks of wheelchairs that it promotes in the House of Lords, she did not try it herself.
This is a serious flaw, because one cannot write with conviction about fox-hunting without having experienced, even briefly, its terror and exhilaration. There is no intellectual case for field sports; only a very powerful romantic and emotional one, based upon the propriety of maintaining man's historic role as a hunter. It is almost impossible to argue about field sports with an opponent who has never tried them.
A day out hunting or shooting may well fail to convince the novice. But at least he can then perceive the basis of the argument and the experience, the priceless sense of intimacy with the countryside, that it inspires. Caroline Blackwood has tried to understand the fox-hunters, but has plainly never come close enough to them to do so. She has merely marvelled from a social distance, so to speak. Her book is full of little mistakes, irritating even to a non-fox-hunter like me: followers may join hounds at Second Horses, but never at Second Horse as she suggests. Colonel Derek Hignet, to whom she devotes a chapter, is a distinguished former Master of the Fernie, not the Pytchley; and so on.
Lady Caroline does not seriously discuss—or perhaps never identified—the central irony of fox-hunting today: that it is the principal force for the preservation of foxes. The fox-hunters will never admit this, for to do so would be to undercut all the traditional arguments about their social utility as fox controllers.
In reality, foxes are preserved in hunting countries with a fanaticism that commands derision in such areas as Hampshire, where they are shot, trapped and gassed whenever they show their faces. Here, the "antis", too, find themselves in hopelessly muddy waters. They cannot admit the role of hunts as fox protectors, because that would destroy the justification for all their agreeable little Saturday morning riots on winter days when Socialist Worker is not holding a seminar.
Caroline Blackwood limply concludes that it will be a sad day for England when fox-hunters can no longer etc, etc. But her uncertain meander across the hunting scene is put to shame by the cracking pace that Molly Keane and her peers sustain without faltering to the end.
Peter Parker (review date November 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
SOURCE: "The Thrill of the Chase," in Books, No. 8, November, 1987, pp. 19-20.
[In the review below, Parker praises In the Pink as a well-written and impartial account of fox hunting in England.]
As someone who was taken hunting as a child, I have always considered blood-sports more deserving of the attentions of the NSPCC than of the RSPCA. Not that my mother bullied me into it, but I was the hunting equivalent of the coward who would rather go to war than declare pacifism. I confess I had no moral objection to the hunt; I did not even think about our quarry. But if I had I would have reflected that Reynard epitomises by tooth and claw the true colour of nature. Anyone who has seen what a fox can do to a run of chickens, or indeed an enfeebled sheep, must waver in his wholehearted sympathy for the bushy-tailed gentleman whose picturesque qualities belie a character quite as bloodthirsty as any huntsman. And yet the human, unlike the animal, is blessed (or cursed) with moral choice. I would not hunt now; but equally would not attempt to prevent others from doing so.
I am as impartial, then, as Caroline Blackwood, whose engrossing study of fox-hunting demonstrates how little there is to choose between those who hunt and those who would stop them, between the late Duke of Beaufort and those who planned to send his severed head to Princess Anne. Like Noel Coward (in this respect only, one hastens to add), the Duke was known as 'Master' by everyone from the Queen to the local peasantry ('of Foxhounds' was understood). This gives some idea of the arrogance characteristic of the typical MFH, who tends to combine foul temper with what he considers to be immaculate manners: he has no qualms about being unforgivably rude to those he considers his inferiors in status and age (often almost everyone), but always raises his hat to ladies. An officer at the League Against Cruel Sports admits that most of the members were bullied at school and thus feel empathy for the fox. One imagines that their persecutors must have resembled the Quorn in full pursuit. Unfortunately for the 'antis', few of their number have the moral authority and intelligence of a Brigid Brophy or a Bernard Shaw. Indeed, many of them appear to be moral idiots, who have not thought out their objections at all. The vengeful vegan who doesn't 'see anything wrong with killing a huntsman', and whose uninformed meddling with wild creatures makes the average MFH look like an animal welfare officer, is as self-deceived and dangerous as the hunt supporter who talks of 'the sporting fox', yet digs it out of its earth if it manages to escape the hounds.
Blackwood has a sneaking, if appalled, admiration for the stoicism of the hunting fanatic who, to the accompaniment of spattering mud and splintering tibias, thunders across the English (and Irish) countryside. As during the advance upon the Somme, the true huntsman does not stop to assist the injured, and Lord Longford ascribes the high proportion of wheelchairs in the House of Lords to this Sport of Kings and Dukes and Earls. And Queens, Duchesses and Countesses, of course, for if anything Our Hunting Mothers are even tougher than Our Hunting Fathers. The most admired figure on the hunting-field of the 1920s was the mother-to-be who hunted until the last possible moment, paused briefly and impatiently for the accouchement, and was 'pulling on the hunting boots and the riding breeches the moment the umbilical cord had been severed'. Her greatest disgrace was that the baby should turn out to be one of those 'pale, uncourageous children', described by Molly Keane in The Rising Tide, who take no pleasure in galloping alongside irascible and often out-of-control adult riders or in receiving the caste-mark of being 'blooded' on the face by a hacked-off fox's brush. In the Pink is a marvellous book, evocative, humane, balanced, sometimes distressing but often very funny.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 January 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350
SOURCE: A review of The Last of the Duchess, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIV, No. 1, January 1, 1995, p. 36.
[In the following review, the critic describes Blackwood's account of Wallis Simpson's later life as a "dark fairy tale."]
[The Last of the Duchess is] the chronicle of dogged journalist/novelist Blackwood's quest to discover the fate of Wallis Simpson—for whom King Edward VIII gave up the throne and settled for the title duke of Windsor—after the death of her husband.
Blackwood's obsession began with an impossible assignment—reporting on Lord Snowdon, who had been commissioned by the London Sunday Times to photograph the duchess—a celluloid encounter that was never to take place because her formidable keeper, the female French lawyer Maître Blum, never permitted it. But in trying to sway the terrifying octogenarian lawyer ("If you do not write a favorable article about the Duchess—I will not sue you … I will kill you"), who kept the duchess in her French home with no visitors for a decade, Blackwood became determined to comprehend "Master" Blum and her victim, the once "dreadful Mrs. Simpson." Blum, an accomplished lawyer whose clients included Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney, was given the duchess's power of attorney soon after the duke's death. After a few fruitless interviews with Blum herself, in which the Windsors are exalted as a sober, cultured couple that no one knew them to be, Blackwood tracks down surviving Windsor pals. A parade of wistful, wizened aristocratic women—such as Lady Diana Mosley—tell tales about the duchess's love affair with Woolworth heir and profligate Jimmy Donahue and her public humiliations of the besotted duke. From other sources Blackwood hears that, in Blum's care, the duchess, once heralded for her sense of style and shunned as sex incarnate, has shriveled to half her size, turned black, and is fed through pipes in her nose. By weaving semi-sordid speculation with famous factual tidbits, Blackwood spins a very "dark fairy tale" indeed.
A terrifying look at how far the mighty can fall when infirmity and poor judgment put them into nefarious hands.
Michiko Kakutani (review date 3 March 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 993
SOURCE: "The Sad Later Years of the Woman He Loved," in The New York Times, March 3, 1995, p. C27.
[In the review below, Kakutani argues that Blackwood does not stick to the facts in The Last of the Duchess and therefore destroys her credibility.]
This fascinating but ultimately disingenuous new book about the Duchess of Windsor is part detective story, part biography, part hatchet job and part comedy of manners. It features characters who seem like exiles from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a social backdrop reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh and a plot that might have been worthy of Henry James.
The Last of the Duchess begins with an assignment that the journalist and novelist Caroline Blackwood received from The Sunday Times of London in 1980: to write an article about the legendary Duchess of Windsor, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson who won the heart of Edward VIII and cost him the British throne.
Like A. J. A. Symon's classic study of Baron Corvo (The Quest for Corvo) and Ian Hamilton's much-contested 1988 "biography" of J. D. Salinger (In Search of J. D. Salinger), The Last of the Duchess is less a conventional biography, than an account of the author's efforts to come to terms with an elusive subject. Indeed, this book ends up revealing a good bit more about Ms. Blackwood and the Duchess's late lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum (who apparently tried to thwart Ms. Blackwood's efforts), than it does about the Duchess herself.
In the book's opening pages, Ms. Blackwood tells us about her own childhood in Ulster and the uproar the Duchess created there in the late 1930's: "To an embattled Protestant community whose very identity depended on their loyalty to the British crown, Mrs. Simpson was a figure who was regarded with horror. She was a threat to the church and the monarchy. She symbolized sex and evil." By the end of her investigations into the Duchess's life, however, Ms. Blackwood has arrived at a very different conclusion: she says she has come to see the Duchess as "a figure of tragedy": a naive victim of her conniving lawyer, and eventually a pathetic prisoner in her own huge house in Paris.
