‘An expert analyst of female fury’: recalling Caroline Blackwood on her 25th anniversary
Blackwood deserves to stand as a northern counterpart to her contemporary Edna O’Brien
Caroline Blackwood: renders the complex ties between women in strikingly sharp and stylish prose that cuts close to the bone. Photograph: Walker Evans, c1950s.
The brilliant and beguiling Anglo-Irish author and aristocrat Caroline Blackwood died 25 years ago on Valentine’s Day in 1996, in a posh suite at the Mayfair Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City.
A stream of famous friends surrounded her sickbed, including Marianne Faithfull – for whom Blackwood once wrote song lyrics – who climbed onto her bed to serenade her one last time. Another dear friend, fellow novelist Anna Haycraft brought holy water from Lourdes which she sprinkled on the sleeping Blackwood, who was nonreligious. When some of it spilled on the sheets, Caroline opened her big blue eyes wide and cracked one of her signature macabre jokes. “I might have caught my death!” she exclaimed.
Lady Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood was an heiress to the Guinness brewery fortune and a descendant of the Blackwoods and Hamiltons, two ancient Scottish planter families based in Ulster. Her father Basil was the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and her mother Maureen the Marchioness was one of the Golden Guinness Girls.
Caroline was reared at Clandeboye, a sprawling country pile in Bangor, Co Down complete with a shamrock-shaped manmade lake. The massive Georgian manor is “a grand repository of Victorian plunder” filled with weapons, sacrificial stones, and mummified people and animals looted from far-flung British colonies. The vast, museum-like interior of the Big House fuelled Caroline’s Gothic imagination, as did her traumatic childhood. Clandeboye became a house of horror for Blackwood and she fled Northern Ireland at 18, taking a job as a journalist in London with the magazine Picture Post.
Blackwood came from a long line of writers: notable ancestors include Victorian Gothic novelist Sheridan Le Fanu, as well as Restoration dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan, his granddaughter the poet Helen Sheridan, and Helen’s son Frederick Blackwood, the first Marquess and a Viceroy of India who published two travelogues. Although she embraced her family’s literary lineage, Caroline rebelled against the constriction of her Ulster Ascendancy upbringing.
Her journalistic career was sporadic and she also dabbled in modelling and acting, appearing in Vogue and the American TV Western Have Gun, Will Travel. She moved peripatetically among different bohemian sets in London, Paris, Hollywood and New York.
Despite being a “late starter”, Blackwood confirmed that her instinct for creative writing was present from a young age. She explained, “I always knew I was a writer. But I hadn’t any proof of it. I didn’t put things in drawers as some writers do. I just started when I started.” At 42, Caroline turned her hand to literary fiction and she quickly gained a reputation as “a writer to contend with”. Critics extolled what would become her fictional trademarks: “complex plot and psychology, bizarre characters, black humour”.
Blackwood is “an expert analyst of female fury”, an outlook which is tempered by her deliciously dark sense of humour. She utilises black comedy as a means to engage with stories of the shocking difficulties faced by women and girls, and her literary oeuvre focuses primarily on female characters who are troubled or ill.
This theme is central to her masterpiece Great Granny Webster (1977), a Gothic novella based on Blackwood’s family, which portrays four generations of women held captive by an Ulster Big House. The wry, watchful teenage girl who narrates the novel is based on the young Caroline and she relays her aghast view of her female inheritance with a morbidly funny deadpan delivery. Blackwood called the book “all too real” and the heightened reality of its uncanny atmosphere captures the author’s impressions of Ulster.
It is Blackwood’s most celebrated work and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. However, the jury chairman, poet Philip Larkin, cast the deciding vote against her and declared that “her book was autobiography, not fiction”. Historically, men have levelled this charge as a habitual reflex against women who write fiction with the flavour of fact. Blackwood countered: “My work, though, isn’t particularly autobiographical; it merely gets fired by life, and then imagination takes hold.” The verisimilitude that disbarred Blackwood from winning the Booker Prize is also the accuracy of true north, for Great Granny Webster is a masterful evocation of life for the female gentry in the north of Ireland.
Although Great Granny Webster is named after the book’s menacing family matriarch, the most memorable character is Aunt Lavinia, an outrageous socialite who dotes on the adolescent narrator. Caroline based Lady Lavinia on her father’s sister Veronica Blackwood; but the character is a pastiche with a great deal of the Guinness Girls Maureen, Aileen and Oonagh weighing in.
