Penelope Gilliatt

by Penelope Ann Douglass Conner

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In addition to several collections of short stories, Penelope Gilliatt has published novels, collections of essays (including film reviews, profiles, interviews, and conversations), an award-winning screenplay, an opera libretto, and a study of comedy, which is an analysis of the comedic styles of famous comedians.

Achievements

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The “jet set,” that chic world of international sophisticates, has found in Penelope Gilliatt one of its compelling literary representatives. Her talents as a purveyor of elitist wit and liberal sensibility have been prominently recognized, sometimes skeptically and even negatively, but, most generally, with acclaim and high praise. Scrupulous readers of her work, such as Anne Tyler and Anthony Burgess, appreciate her profound modernity, whereas the less astute see primarily, or exclusively, slickness and glibness. Her cinematic writing style was effectively conducive to her script for the John Schlesinger film Sunday Bloody Sunday, the 1971 film which received prizes as the best screenplay of the year from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics, to be followed in 1972 by a prize from the Writers Guild of Britain and a nomination for an Academy Award. In 1972, Gilliatt also received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and an election to the Royal Society of Literature.

Bibliography

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Broyard, Anatole. Review of Splendid Lives. The New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1978, 12. Mixing mild blame with high praise, Broyard touches upon a key characteristic of Gilliatt’s short stories, namely, their breaking off, their “discontinuing in the middle of things.”

Casson, Hugh, and Lord Snowdon. “True to Her Words.” The Guardian, May 12, 1993, p. 11. Personal recollections of Gilliatt, just after her death, by two well-known men who knew her. Casson notes Gilliatt’s passion for words, while Lord Snowdon remembers her inquisitiveness and her humor.

Dinnage, Rosemary. “Stylish Sketches.” Review of Quotations from Other Lives, by Penelope Gilliatt. The New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1982, 6. Emphasizes Gilliatt’s style, suggesting that its “clipped brilliance” may not wear well, and discusses Gilliatt’s loving preoccupation with verbal oddities. Note is taken of the satisfaction to be derived from reading between Gilliatt’s clever lines, but the writer considers that the lines themselves should be more substantial.

Glendinning, Victoria. “Watch Your Language.” Review of To Wit and Lingo, by Penelope Gilliatt. The Times, February 17, 1990. This review by a well-known British writer maintains that Gilliatt’s picture of an England that never was is funny, but not funny enough in her stories. Asserts they are stories of displacements, collisions, and rearrangements, but that the idioms in them seem anachronisms.

Jefferson, Margo. “Miniature Eccentrics.” Newsweek (February 13, 1978): 90. A review of Splendid Lives that praises Gilliatt’s whimsical and worldly tone but criticizes her for sacrificing character to atmosphere and detail. Claims the best story in the collection is “A Lovely Bit of Wood,” but that Gilliatt’s typical weakness can best be seen in “The Bishop of Hurlingham.”

Kael, Pauline. “A Movie Classic Is Not Nothing.” In Deeper into Movies. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. In this review of the film Sunday Bloody Sunday, written for the October 2, 1971, issue of The New Yorker, Kael says much in clarification of Gilliatt’s artistic motives. One statement about the film particularly encapsulates Gilliatt’s literary direction: “A curious sort of plea on behalf of human frailty that asks for sympathy for the nonheroes of life who make the best deal they can.”

Kaveney, Roz. “Speaking for the Shabby-Genteel.” Review of They Sleep Without Dreaming, by Penelope Gilliatt. The Times Literary Supplement (November 29, 1985):...

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1353. Kaveney observes Gilliatt’s presentations of lives developing in sudden “cuts and shifts” over many years and notes that Gilliatt’s characters “jump suddenly and radically in their speech as well.” She is not entirely supportive of Gilliatt’s defiance of strict logic or her “narrative tricks.”

Kinkead, Gwen. Review of Nobody’s Business, by Penelope Gilliatt. The Harvard Advocate (Winter, 1973). Kinkead nonjudgmentally summarizes the effect of Gilliatt’s short fiction on readers and makes a statement that can be applied to all Gilliatt’s short fiction: “We are spectators to involvements formed in invisible pasts, to conversations already three-quarters finished, situations interrupted, of endings not yet complete, and are expected with confidence to comprehend the ellipses.”

Mars-Jones, Adam. “Far from the Truth About England: To Wit and Lingo.” The Independent (February 18, 1990): 20. A review of a book of nonfiction and a collection of short stories by a well-known British short-story writer. Criticizes Gilliatt for situating the stories in a “second-hand England” of inadequately funny social comedies.

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Critical Essays