Combining her own meditations with assorted interviews and material taken from other books (including The Windsor Story, by J. Bryan 3d and Charles J. V. Murphy; the Duchess's own memoir. The Heart Has Its Reasons, and the Duke of Windsor's autobiography, A King's Story), Ms. Blackwood gives the reader, a sharply observed (and sometimes very funny) portrait of the frivolous world of wealth and luxury inhabited by the Windsors.
As depicted in these pages, it's a world that's perilously close to parody, a world of willful superficiality and wretched excess. "The Duchess never became a Queen but she had done her best to live like a Queen," Ms. Blackwood writes. "She and the Duke had once traveled with insouciance through a war-torn Europe taking with them no less than 222 suitcases, and that was not counting all her extra hat and jewel boxes. Their entourage was enormous, it resembled an unaffliated army, it included so many maids carrying lapdogs that belonged to the Duchess."
Ms. Blackwood tells us that the Duchess was known for her "cunning use of mirrors," her fetish for shoes (she once bought 56 pairs at a single go), her 22-karat-gold bathtub, her quirky dinner-party edicts: no candles at eye level, platinum (not gold) jewelry at night. She quotes one friend who fondly recalls how the Duchess's butler "used to love kneeling in front of the Duchess and putting on her slippers" and another who describes the Duchess's folly-filled affair with a "seriously cruel and common" millionaire when she was married to the Duke.
If the Duchess comes off as a vain, hopelessly selfish woman in this volume, the Duke emerges as a dangerously naive, Nazi-loving twit who was easily taken in by demagogues and easily manipulated by his wife. Ms. Blackwood's greatest scorn, however, is reserved for the lawyer, Maître Blum, who is variously described as "necrophiliac," "ruthless" and "demented"—"a Narcissus," "a terrifying clown," a "malignant old spider."
"She kept glaring at me with the utmost hostility," Ms. Blackwood writes of an interview with Maître Blum. "She answered my questions with ill-mannered abruptness. Her slanting, unblinking eyes had a snakelike malevolence. She was perverse."
In the course of the book, Ms. Blackwood's wariness of Maître Blum escalates into out-and-out hatred. She suggests that the lawyer is deliberately—and painfully—prolonging the moribund Duchess's life for her own selfish ends, that she has cut off the Duchess from her dearest friends, and that she has blatantly lied about the Duchess, reinventing her fun-loving client in her own sour image. Much of Ms. Blackwood's writing about Maître Blum veers into the realm of pure speculation: there is little effort to verify the most outrageous rumors about the lawyer, and lots of hypothesizing about the old woman's obsessive, possibly erotic attachment to the Duchess.
Were The Last of the Duchess a novel, this vitriolic portrait of Maître Blum might make entertaining reading; it might even illuminate something about the dynamics of power and dependency and the creation of myths. As journalism, however, it is deeply and seriously flawed. Indeed, Ms. Blackwood completely undercuts her own credibility when she notes that she once wrote a profile of Maître Blum for The Sunday Times "that was bland and praising to the point of sycophancy."
"I said that Maître Blum was a marvelous old figure noted for her loyalty and devotion to the Duchess of Windsor," Ms. Blackwood says, "and as I wrote this, I realized that Maître Blum always managed to get her way."
Having spent the better part of this book railing against Maître Blum, it seems the very height of hypocrisy and deceit to have written and published such an article. It can only make the reader distrust the author of this book.
Jill Gerston (review date 19 March 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305
SOURCE: A review of The Last of the Duchess, in The New York Times Book Review, March 19, 1995, p. 38.
[In the review below, Gerston argues that The Last of the Duchess ultimately fails because Blackwood relies too much on speculation.]
Caroline Blackwood's investigation into the last years of the bedridden octogenarian Duchess of Windsor—whose fragile existence was fiercely controlled by Suzanne Blum, her belligerent octogenarian lawyer—is a tale as bizarre as it is poignant. Asked in 1980 by The Sunday Times of London to write an article about the divorced American woman for whom Edward VIII renounced the throne in 1936, Miss Blackwood interviewed several dowagers—Lady Diana Cooper and Lady Diana Mosley, among others—who had hobnobbed with the Duchess. Their gossipy reminiscences about "poor Wallis," including some titillating anecdotes about Jimmy Donahue, the Woolworth heir with whom the Duchess was infatuated, are colorful and amusing. Miss Blackwood's biographical account of the Duchess's pre-Windsor years is also absorbing. However, The Last of the Duchess sorely disappoints by never answering the cardinal question: How did the Duchess of Windsor spend her final years, before her death in 1986 at the age of 89? The book is heavy on speculation and hearsay but weak on facts. Central to the story is Blum, whom the author portrays as a vengeful, paranoid battle-ax with an obsessional attachment to her client. Although Miss Blackwood, whose novels include The Stepdaughter and Great Granny Webster, suspects her of having exploited the enfeebled Duchess, she nevertheless wrote a fawning profile of Blum for The Sunday Times. (Miss Blackwood postponed the publication of her book until the notoriously litigious lawyer died last year.) The author finally inveigles her way into the Duchess's Bois de Boulogne mansion, but is stopped by the butler at the doorway. One needs a more seasoned reporter to break through the labyrinth.
Jonathan Yardley (review date 22 March 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
SOURCE: "The Duchess and Her Keeper," in Washington Post, March 22, 1995, p. C2.
[In the review below, Yardley describes The Last of the Duchess as an odd, dark story that is both witty and perceptive.]
This peculiar but beguiling book is the account of how its author, a British journalist and novelist who now lives in the United States, tried to obtain an interview with the Duchess of Windsor in the last years of that controversial woman's long life. She failed, but she managed to hook up with a woman even odder—if one can imagine such—than the duchess herself.
That woman was Suzanne Blum, universally known as Maître Blum, the octogenarian French attorney who seized control of the duchess's life after the death in 1972 of the duke—the onetime King of England, Edward VIII. By 1980 she had the duchess locked away in the Paris house that the French government had given to the exiled Windsors and permitted no one to visit her. It was variously rumored that the duchess had shrunk to the size of a baby, that her skin had turned black, that she was in fact dead.
Whatever the case, it developed that Lord Snowdon wanted to photograph her in whatever state she might have attained. This was proposed to the Sunday Times of London, which in turn proposed that Caroline Blackwood, herself well connected in the circles that surround the British crown, write an accompanying article. This would entail an interview, which in turn would entail approaching the formidable Maître Blum, the "bellicose old eminence grise who was lurking behind the stricken Duchess."
Thus Blackwood set off on her mission. She wrote this account of it at the time but withheld it from publication, "for obvious reasons," until after Maître Blum's death, which took place a year ago. The Last of the Duchess is a chronicle with no real narrative line and no particular surprises, either. One reads it because Blackwood is witty, understated and perceptive, and because the fascination that the duchess exerted in life has not entirely evaporated even now, nearly a decade after her death, even at a time when the British crown has been sullied far more than it ever was by Wallis Warfield Simpson and her little duke.
Much of the fascination of this particular book lies in the unfathomable mystery at its center. How did the duchess allow herself to be sequestered—imprisoned, really—in isolation, and how did Suzanne Blum achieve such total mastery over her? We know that the duchess was incompetent at financial matters and thus would have welcomed so self-confident and celebrated an adviser as Maître Blum, but it is one thing to turn over one's books to an outsider and quite another to relinquish one's entire existence.
"If the Duchess sometimes regained consciousness," Blackwood speculates, "she must [have felt] that few people were as abandoned as she was, few people had been left so completely alone in the dark." What emerges as Blackwood makes her inquiries and draws conclusions from them is a "very symbiotic relationship" in which the duchess and her attorney "were totally dependent on each other." She writes: "Wallis Windsor owed her life to Maître Blum, and Maître Blum had fused her identity with the Duchess to such an intense degree that she seemed to feel that her own life had little emotional validity apart from her role as the sole custodian and adorer of Wallis Windsor."
Blackwood implies but does not directly claim that Maître Blum may have nursed sexual as well as emotional feelings about the duchess, feelings presumably both unrequited and unfulfilled. Whatever the case, Maître Blum went beyond mere adoration to self-aggrandizement of a sort, selling off the duchess's baubles and treasures for reasons that remain mysterious, given the duchess's considerable wealth. To Blackwood it "seemed unfair that at the end of the Duchess's life, Maître Blum should zoom in and appropriate all the Duchess's gains without having lived through any of the vicissitudes by which they had been acquired," a telling and important point.