A wild, hard-drinking and fun-loving flapper, Lady Lavinia “was reputed once to have gate-crashed a fashionable London party totally naked except for a sanitary towel”. She continues her “play-girl” lifestyle into the postwar period, financed by “all her ex-husbands and ex-lovers”.
The narrator recalls, “One day Aunt Lavinia rang me up to say that it was too maddening, she was in prison. When I sounded astonished she admitted that it wasn’t exactly a prison, but it was just as bad, for she was being detained in a hospital where she had been put by the police.” Lavinia explains that she had attempted suicide two days beforehand and it was “’infuriating,’ for the whole thing had failed. ‘I had it all perfectly planned, darling. It couldn’t have been more Roman.’”
She wanted her suicide to have a theatrical effect and she staged it “perfectly,” climbing into the stark white bathtub. However, when the water turned a startling shade of scarlet this dramatic sight made her sick and she fainted, causing her blood to congeal. Lavinia is angry that her suicide attempt was unsuccessful but she is even more upset that she is now in hospital, “confined in this dreadful place like a convict,” where “all the nurses are most horrible old bitches” because they “confiscated her brush and her comb.” The girl offers to come to the hospital, but Lavinia protests because she cannot bear anyone to see her without her hair done. Lady Lavinia is a hallmark Blackwood character: hilarious, larger-than-life and deeply complicated.
Great Granny Webster was well-received in Britain and America, and Blackwood was hailed as “a major talent” by critics who praised “the imaginative quality of her detail and the architectural subtlety with which she builds it into her text”. The Sunday Times selected it as one of their Books of the Year in 1977 and applauded the fact that “the author writes with an appalled, amused intensity that is completely original but without a trace of pretentiousness. The result is unexpectedly powerful, like a box of chocolates with amphetamine centres.”
The New York Review of Books remarked that the novella “has gone down well in England, where the appetite for the eccentricities and sufferings of the privileged never sleeps … Without being, in any extensive way, artless or careless, it reads like a long and colourful letter, and has the force of eager unburdening.” The Irish Press counted Blackwood as one of the writers whom they are “proud to own as Irish”.
Nonetheless, in Northern Ireland where the book hit closer to home, the reviews were mixed. Novelist Grace Ingoldby wrote a noticeably self-contradictory review in the Belfast magazine Fortnight. Although she lauded “Miss Blackwood’s wit” and called her “perceptive as well as amusing and above all a creator of powerful visual images”, next she claimed, “the novel is well observed and crammed with detail but somehow remains short on impact and atmosphere”. She conceded that “the finale is clever” then sniffed, “but for all its humour … it leaves one merely faintly amused”. One has the sense that Great Granny Webster was a defiant poke in the eye to reviewers in Northern Ireland who thought they knew what to expect from Lady Caroline of Clandeboye.
Despite her substantial body of work, diverse subject matter, international commercial success and industry accolades, Blackwood is only given cursory mention in a handful of studies of Irish women’s writing, which categorise her mainly as a writer of Big House fiction. Blackwood was omitted from the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing and her short fiction was only included in a small number of anthologies between 1985-2000.
More recently, her work has begun to re-emerge – a trend that I hope will continue. In 2002 two of Caroline’s black comedies, Great Granny Webster and Corrigan, were reissued by the New York Review of Books. Never Breathe A Word, her collected stories, was published by Counterpoint in 2010. In 2016, Sinéad Gleeson featured Taft’s Wife (1978), Blackwood’s razor-sharp story of a son’s ghastly lunch with his monster mother, in The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland. Nevertheless, the rest of Blackwood’s oeuvre remains out of print.
In addition to her extensive coverage as a journalist, Blackwood published 10 books across a broad range of interests: a volume of miscellaneous fiction, memoir and reportage; two novellas; two novels; a short story collection; two nonfiction studies; a biography; and a cookbook. Her books were published in Britain and America to a wide transatlantic readership. Two of these texts garnered recognition from major awards: she won the prestigious David Higham Fiction Prize for the best debut of 1976 for The Stepdaughter, and the following year she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Great Granny Webster, which was also a bestseller. Despite being a “savagely original” voice and an irrepressible talent, Caroline Blackwood remains inexcusably neglected.
