Caroline Blackwood Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(The entire section is 61 words.)

Peter Kemp (review date 26 February 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

Edith Milton (review date 26 July 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Grace Ingoldby (review date 16 September 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Malise Ruthven (review date 21 September 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Nicholas Spice (review date 18-31 October 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2287 words.)

Frank Longford (review date November 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Madeleine Simms (review date November 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Carolyn Gaiser (review date 14 July 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Elaine Kendall (review date 28 July 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 833 words.)

Marilynne Robinson (review date 1 December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1739 words.)

Robert Jones (essay date 9 May 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2464 words.)

Roger Longrigg (review date 25 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Max Hastings (review date 14 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Peter Parker (review date November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 350 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 3 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 993 words.)

Jill Gerston (review date 19 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 22 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 23 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3150 words.)

Michael Kimmelman (essay date 2 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3252 words.)

Laurie Stone (review date 25 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 722 words.)

Zoë Heller (review date 20 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2206 words.)

Michael Kimmelman (obituary date 15 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 1070 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 324 words.)