But if Blackwood's tale has its undeniable dark side, it is also a comedy. After all, as one of the innumerable British grand dames to whom she talked put it, "There's something so comic about … the idea of that horrible old lady being locked up by another horrible old lady." When it comes to Maître Blum, "horrible" is pure understatement. As portrayed herein she is a monster of the first rank, a gnomish Rasputin in spoken of by all "with an awe that was curiously akin to pure terror." The descriptions of Maître Blum in her dreary mausoleum of a house, a sniveling protege in attendance, are immensely amusing, though Blackwood lets the humor speak for itself.
Blackwood sees the story of the duchess and Maître Blum, she says in her preface, as "a lesson for those who are vulnerable to being overprotected" as well as "a real study in the fatal effects of myth." Perhaps so. But it's also, as told herein, simply a very good if very odd story, and it will be welcomed by all connoisseurs of the outre.
Gabriele Annan (review date 23 March 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3150
SOURCE: "Through the Looking Glass," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 5, March 23, 1995, pp. 18-20.
[In the following review, Annan argues that although Blackwood does not present any new revelations in The Last of the Duchess, her sharp perception and witty style make for enjoyable reading.]
The Last of the Duchess is detective thriller, Gothic horror story, and society gossip column all in one: a publisher's dream. It is also a grisly anatomy of old age.
The duchess in question is the Duchess of Windsor. In 1980, eight years after the Duke's death, the London Sunday Times decided to ask Lord Snowdon to go to Paris and photograph her. She had not been seen in public for some years, and lurid rumors were circulating about her fate. Caroline Blackwood was to write the accompanying copy. She thought "it might be interesting for someone to take a photograph of Lord Snowdon caught in the act of photographing the Duchess. One royal divorcée taking a snap of another. Surely this would have a certain historic value and be a record of an event that had an Alice in Wonderland unreality."
But it was not to be. The Duchess's lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum, vetoed the whole enterprise. She had power of attorney. At first she refused to see Blackwood, and when she finally received her in her hideous and forbidding flat, she bullied and insulted her, threatening to sue (she was famous for suing) and even to kill her if she wrote unfavorably about the Duchess—a threat which Blackwood, not quite convincingly, pretends to believe. "There was something ruthless and demented in her glinting, paranoid eyes." Maître Blum and her client were both eighty-four years old, but whereas the lawyer rushed around acting on behalf of rich old women (in the Fifties she had specialized in Hollywood personalities like Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks, Jack Warner, Walt Disney, and Merle Oberon), the Duchess was assumed to be terminally ill or gaga or both. Blackwood heard that she never left her house in Neuilly, that Maître Blum called every day and forbade the door to everyone except the three nurses in attendance. The butler (rumored to be armed) had orders to turn away all callers. Blackwood surmises that the Duchess's periodic spells in the American Hospital were necessitated not so much by crises in her health as by the butler's holidays.
She had planned to interview as many of the Duchess's acquaintances as she could: a string of pearls with the Duchess's portrait in the central medallion. Things did not turn out as planned: there was to be no portrait, but the pearls are real pearls all right: vivid evocations—cruel, comical, and sometimes heartbreaking—of ancient survivors from an extinct culture. The Windsors' closest friends after the war were the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and his wife, who was still so beautiful that Blackwood was reluctantly beguiled. Both couples had flirted with Hitler. The Mosleys were locked up during the war, but the Windsors, according to Blackwood, kept in touch with Mosley even after the Duke was appointed governor of the Bahamas. After the war all four of them settled in exile outside Paris and dined in each other's impeccably decoratedhouses. When Blackwood telephoned Lady Mosley, "she said she had become stone deaf. I then realized that if I hoped to talk to people who had once surrounded the Duchess, I must expect to encounter the hurdle of various physical disabilities." This demure statement should be taken as a coded health warning for sensitive readers.
Lady Mosley was about to publish a life of the Duchess. Not having heard exactly what Blackwood said, she imagined that she wanted to review it, and invited her to lunch. Sir Oswald made up to the visitor, but kept losing the thread of his disquisitions.
"The trouble with England now …" Sir Oswald said to me. All his statements were delivered with such self-importance they sounded like pronunciamentos. "The trouble with England now …" he repeated. He never stopped trying to be hypnotic. I braced myself waiting for some abrasive opinion. But the trouble with England now was that it no longer had any hostesses. "Where are the great hostesses?" Sir Oswald asked with rhetorical melancholy. "Tell me where are the great hostesses of the ilk of Sibyl Colefax and Emerald Cunard?
After the Duke of Windsor's death, his cousin, Lord Mountbatten, proposed to the Duchess that she should set up a charitable trust in the Duke's name. The Duchess was said to be delighted, but Maître Blum scotched the plan and was thought to have sold off many valuable items which might have been included. Lord Mountbatten was now dead, and when Blackwood telephoned his daughter,
Countess Mountbatten became so agitated she sounded close to tears. "Oh, it's the most ghastly business! Daddy minded about it all so much. The lawyer has got all those lovely things. I can't tell you how many she's got. You'd never believe what beautiful things the Duke and Duchess used to have. And all of them royal…."
"I believe that Maître Blum also has some of the royal swords?"
Countess Mountbatten gave a heavy, upper-class sigh. "Oh, my dear, I'm afraid it's very much worse than that," she whispered mournfully. "That frightful old woman's got the royal insignia and the regimental drums."
Blackwood is a dangerous interviewer. You can hear her subjects' intonations. And sometimes you can hear her own—for instance when she talks about the Duchess's former sister-in-law, Mrs. Maud Kerr-Smiley, "who considered that Ernest [Simpson] had married beneath him." Every time Blackwood mentions Mrs. Maud Kerr-Smiley a hiss of ridicule goes whistling through the syllables. True, the name is a gift—perhaps from P. G. Wodehouse in the Great Beyond. There are Wodehouse touches in Blackwood's book anyway, and it is all the better for them. Both writers have a fine sense of upper-class absurdity.
Sir Walter Monckton was the Duke of Windsor's legal adviser and friend: he helped him write his abdication speech and accompanied him across the Channel afterward. Blackwood went to see his widow in the "home" where she lived. It was a beautiful country house with golden pheasants parading on the lawns.
Fires had been lit in the fireplaces and above them were ancient portraits of somebody's ancestors to give a feeling of continuity. Only a faint smell of antiseptic and the terrible state of the inmates ruined the imposing atmosphere. Having lost all their faculties, they sat motionless in their various chairs. Some of them looked at television with their eyes closed.
Lady Monckton was thrilled by Blackwood's visit, though she though she was Lady Mountbatten (not the one who grieved so for the regimental drums, but her dead mother).
Yet when the old lady spoke of the past she was lucid. She told Blackwood that while the Duke had always been "madly in love" with his wife, the Duchess was never in love: she just wanted to be Queen. This was not news: it was the accepted opinion. It doesn't matter. The interview with Lady Monckton is a little masterpiece. The old lady's charm revives and she begins to sparkle at the thought of what fun life used to be in the Duchess's entourage. Eventually a nurse asks Blackwood to leave. Lady Monckton will be exhausted. "I couldn't see any real reason why Lady Monckton shouldn't be allowed to become overtired if she was enjoying herself for one moment … I wished … she could get on a jet and fly to Paris to join the young Duchess and her dead husband. I wished she could have a glamorous dinner with the Duchess, that all the flowers on the table could be sprayed with Diorissimo"—which is what used to happen for the Windsors' parties.
Lady Diana Cooper was a famous wit and beauty and the widow of Britain's first postwar ambassador to France. "I hear she makes no sense," she said when Blackwood told her about Lady Monckton. "She's much luckier than me. I make perfect sense and I am absolutely miserable. I loathe being old. I hate every second of my life. My eyes, my ears, are going. Everything is going. All I enjoy now is driving my car. And I suppose I won't be able to do that much longer. I can't walk a step without it hurting. But let's have a drink." She envied even the incarcerated Duchess, artificially kept alive and tortured by expensive doctors, because she had heard that the Duchess was unconscious. And she envied her friend the playwright Enid Bagnold: "Enid is now ninety-two and she is as mad as a coot. She's become totally gaga. She hardly makes a grain of sense when I go to see her. But Enid claims that old age has been the happiest time of her life." Blackwood checked this out with a friend of Bagnold's: "It was nonsense. Enid Bagnold was not at all happy. She was in a desperate state of ill health and she minded it as much as anyone else. She liked to pretend to Lady Diana Cooper that she was ecstatically happy." Blackwood concludes from this: "Old ladies had their own form of one-upmanship."
The Marchesa Casa Maury (formerly Mrs. Dudley Ward) became the Duke's mistress in 1919. He dropped her when he met Mrs. Simpson, and never spoke to her again. He told the palace switchboard to refuse her calls. When Blackwood went to see her, she was confined to a chair. She had broken her hip and just come out of hospital. "'We never stopped dancing,' she said. 'The Duke was mad about dancing. In a way that was all we did—well, not quite.' She gave another little laugh.
