Helen Woods Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Even after publication of a well-researched biography in 1992, there remain many mysteries about the turbulent, troubled life of Anna Kavan (KAH-vahn), increasingly recognized as a major twentieth century writer. She was born Helen Woods to a well-to-do English family in 1901, and she spent most of her childhood and adolescence unhappily living in various boarding schools. Some scholars believe that she inherited a lifelong tendency to depression from her father, who apparently committed suicide when Helen was fourteen, a devastating blow to her developing personality. Despite her misfortunes, she did well at school and had the opportunity to attend Oxford University, but she declined because of her mother’s opposition.{$S[A]Ferguson, Helen;Kavan, Anna}

At the age of eighteen she married Donald Ferguson, though she did not love him, and went with him to Burma, where he worked as an engineer. Two years later, after giving birth to a son, Bryan, she returned to England, effectively escaping from a miserable relationship that later ended in divorce. Regularly depressed, she began to use heroin, to which she was addicted for the rest of her life. In 1926, she fell madly in love with a wealthy painter named Stuart Edmonds, eventually becoming his common-law wife, and had a second child who died as an infant. She also began to publish novels using the name Helen Ferguson. The most noteworthy of these, Let Me Alone, is a thinly fictionalized account of her life in Burma.

Despite her early achievements as a writer, the 1930’s proved a difficult period in her life. Her second marriage disintegrated, and her last Helen Ferguson novel, Rich Get Rich, was a failure. She attempted suicide three times, tried unsuccessfully to break her heroin addiction, and was twice institutionalized because of mental breakdowns. During this time, however, she became acquainted with the works...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A knowledge of Anna Kavan’s life is essential to understanding and appreciating her literature, for she is a profoundly autobiographical writer. Echoes of her unhappy childhood, mental illness, and drug addiction appear repeatedly in her stories, and her protagonists are frequently versions of the author herself.

Kavan lived virtually two separate and distinct lives: first as Helen Woods, Helen Woods Edmonds, and Helen Ferguson; and, second, as Anna Kavan. The author was born Helen Woods in Cannes, France, to a wealthy upper-middle-class couple, and details of her early years are sketchy. Little is known about her father, except that he disappeared early in her life. She traveled extensively with her glamorous mother, Helen (Bright) Woods, who eventually remarried a wealthy South African and died young. Kavan’s relationship with her mother, who was by all accounts aloof and distant with her young daughter, strongly influenced her life and writing.

In the 1920’s, Helen Woods married Donald Ferguson, a successful Scottish businessman, and they settled in Burma, where Helen began writing. Her first book, A Charmed Circle, was published in 1929, and by 1937, she had produced twelve novels. The couple had a son, who was eventually killed in World War II, and the marriage ended in divorce, with Helen later marrying painter Stuart Edmonds. Although reportedly happier than her first marriage, this relationship also ended in divorce.

After the...

(The entire section is 608 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Anna Kavan was born Helen Emily Woods in 1901, to English parents living in Cannes, France. She disliked her wealthy mother, and her rather unhappy childhood was spent in various European countries and in California. Her marriages to Donald Ferguson and Stuart Edmonds both ended in divorce; an only son was killed during World War II. She spent many years with her first husband in Burma and later lived and traveled in Norway, the United States, New Zealand, England, and Africa. Twice institutionalized, Kavan was insecure, depressive, and often suicidal, and was enamored of dreams. She suffered from a painful spinal disease and spent the last forty years of her life as a heroin addict. She began to write when she was in Burma and continued throughout her life. In the early 1940’s, she worked as an assistant editor at Cyril Connolly’s Horizon. She was, additionally, a talented painter, a breeder of bulldogs, an interior designer, and a dealer in real estate. As late as 1962, however, she still had financial problems.

Kavan was hyperbolic, self-denigrating, and unsure of reality, as is evident in many unpublished journal entries from the 1920’s. These self-revelations may clarify some of the more unusual elements in her fiction. From the notes and letters she wrote many years later to her close friend Raymond B. Marriott, poet and theater critic for The Stage, emerges a picture of an insecure, forgetful, disorganized, dependent, but thoughtful person who feigned toughness, was entirely devoted to her craft, and who, even at the end of her life, could still become excited by creative innovation in others. Although she used her own life as a basis for much of her writing, it is virtually impossible to extract the facts from the fictionalized accounts. Indeed, even in her private notebooks she admits that some entries are falsified. In this, she bears a striking resemblance to Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Kavan died on December 5, 1968, in her flat in Kensington, London.