Blackwood’s literary legacy has been overshadowed by her tumultuous life, famous husbands, aristocratic pedigree and extraordinary beauty. One of the earliest reviews of Great Granny Webster, published by Anne Redmon in the Sunday Times, announced that “Miss Blackwood is Robert Lowell’s widow – a wife worthy of him in her accomplishment”. This sexist methodology has proven customary among reviewers and biographers who place Caroline’s literary achievements second to her attractiveness for male artists. Rather than acknowledging her unique genius and evaluating her creative work on its own terms, they unfailingly decree that her blazing intelligence and unearthly allure made her a captivating muse.
As Colleen Comerford emphasises, “Many reviewers have insisted that Blackwood’s importance lies not in her own art, but in the art that she inspired in others”, namely her former husbands: painter Lucian Freud, composer Israel Citkowitz and poet Robert Lowell. For instance, the opening line for Blackwood’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, an authoritative resource, lists her as a “writer and muse”. Nancy Schoenberger notes that Caroline “did not like” people “casting her in the role of muse. She was unhappy at being exploited by Lowell’s poetry.” Even so, Schoenberger deliberately titled her 2001 Blackwood biography Dangerous Muse, thereby circumscribing Caroline in this position.
When Brenda Maddox reviewed Schoenberger’s biography in The Washington Post, she concurred with her view of Blackwood and speculated that Caroline was a “femme fatale” to whom men were “drawn by the astonishing blue-green eyes and the aristocratic hint of the beast in bed”. Critics tend to delineate Caroline as a one-dimensional figure confined to a stereotypical role: either that of inspiring enchantress or destructive nihilist. They often overlook the mischievous wit and sparkling jet-black humour in Blackwood’s writing and erroneously deem it to be “bleak” and “unfeeling”.
In a 2001 New York Times piece Hilary Spurling went so far as to proclaim, “Caroline had brains and literary talent in her own right. All that was missing was a human heart.” Apparently it is common critical practice to dismiss Blackwood as simply “an angry lady wielding a ferocious pen”. However, no one deigns to ask, what is the source of this anger?
Blackwood’s literary oeuvre is an important cultural record that spotlights the injustices faced by women and girls in the 20th century, and her early work in particular tells us much about female life in the north of Ireland. She wrote dexterously across various forms and was one of the few women from Northern Ireland publishing fiction and nonfiction amid the Troubles.
Moreover, her writing moves beyond the Big House, depicting female characters from different walks of life. Caroline also wrote candidly about female health and sexuality when it was still taboo. She harnessed her tremendous genius while enduring personal struggles with profound grief, mental illness, alcoholism and the recurring cancer that killed her at just 64.
Caroline Blackwood deserves to stand as a northern fiction author on par with her southern contemporary Edna O’Brien, who was born just one year prior to her. These fiercely talented writers share an unflinching view of the lives of women and girls, fearlessly breaking taboos and dispelling the cloud of “shame” surrounding the issues they bring to the fore. Their undaunted approach to writing about female experience has been met with opprobrium by certain critics who have made personal attacks on the authors.
Blackwood’s honest autofictional portrayal of female mental illness in the Ulster Big House articulates an aspect of life in the north which was hitherto unvoiced. The Gothic is a narrative mode that captures the excesses of experience, and Great Granny Webster is both deadly serious and deadly funny. Caroline averred that her point of view is distinctly Irish, noting, “Irish people are very funny but have this tragic sense”. Siobhán Kilfeather argues that some of the best Gothic novels “work with the comic” and “camp” “possibilities of the genre,” and Blackwood has created a cast of unforgettable female characters .
An extravagant raconteur who also excels at the short fiction form, Blackwood distils her baroque intensity of imagination into this slim volume. At just 108 pages, her novella is a compressed, virtuosic tour-de-force. It is her masterwork, and she renders the complex ties between women in strikingly sharp and stylish prose that cuts close to the bone. Great Granny Webster is a testament to Caroline Blackwood’s arresting intellect and artistry, which indelibly mark her craftsmanship throughout her body of work – the entirety of which is worthy of our attention and acclaim.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). She tweets @drdawnmiranda.