"I doted on the Duke," she said.
Her husband didn't mind. "If it's the Prince of Wales—no husbands ever mind." The Marchesa was willing to admit the Duke was "very sexy" (qualified a moment later to "quite sexy"), and also
"a pretty miserable fellow … He was always crying. He was always in floods of tears. It was usually because he'd had some row with his father. The Duke hated his father. The King was horrible to him. His mother was horrible to him too …"
Blackwood fell for this "gallant, old, humorous lady of eighty-six." The Marchesa displayed a liberal and generous nature. She blamed herself for being conventional, "I would never have dreamt of doing anything to upset the monarchy. That's why I knew our romance would never last. In that way I was never fair to him. My attitudes were just as bad as those of the Palace … When I heard he had abdicated to marry the Duchess—I really admired him. It was very brave of him." She wouldn't talk about the Duchess except to say she had made the duke "very nasty. He never used to be nasty. But now I hear all these stories that he has become so mean with money—that he never tips his servants. He didn't used to be like that. She must have made him like that." Blackwood "wondered if she had taken in that the Duke was dead."
The only person in England sufficiently concerned about the Duchess to plan to go and see her was the Duchess of Marlborough. "Then at the very last moment she canceled her flight. She told me that she had a cold and she had to restring her pearls." And the only person who thought the Duchess was probably quite all right was cheery Lady Tomkins, the wife of another former British ambassador to France. "Suzanne Blum is rather a splendid old girl," she said, after describing her as "not the sort of woman one could have as a friend." She thought that if it hadn't been for Maître Blum, after the Duke's death the other royals would have pounced on the treasures he had given his wife. Especially Lord Mountbatten.
And this is the big question, the crux of the book, the mystery waiting to be unraveled by the detective. Was Maître Blum exploiting the Duchess or was she protecting her? Blackwood dismisses both these obvious possibilities and decides instead that "the necrophiliac lawyer" was in love with her client and wanted to keep her alive at any cost, even when it would be kinder to let her die. If she was selling off the Duchess's valuable possessions, it was to pay the doctors. Maître Blum was ecstatic about the Duchess's appearance: she "still had the most fantastic body. You ought to see it. The skin on her body is perfect. It doesn't have a line. She has the lovely, soft body of a young girl." This clearly wasn't true any more than Blum's assertion that the Duchess had always been exceptionally kind, charitable, cultured, and dignified, that she did not sleep with the Duke until they were married, after which they led a secluded life, reading good books, shunning night-clubs, and only occasionally taking a minuscule drink when politeness demanded it.
Some Spanish paparazzi managed to photograph the Duchess with a longrange lens when she was being lifted by a nurse: her body was shrunken and her face "looked a little like a Chinese mandarin, but more like a dead monkey." A friend who had threatened his way through Maître Blum's barriers a few years before reported, "The Duchess had shrunk to half her original size and she seemed to be unconscious. She was lying in bed looking like a tiny prune. She had turned completely black." Blackwood stood outside the Duchess's house. The gold-spiked gates were locked, the windows shuttered all except one. "It was disquieting to picture Maître Blum … creeping up the stairs to the Duchess's bedroom, and pulling down the poor woman's sheets in order to gaze at her." Maybe it is as a small token revenge on behalf of the poor woman that Blackwood constantly refers to the "brown flowers" of age on her lawyer's hands and arms.
Like all respectable witches, Maître Blum has a familiar. Hers is not an owl or a cat, but a young Ulsterman called Michael Bloch who wrote to her when he was doing research for a book on Sibyl Colefax. He became her law pupil and moved in with her and her second husband—a retired general who dies during the period of Blackwood's interviews. His widow arranges a spectacular funeral, but otherwise his death does not seem to affect her, except that her wardrobe changes from comme il faut beige to deepest comme il faut black. Michael Bloch, on the other hand, habitually wears a red-and-white-striped cricketblazer with flowers in the buttonhole. She bawls him out and he fawns on her; he calls her "mon Maître" and—absurdly—"My Master," when speaking English with Blackwood. He appears terrified of his Master, but once he is indiscreet enough to let slip that her relationship with the Duchess is "very special … of a romantic nature …"
Naturally Lord Snowdon was not permitted to photograph the prune Duchess, nor was Blackwood allowed to interview her. So she decided to write a profile of Maître Blum instead. Maître Blum refused, abusively, as usual. The Sunday Times tried bribery: they offered her a photo session of her very own with Lord Snowdon. She was beside herself with excitement and joy. Her snobbery, especially about royalty, had always been out of control; in Blackwood's opinion it was the fount of her passion for the Duchess. She chose to regard her own interview as a sacrifice made for the sake of her idol, but of course she censored it. The Sunday Times profile was bland compared to this book, which could not be published until after Maître Blum's death last year.
Two years after her interview, Maître Blum announced in the press that the Duchess had made a miraculous recovery and it was now a problem how to amuse her. Maître Blum said that the Duchess was "sitting up and was listening to Cole Porter." There were rumors that the Duke's collection of Sèvres snuffboxes had been offered for sale. A detective told Blackwood that the Neuilly house was so well protected that only a helicopter raid could establish what was going on there, and "that would be against the law and therefore very expensive." He wondered whether the Duchess might not be dead. Suppressing deaths was also illegal, but it was sometimes done, just the same: "Usually it was because there were trusts involved." A doctor from the American Hospital said that when the Duchess had been admitted eight months before "her condition had been so pitiable it had upset the nurses."
When Blackwood was next in Paris, she rang the bell by the spiked gate. The butler turned her away on the intercom. At her second attempt he let her in because she was able to say that she was the niece of one of the Duchess's friends and was bringing flowers from her. The garden was neglected, the house pitch dark, the silence unearthly. It was impossible to believe that nurses or anyone could be in it.
That is the spine-chilling, and at the same time affecting, end to both the Gothic tale and the detective story. They are interspersed with ruminative passages; what would Maître Blum have felt if she had been invited to accompany the Duchess to the Duke's funeral at Frogmore? Not a very rewarding speculation, but an opportunity for a riveting step-by-step account of the event, at which the Duchess was already showing pathetic signs of senility. There is an attempt to see parallels in the lots of the Duchess and her lawyer. Both were brought up in genteel poverty and taught to regard marriage as the only way out. Suzanne Blum fought her way to a career. Wallis Warfield didn't. So what? An opportunity for a mildly feminist lament on the fate of women in their generation. But being déclassée in Baltimore and marrying a king, and being the child of an Alsatian Jewish grocer in Niort and becoming a lawyer are not really comparable destinies. Blackwood sees a symbiotic relationship between the Duchess and her lawyer which made them both look Oriental. But since she tells us they both had face-lifts, that idea doesn't really work either.
More to the point are biographies of the Duke and Duchess that fill in the background. They have never been told with more wit and deadpan wickedness, and if there are no new revelations about major facts, there are previously unpublished and unpublishable horror stories about the behavior of the ducal couple and their friends. They make one "gasp and stretch one's eyes" in pleasurable disapproval and dismay.
Michael Kimmelman (essay date 2 April 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3252
SOURCE: "Titled Bohemian: Caroline Blackwood," in The New York Times Magazine, April 2, 1995, pp. 32, 34-5.
[In the following essay, Kimmelman surveys Blackwood's life and literary career.]
When Lady Caroline Blackwood, the Irish writer and Guinness heiress, was living in Paris in the early 1950's, she and her first husband, the painter Lucian Freud, were invited to visit Picasso.
"Picasso got one of his followers to ask Lucian if he would like to see Picasso's paintings," Blackwood says. "Of course, Lucian said yes. Meanwhile Picasso asked me if I wanted to see his doves: he had this spiral iron staircase leading to the roof, and off we go, winding round and round to the top, until we reached these doves in cages and all around us was the best view of Paris, the best. Whereupon immediately, standing on this tiny, tiny space, way above the city, Picasso does a complete plunge at me. All I felt was fear. I kept saying, 'Go down the stairs, go down.' He said, 'No, no, we are together above the roofs of Paris.' It was so absurd, and to me Picasso was just as old as the hills, an old letch, genius or no.
"I wonder," Blackwood pauses to ask, "what we were supposed to have done if I accepted? There was no space to make love with all those doves. And think how many other people he had up there. Did they go through with it? And technically, how did they go through with it? And with the husband downstairs?"
She then adds a coda: "Lucian got a call out of nowhere from a mistress of Picasso's who asked him if he could come round and paint her. She wanted to make Picasso jealous. Lucian very politely said maybe he could paint her portrait later, but not now because he happened to be in the midst of doing his wife's portrait."
That picture, Blackwood says, turned out to be Freud's "Girl in Bed." Years later, in 1977, it played a curious part in the death of the poet Robert Lowell, another of Lady Caroline's husbands. Their marriage was in tatters when, as the story goes, he left her in Ireland and returned to the United States. After Lowell's taxi arrived at his apartment on West 67th Street, the driver found him slumped over. A doorman summoned Elizabeth Hardwick, the writer and editor whom Lowell had left to marry Blackwood; she happened to live in the same building. Hardwick opened the taxi door—only to be confronted with her ex-husband's corpse. He was holding "Girl in Bed."
With its macabre humor, the Lowell story is one Blackwood might have written if she hadn't lived through it. "I think it's partly Irish," Blackwood says over lunch at Coco Pazzo, an elegant restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan. "Irish people are very funny but have this tragic sense.
"As Cal wrote," she continues, referring to Lowell, "if there's light at the end of the tunnel, it's the light of the oncoming train. He was a humorous poet, you know, though people don't ever say that about him. He also wrote that in the end, every hypochondriac is his own prophet, which is very funny, don't you think?"
Blackwood is a delicate woman of 63, slightly stooped yet graceful, with a husky, smoker's voice. She is dressed in a loose-fitting black pants suit, the sort of unbourgeois outfit that pegs her immediately as an upperclass bohemian. Her extraordinary eyes—big opalescent pools, which Freud made into giant spheres in his hypnotic portraits—are the principal signs of the beauty she was in her youth. Her looks are striking but weatherbeaten.
It's not just that Blackwood likes to drink. She has also endured a series of Job-like catastrophes over the years: the death of her second husband, the American composer and pianist Israel Citkowitz; Lowell's crippling manic depression and early death; the death from AIDS of her brother, Sheridan, to whom she was very close; the death of her eldest daughter, Natalya, after a drug overdose, and her own bout with cervical cancer, for which she had an operation that left her in constant pain.
Though on one level she thrives on tragedy—is even defined by it—Blackwood can't abide maudlin sentiments; bringing up these episodes with her elicits an awkward silence. At first during lunch she gives only clipped responses to questions or just nods in agreement. She orders one vodka after another, tonic on the side. She is more comfortable discussing her new book, The Last of the Duchess. But still she's cautious.
She also greets with silence a question about her flamboyant socialite mother, Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. When Maureen was young she reportedly once gave Sir Oswald Mosley, the English fascist, a black eye after he made a pass at her in Antibes. In recent years, though vastly rich, she has complained that her children haven't helped support her and the several houses she lives in. The Picasso biographer John Richardson recalls that Maureen's son, Sheridan, used to bemoan having to help pay for her villa in Sardinia, which he nicknamed the Villa Costalota. Lately, Blackwood, her sister and sister-in-law have wrangled with Maureen over the disposition of $24 million in Guinness inheritance money. The dispute, ultimately settled in Maureen's favor, underscores the nearly nonexistent relationship between Caroline and her mother, a topic Caroline prefers not to discuss.
Gradually, though, as she relaxes, Blackwood emerges as a strangely dramatic woman: intense and vulnerable, with quirky affections like abbreviating words (Champagne becoming "champ"), a dark, razorsharp sense of humor and an offbeat sensibility.
Geordie Greig the New York correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and a family friend, gives an apt description of her: "When she calls on the phone she'll say 'Hiiii, it's Carrr-oline,' and there's always that enigmatic, Eartha Kitt-like purr. But in conversation she's unpredictable. Caroline's physical demeanor is so unforceful that the force of her words, which can be lethally accurate, is made doubly strong. She has an artist's sensibility to shift through any social niceties and get straight to the point. Even with her house on Long Island nothing follows the rules. Lunch might be a huge feast of lobsters and champagne, or her fridge may be completely out of food."
Over the years, Blackwood has moved easily among several worlds: from the insular, horsy Anglo-Irish upper classes to the hard-drinking smart set of postwar England, to the liberal intelligentsia of New York City in the 1960's and 70's. She has lived in the United States for much of the last 35 years. Nowadays, she's often with her children, who also live here. Her son, Sheridan Lowell, 23, works for a small publishing firm in Manhattan. Her youngest daughter, Ivana Lowell (she has taken her stepfather's name) is 28; she works for the publishing arm of the media company Miramax and has become a lively presence in New York society since moving from London a few years ago. Another daughter, Evgenia Citkowitz, 30, is a screenwriter in Los Angeles married to the English actor Julian Sands.
Blackwood spends many mornings in her kitchen writing longhand. A broken back she suffered when she was young has made it impossible for her to type. She has published nine books that have been richly admired in Britain, where she is best known. They include collections of short stories and essays of stringent, sly, entirely anticonformistsocial criticism. Her novels are stylish, remorseless, frightening and wickedly funny. They can sometimes remind you a little of Beckett, except that Blackwood's nihilistic sensibility is more gothic than his: it's Beckett crossed with Bram Stoker.
The Last of the Duchess is her mesmeric account of a vain attempt to visit the ailing Duchess of Windsor in 1980 and of Blackwood's encounters with the Duchess's ruthless and highly powerful octogenarian lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum, a woman obsessed with her client to the point of erotic fantasy. Blum was the Cerberus at the Duchess's door, blocking even old friends from contacting her, according to Blackwood. Was the sick Duchess tortured by being kept alive, Blackwood wondered, or might she even be dead? Was Blum only saying she was alive so that she could sell the royal jewels and claim the money as her legal fee?
How much of the book is Irish blarney? After all, the story of Blum, like so many of the stories Blackwood tells, is so bizarre it sounds like fiction. In a sense, though, that's Blackwood's point. She writes as she speaks, with a dramatic flair that can seduce you even as you wonder how precise she is. (Freud, for instance, recalls the Picasso incident very differently.) "You can't really get the truth about anybody from an interview," Blackwood says. "It's all fiction in a way."
She portrays herself in her books as a wide-eyed innocent, astonished by the horrors around her. In person, though, she has a disconcerting habit of staring at you, coolly sizing you up while she picks demurely at her meal. You can see how she could drive Maître Blum mad.
"If it's berserk behavior I like it as a subject," Blackwood says. "If you write about bland people there's no story, is there? I hated Blum and was really scared of her," Blackwood recalls, "but she thought I was a complete idiot because I acted the dumb journalist with her a bit. She wouldn't even have seen me if I didn't have a title. On the other hand she wouldn't have been so rude if I were a crowned head."
Her full name is Lady Caroline Hamilton Temple Blackwood: she's a descendant on her father's side of the great 18th-century dramatist and wit Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She is a Guinness on her mother's side. (She says she finds stout undrinkable.)
"Brewers or bankers, aristocrats or plutocrats, the Guinnesses are apt to be a law unto themselves," John Richardson says. "This Anglo-Irish dynasty is famously cultivated, brilliant, profligate, witty and beguiling. Caution and abstemiousness are not their forte. Caroline upholds her family's reputation for courage, eccentricity and subversive humor. She most certainly does not hold with the ultraconservative views of some of her cousins."
She grew up in the ancestral stone mansion called Clandeboye in County Down in Northern Ireland. "My great-grandfather built a wing every time he had another child," Blackwood says. "You didn't build a room then, you built a wing. It was terribly rundown when I was a child, the typical joke Irish house with all the pails to catch dripping water all over the place."
Her great-grandfather, Lord Dufferin, was an eminent Victorian, rumored to have been Disraeli's illegitimate son. "I think he was," says Blackwood, mischievously. "Why would a Scottish landowner have a son who looked like Disraeli? He once got up in the House of Lords and denied that he was Disraeli's son, because it was terrible for his mother's honor, but that sort of implies that he was, doesn't it?"
Queen Victoria made him Victory of India, where he used to sit on his throne, fanned by peacock feathers, while processions of rajahs paid him homage. At Clandeboye he built a stone shrine to his mother, an immense architectural folly called Helen's Tower that inspired poems by Browning, Kipling and Tennyson. "Kipling loved my great-grandfather and wrote lots of very bad poems to him," Blackwood says. "He had a fatal effect on poets. I mean, the Tennyson poem is a jingle that goes on and on." She discovered not long ago that Helen's Tower inspired a World War I memorial in France to Irish soldiers. "I mean, Helen's Tower is really odd, isn't it? Victorians thought it was fine someone building a tower to his mother while she was alive, but can you imagine doing it now, in post-Freudian times?"
Blackwood's father, Basil, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, was a close friend of Evelyn Waugh and part of the glittering circle he recalled in Brideshead Revisited. When the Marquess was killed in 1943 by the Japanese in the jungle in Burma, he was 35. Blackwood was 12 at the time and has only dim memories of her father.
Like other women of her class she skipped college; instead she went to work for Claud Cockburn, an influential left-wing journalist who wrote for, among others, The Times Literary Supplement. "Claud was a reviewer for TLS and I read books for him, because in those days the reviews were unsigned," Blackwood says. "It was really corrupt but I was extremely diligent."
She recalls meeting Freud around then, at a party memorable for the fact that the painter Francis Bacon caused a row when he hooted down Princess Margaret, who had just started singing "Let's Do It." Blackwood becomes testy when asked if a reference to her in a recent book as Margaret's lady-in-waiting is true. "That's a lie and I'll sue you if you say it," she says, only half kidding and appalled that anyone could imagine her in such a role.
She changes the subject. "Lucian was fantastic, very brilliant, incredibly beautiful, though not in a movie-star way," she says. "I remember he was very mannered, he wore these long side whiskers, which nobody else had then. And he wore funny trousers, deliberately. He wanted to stand out in a crowd, and he did."
When Freud and Blackwood returned to London from Paris, they settled into the circle that included Bacon, Cyril Connolly and the other artists and writers who gathered nightly at the fabled Gargoyle and Colony Clubs. "As a concept the Gargoyle was brilliant," Blackwood states. "O.K., everyone there would be a bit drunk. But you could wander in any night and find the cleverest people in England. After the war it was completely normal for intellectuals to knock each other down if someone had written a bad review or taken someone's girl. Then they always sent flowers the next day."
Gradually her marriage to Freud crumbled. When she left him, he was devastated. Blackwood says only that "Lucian and I couldn't be married, not endlessly. We were both too restless."
She fled to Los Angeles, installed herself at the Chateau Marmont and got a tiny part in the television series "Have Gun Will Travel." But she hated the city. The best thing to come out of it was that Stephen Spender asked her to do an article for Encounter magazine about California beatniks. It turned out to be a sendup that launched her writing career. Beatnik culture, she wrote, "has all the trappings of the subversive, the meeting in the darkened cellar, the conspiratorial whisper behind the candle in the Chianti bottle, the nihilistic mutter, without the mildest element of subversion."
Not long after Blackwood moved from Los Angeles to New York she met Israel Citkowitz, a former student of Aaron Copland, some 20 years her senior. They married. Today Blackwood speaks warmly but vaguely about Citkowitz. She describes him as "gorgeous and brilliant, which wasn't a bad combination." But they separated after a few years and she became involved with Robert Silvers, the founding editor of The New York Review of Books. Through Silvers she met Lowell.
Citkowitz and she remained friendly until he died, and he sometimes lived in the London house she shared with Lowell in the 1970's, helping her to care for the children during Lowell's bouts of madness. Lowell would write a poem to Citkowitz, lines of which Blackwood used as an epitaph on Citkowitz's grave. Her three daughters were born while she was still married to him. She had a son, Sheridan, by Lowell in 1971.
In 1972 she and Lowell flew to Santo Domingo for a joint divorce-marriage. "Nobody could understand the service because it was all in Spanish," she remembers. "It was in a hut, with chickens coming in and out. You'd move to one hut and they'd say you're divorced. Then to another hut where they'd say you're married. All the time there was lots of loud typing. So romantic."
It pains Blackwood that her marriage with Lowell is often described solely in terms of his breakup with Hardwick and illness. She recalls periods at Milgate, their house in Kent, as idyllic. But she acknowledges that Lowell's episodes of manic depression became increasingly unmanageable.
"I wanted Israel to be in the house because I couldn't deal with it alone," she explains. "Not that Cal would have hurt the children, he wasn't murderous. But I had to watch him all day and all night because a manic never sleeps." One day she found him hacking holes in the wall with a carving knife. He told her he was looking for Etruscan treasures. "It was a horrible affliction to not know when your mind was suddenly going to go—particularly when you had got this huge mind."
Then Lowell died; then Natalya. Through it all, Blackwood managed to turn out a remarkable string of books. One of them, On the Perimeter, was a report about the women who had camped for years in the mud at Greenham Common in England to protest the American nuclear missile base there. The Stepdaughter was a short epistolary novel about an abusive woman abandoned by her husband and left with his hideous daughter. Another novel, The Fate of Mary Rose, is a chilling tale about an increasingly deranged mother's fatal obsession with her daughter's safety.
Blackwood even wrote a lighthearted cookbook with her friend the English novelist Anna Haycraft (who wrote under the name of Alice Thomas Ellis) that featured celebrity recipes. Blackwood asked Francis Bacon for a recipe. "I doubt anybody had ever asked him for one before. But he was a fantastic cook, and he had this very smart recipe for mayonnaise. Then it turned out that he was such a perfectionist that he kept holding up the publication to make revisions. Eventually Anna called in a panic, saying she'd forgotten to put in Francis's very last revision before the book went to press. 'It had less to do with salt and more to do with vinegar,' she said. Francis brought 100 copies of the book anyway."
In 1980, Blackwood began work on The Last of the Duchess. "It was pathetic Blum being so old and in love with the Duchess," Blackwood muses. "What a stupid thing to do. But of course the Duchess was ridiculous, too. A more noble figure than she wouldn't have let this lawyer take over her life." The paradox, as Blackwood implies in the book, is that the socialite Duchess spent her last days in solitary confinement, and—considering the Windsors' connection to Hitler—that her jailer was a Jew.
Writing kept Blackwood going through one calamity after another—until the cancer a few years ago. "I really don't like talking about it," she says, after a long pause. "I just kept on trying to do what I do, no matter what life did to me. But after the cancer I became so used to the idea that I would be dead that I had reconciled myself to the idea of not writing anymore. Once you've accepted you're dead, why write?
"It took me a long time to get back to writing. For a while I didn't have any ideas, none." She smiles. "But now I try and write all morning. It may be so awful that I put my pencil through the whole thing and start over the next day. But at least I've got plenty of ideas."
Laurie Stone (review date 25 June 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722
SOURCE: "Gothic Arch," in Village Voice, Vol. 30, June 25, 1995, p. 47.
[Below, Stone criticizes Blackwood's plot and character development in Corrigan.]
Caroline Blackwood tends to see human relationships as sick jokes. Her novels are variations on The Defiant Ones, full of contrary types unhappily shackled together: a philandering rogue and his pathologically passive wife; a secretly raging woman and her belligerent, obese stepdaughter; a watchful 14-year-old and her rich, miserly great-grandmother, a gargoyle who flourishes the best silver for a dinner of canned spaghetti. Along with a number of other British writers—Beryl Bainbridge, Bernice Rubens, and Emma Tennant come to mind—Blackwood reaps startling insights by telling gothic stories (about murders, closeted skeletons, false identities) using a psychologically probing voice.
The technique is in place in Corrigan, her latest novel. Devina Blunt, the Colonel's widow, is wasting to a frizzle of grief in a remote Wiltshire village. Every day, she walks to the cemetery and places expensive bouquets from a Salisbury florist on her husband's grave. In the past, Devina grew her own flowers and whipped things up to eat; now she subsists on air. She's never been able to stomach the cooking of her house-keeper, Mrs. Murphy, a woman who considers pan grease sauce for any dish. Into this forlorn life, Corrigan hurtles his handsome, wheelchair-bound 35-year-old body. He's collecting contributions for a hospital, he says, in his high-flown, hysterical style, and within minutes, Devina is offering him the Colonel's best claret. Within weeks, he's ensconced in her pretty period house, and the two are sharing afternoon champagne and goose liver pâté. Within months, Devina has bought the surrounding farmland, started trucking produce to the hospital, purchased warehouses full of antique furniture, begun to paint, had a London gallery show, and sold all her work.
Meanwhile, Devina's daughter, Nadine, discovers that she loathes her journalist husband, madly envies her mother, and finds savage ill will toward Corrigan. All is wittily confessed to best-friend Sabrina, a luminous model with a predilection for fragile men. "If you can't bear to speak to someone on the telephone … I don't really see that you can start asking them for money," Nadine says, explaining why she can't solicit aid from Devina. Contemplating her smug husband, she wonders whether his tallness is the cause of his "lack of normal human response." She suspects he doesn't have "a sufficient supply of blood in his long body for the necessary amount to reach his brain." Sabrina's current companion is Coco, an Algerian homosexual who claims to be Italian. Visiting him in the hospital after one of his suicide attempts, she finds him woefully transformed: "His whole sexuality seemed to have been dried out along with the drugs to which he'd been addicted…. She felt that he had all the limpness of the despondent-looking ducks that she'd seen hanging upside-down in the windows of cheap Chinese restaurants."
Alas, such stylish observations are in far shorter supply here than in Blackwood's previous books. For all the outlandishness of the Wiltshire ménage and the rueful satire of London neurotics, this novel registers as a dutifully completed exercise. Most of the chapters are devoted to Devina, Corrigan, and Mrs. Murphy—Dickensian types composed entirely of quirks and pet phrases. They soon become tiresome; Devina's change is described rather than dramatized, and the plot isn't surprising either. The intended "mystery" of Corrigan is solvable in the first pages. Blackwood devised these cartoons, it seems, only to lose interest in them for having no inner lives.
Ambivalent Nadine is the most realized character, but the book feels lopsided with her as the emotional center, because she's relatively peripheral. There's another problem too: Nadine is one of Blackwood's inert, seething doormats, a creature she's limned many times. The author tries to evoke our sympathy by making Nadine's husband and twin sons selfish monsters, but the tactic backfires—Nadine seems responsible for choosing and raising despicable males. She pities herself with too much pleasure for us to care about her fate. Sabrina, alone, is both sufficiently knowing and knowable to arouse interest—but she's an even more marginal character than Nadine. This is a sign, if ever there was one, of a writer's fatigue with her creation—an exhaustion, I hope, which means that Blackwood is gathering energy for a book that will pique her imagination.
Zoë Heller (review date 20 July 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2206
SOURCE: "The Lady Vanishes," in London Review of Books. Vol. 17, No. 14, July 20, 1995, p. 18.
[In the following review, Heller contends that Blackwood's account of Simpson's life in The Last of the Duchess relies too heavily on speculation and contributes little to her subject's story.]
'As a siren Wallis Windsor had been a figure who had changed historical events more drastically than any other woman in human history.' If one could only believe that the Duchess of Windsor had changed historical events more drastically than Mary Queen of Scots, or Joan of Arc, or even Margaret Thatcher, then perhaps Caroline Blackwood's recycled revelations about the Duchess—her expertise at fellatio, her 22 carat gold bath-tub at Cap d'Antibes, the amusing tricks that her homosexual lover, the Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue, liked to perform with his penis at dinner parties—might seem quite, you know, important. The disappointing alternative is that The Last of the Duchess is just what it appears: a book of snobby royal tittle-tattle on which Blackwood is attempting, rather late in the day, to confer some gravitas. British newspapers do much the same thing, when they affect concern about the 'constitutional implications' of the Prince of Wales's desire to be a tampon.
In 1980, Caroline Blackwood was approached by Francis Wyndham, one of the editors of the Sunday Times magazine, to accompany Lord Snowden on a trip to photograph the 84-year-old Duchess of Windsor, now an invalid recluse, holed up in a house in Paris. Snowden would take pictures and Blackwood would record the historic encounter between the two royal divorcees. As it turned out, Snowden's request for an audience was refused by the Duchess's French lawyer, another 84-year-old woman named Maître Blum. So Wyndham proposed that Blackwood interview the lawyer instead.
For several years, Blum had not only held the Duchess's power of attorney but had acted as her chief spokesperson and protector. Blackwood ended up going three times to see Blum in Paris and these awkward, frightening encounters form the basis of her book. Blum, who appears to have worshipped her client, insisted on upholding a variety of manifest untruths about the Duchess: that she and the Duke had not had sex before they were married, that she rarely drank alcohol, that she was a dedicated intellectual, and so on. Blum also promised to kill Blackwood if she did not reproduce these lies in her article. 'I suddenly remembered that Maître Blum had tangled with Lord Mountbatten,' Blackwood writes. 'With a chill, I remembered what had happened to him. She finally had compounded all the other injuries she had inflicted upon me by making a terrorist threat on my life.'
Interviews are a very specific and bizarre form of interaction. Any temporary discomfort that an interview subject may occasion by being ill-mannered, belligerent—or, as in this case, authentically tonto—tends to be cancelled out for the interviewer by the felicitous prospect of 'good copy'. In fact, behaviour that would be embarrassing or disastrous in any other form of human encounter is usually a source of secret elation to the journalist. (Blackwood doesn't own up to this sort of professional delight in Blum's awfulness, but we get a strong sense of it, in the relish with which she recounts the old lady's 'terrorist threat'.) Still, there is a limit to the amusement value of even the most dramatic battiness, and the fact remains that Blum, as Blackwood's star witness, is next to useless as a source of reliable information. Blackwood responds to this problem in two ways. After her second interview, she decides that in order to write 'any form of sane article on the Duchess of Windsor', she will have to seek out more of the Duchess's contemporaries, to obtain reliable estimations of the Duchess's personality. Her trawl through the nursing homes and sick-beds of various, ancient, aristocratic ladies yields some fascinating fragments of oral history and some wonderfully sad vignettes of old age.
Her other, more ill-advised response to her lack of hard facts, is to fill in the holes with speculation and gossip. She 'hears' that the Duchess is said to have turned black as a prune. It was always 'said' that the Duchess picked up her most exciting sexual skills while travelling in the Orient. These snippets she blithely records as if her duty as journalist did not extend beyond reproducing hearsay. About Maître Blum, her surmise grows even wilder. She entertains an extended reverie on how Blum might have felt if she had attended the Duke of Windsor's funeral. (She didn't.) She indulges an elaborate flight of fancy about what funeral arrangements Blum might be planning for the Duchess. (She never actually enquires.) She imagines Blum physically attacking her. 'She was seething with such rage that there seemed a danger she suddenly might be unable to control it, that she might spring at me like an uncontrollable beast and claw me with her yellow nails.' (She didn't.) Curious as to how the lawyer fills her days, Blackwood considers the possibility that one of her daily duties is to pick out nightdresses for the invalid Duchess. 'She must know all about the Duchess's old passion for exquisite lingerie and would therefore take this duty very seriously. It was not inconceivable that she bought her client some new and perfect nightdress nearly every other day.' (Well not inconceivable, but pretty unlikely all the same.) 'If she took hours choosing the Duchess's bedtime attire,' she continues, 'and her brown-speckled hands lovingly, but critically, fingered hundreds of silk and satin and broderie anglaise items of nightwear, this activity would eat into her working day.' We have entered into an uncomfortable place, here. It is not inconceivable that Blum practises satanic rituals at the Duchess's bedside, but it seems a little unfair to elaborate on the fantasy without any supporting evidence.
One of Blackwood's justifications for all this supposing and conceiving is how 'terrified' and 'passive' the old lawyer makes her feel. 'There were questions to be asked,' she writes of her first encounter with Blum, 'but she had made me too tired to ask them. And because she had worn me down and sapped my courage, I retaliated by allowing my mind to wander off into realms of purest speculation where Maître Blum could neither bring lawsuits nor injunctions for all my queries remained unvoiced.' This is rather like a coal-miner complaining that he doesn't like working in confined, dark spaces. If Blackwood is so cowed and exhausted by hostile interviews, the reader may be forgiven for asking why she doesn't find herself another job.
On two separate occasions, Blackwood mentions the 'ominous' way that Blum pronounces 'hate' without an 'h'. Her references to the brown freckles of old age on Blum's hands and arms are countless. All this is done with the apparent intention of making us share her vehement dislike of Blum, but the exuberant animosity has the perverse effect of encouraging rather protective feelings towards the beleaguered old lady. The Freudian irony at the heart of this book is that Blackwood commits exactly those crimes of which she accuses her subject—recklessly projecting the lurid stuff of her own fantasies, and showing herself, time and again, indifferent to the evidence of a more mundane reality. Before Blackwood meets Blum, she phones her to make an appointment and Blum picks up the phone herself. 'I was appalled,' Blackwood writes. 'When Stalin in his last years was sealed away, dangerous and brooding in the Kremlin, no stranger could have put through a call and reached him personally. It there fore shocked me that the fierce and despotic Maître Blum, whom I'd begun to see as equally unapproachable, should turn out to be so unbecomingly accessible.' It may strike the reader that Blackwood has got a lot of mileage out of a negative here. Her first contact with Blum suggests that she is not, after all, like the dangerous and brooding Stalin, but Blackwood, having grown attached to her imagining, contrives to make the melodramatic point anyway.
One of Blackwood's primary contentions is that Blum's passionate possessiveness of the Duchess is born of some sinister, erotic attachment. She bases this belief on the fact that at one point, Blum tells her she has a relationship 'de chaleur' with the Duchess (Blackwood translates the phrase literally, as a relationship 'of heat') and that on another occasion, Blum's assistant, a young Anglo-Irishman called Michael Bloch, describes the connection between the two women as being 'of a romantic nature'. Blum is married to an ailing old French general, but Blackwood is not convinced of her heterosexual credentials. 'It was impossible to visualise her lying throbbing with unabashed passion and pleasure in the arms of her husband, the general. Her whole personality was too essentially unyielding. It seemed almost obscene to try to picture her in the nude let alone in some subjugated erotic position … it was always feasible that she … had insisted on maintaining a nun-like sexual abstinence in all the years that had followed her own marriage to General Spillman … It was conceivable that the pains of his constant frustration had slowly sapped all his joie de vivre and been instrumental in his current decline.' At this juncture, a reader may also consider it possible/feasible/conceivable that Blackwood's vulgar speculations about the sexual proclivities of 84-year-old Blum denote a quite irrational enmity.
Rather late on in the book, we come across this: 'The Duchess created by Maître Blum was a Jewish Duchess in the sense that, despite her unenviable current condition, she'd been made the very embodiment of her lawyer's superego. It was unlikely there had ever been a Duchess like her.' I don't wish to sound paranoid here, so let me just say, these strike me as a puzzling couple of sentences. Blackwood makes explicit reference to Maître Blum's Jewishness on only one other occasion, when she mentions how 'ironic' it is that Diana Mosley, who 'bravely' endured war-time imprisonment for her Nazi sympathies, should, in old age, be so intimidated by an old Jewish lawyer. Blum's Jewishness clearly has a significance for Blackwood, but the manners or qualities that it is supposed to stand for are never explained. One longs to know what aspects of Blum's projected superego are recognisably semitic and how a Jewish Duchess is so vividly and amusingly unlike any other Duchess. Does she exclaim 'Oy vey!' when agitated? Are there gefilte fish stains on her twin-set? We receive a clue, a little later on, when Blackwood describes Blum ransoming off the rights to a photograph of the Duchess for £400. 'The style with which the Duchess of Windsor had lived her strange life might not have always been commendable,' Blackwood writes, 'but at least it always had largesse … Now at the end of her life it seemed humiliating for the helpless Duchess that Maître Blum with her petit bourgeois greed should be trying to extort piddling little sums like £400 on her behalf.'
In other words, though Wallis Windsor may have had humble, American origins, though she may have been ugly and whoreish and had a rather prole tendency to show off her wealth—parading through war-ravaged Europe with 222 suitcases was not nice—at least, damn it, she had style. European royalty has had a long tradition of absorbing courtesans and colonials and all sorts of ambitious riff-raff into the regal mix, but that flexibility stops short of tolerating petit bourgeois Jews. Looking through Maître Blum's scrapbook, Blackwood comes across a newspaper photograph of the jumped-uplawyer standing next to Queen Elizabeth at a public function. She can hardly contain her outrage and repulsion. 'Maître Blum must have tenaciously elbowed through hundreds of guests at the soirée in order to get as close to the Queen of England as she had managed. She had got herself so close that she had made herself almost invisible for her body had blended into the Queen's fur. And Queen Elizabeth seemed totally unaware that Maître Blum was so near to her, that the Duchess of Windsor's lawyer was gazing up at her with slobbering love and wonder.'
Blackwood, who, lest we forget, has her own title—she is Lady Caroline Blackwood—does not need to creep and elbow to gain access to the monarch. When she wants to put a word in to Queenie—warning her, like the good, loyal subject that she is, that Blum is selling off the royal Sèvres snuff-boxes—she simply telephones Lord Mountbatten's daughter with whom she is on chummy terms, and the message is passed on. Meanwhile, the article that she ends up writing for the Sunday Times contains none of the nastiness that she will later spill out in this book, once Blum is safely dead. By her own admission, the piece she composes about the Duchess and her lawyer in 1980 is 'bland and praising to the point of sycophancy'. Petty minds may wish to think of this as cowardice, or even bad journalism, but Blackwood seems to know better: judicious grovelling is, after all, a Lady's prerogative.
Michael Kimmelman (obituary date 15 February 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
SOURCE: "Lady Caroline Blackwood, Wry Novelist, Is Dead at 64," in The New York Times, February 15, 1996, p. B16.
[In the obituary below, Kimmelman provides an overview of Blackwood's life and career.]
Lady Caroline Blackwood, a writer of wry, macabre novels and essays, and a beguiling Anglo-Irish aristocrat who married the painter Lucian Freud and the poet Robert Lowell, died yesterday in the Mayfair Hotel in Manhattan, where she stayed the last few weeks while she was ill. She was 64.
The cause was cancer, said her daughter Ivana Lowell.
She published nine books and was best known and much admired in Britain. Among her works was The Stepdaughter, a short epistolary novel about an abusive woman abandoned by her husband and left with his hideous daughter. Another novel, The Fate of Mary Rose, was about an increasingly deranged mother's fatal obsession with her daughter's safety.
Her most recent book, The Last of the Duchess, was an eccentric, Kafkaesque account of her vain attempt to visit the ailing Duchess of Windsor. It revolved mostly around the Duchess's powerful lawyer, Suzanne Blum, portrayed in the book as obsessed with her client to the point of erotic fantasy.
British critics noted the "brilliant irony" and "rather brilliant bitchiness" of her writing, comparing it with the work of Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch, among others. In her prose and in person, she exhibited a razor-sharp wit and offbeat sensibility. A dramatic woman, delicately built, intense and vulnerable, she was a famous beauty in her youth, and in later years remained striking for her extraordinary eyes, which Mr. Freud made into giant spheres in his hypnotic portraits.
One portrait played a curious role in her life, as she related in an interview last year. During the 1950's, when she and Mr. Freud were living in Paris, "Lucian got a call out of nowhere from a mistress of Picasso's who asked him if he could come round and paint her," she said. "The woman wanted to make Picasso jealous. Lucian very politely said maybe he could paint her portrait later, but not now because he happened to be in the midst of doing his wife's portrait."
That picture, she said, was "Girl in Bed," a work that years later also figured in the death of Robert Lowell, her third husband. Their marriage was in tatters when, the story goes, Lowell left her in Ireland and flew to New York City. When his taxi arrived at his apartment on West 67th Street, the driver found Lowell slumped over. A doorman summoned Elizabeth Hardwick, the writer and editor, whom Lowell had left to marry Lady Caroline; she happened to live in the same apartment house. Ms. Hardwick opened the taxi door to be confronted with her former husband's corpse. He was clutching "Girl in Bed."
Lady Caroline moved among several worlds: from the insular Anglo-Irish upper classes, which she largely rejected for the smart set of postwar England and then for the liberal intelligentsia of New York City in the 1960's and 70's. During much of the last 35 years, she lived in the United States, splitting her time in recent years between an apartment in Manhattan and a house in Sag Harbor, L.I., that once belonged to President Chester A. Arthur.
Lady Caroline Hamilton Temple Blackwood was born in London on July 16, 1931. She was descended on her father's side from the great 18th-century dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan and was a Guinness on her mother's side. (She liked to joke that she found stout undrinkable.) She grew up in the ancestral stone mansion, Clandeboye, in County Down in Northern Ireland.
Her great-grandfather, Lord Dufferin, was an eminent Victorian rumored to have been Disraeli's illegitimate son. Queen Victoria made him Viceroy of India, where he used to sit on his throne, fanned by peacock feathers. "Kipling loved my great-grandfather and wrote lots of very bad poems to him," Lady Caroline said. "He had a fatal effect on poets."
Her mother, Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, is a flamboyant figure in London who, according to one newspaper account, gave a black eye to Sir Oswald Mosley, the English Fascist, after he made a pass at her in Antibes. Her father, Basil, the Marquess, was a friend of Evelyn Waugh and part of the circle described in Brideshead Revisited. He was killed in Burma during World War II, when Caroline was 12.
Like other women of her class, she skipped college; she moved to London and worked for Claud Cockburn, the influential left-wing journalist. She recalled meeting Mr. Freud at that time at a party memorable because the painter Francis Bacon caused a row when he hooted down Princess Margaret, who had just started singing "Let's Do it." She and Mr. Freud then became part of the group that included Bacon, Cyril Connolly and the other artists and writers who gathered nightly to drink at the Gargoyle and Colony Clubs.
When her marriage to Mr. Freud ended in 1956, she installed herself at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. She got a tiny part in the television series "Have Gun Will Travel." Stephen Spender asked her to write an article for Encounter magazine about California beatniks, and it was a sendup that launched her writing career.
She next moved to New York and married Israel Citkowitz, an American composer and pianist, and a student of Aaron Copland, 20 years her senior. They were divorced in 1972, when she married Lowell, but they remained close.
During the next years she endured a series of Job-like catastrophes: the death of Citkowitz; Lowell's crippling manic depression and early death; the death from AIDS of her brother, Sheridan, to whom she was very close; the death of her eldest daughter, Natalya, after a drug overdose, and her own bout with cervical cancer, for which she had an operation that left her in constant pain.
Throughout, she maintained her dark humor and creatively transformed her experiences into her novels and essays. "I think it's partly Irish," she once explained. "Irish people are very funny but have this tragic sense.
"As Cal wrote," she added, referring to Lowell, "if there's light at the end of the tunnel, it's the light of the oncoming train."
In addition to her daughter Ivana, of Manhattan, she is survived by her mother, of London; a sister, Lady Perdita Blackwood, of Ulster; another daughter, Evgenia Citkowitz of Los Angeles, and a son, Sheridan Lowell of Manhattan.