(Lady) Rachel (Mary) Billington Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Rachel Mary Pakenham, Oxford, 1942; daughter of the writers Lord Longford and Elizabeth Longford; sister of the writer Antonia Fraser. Education: University of London, B.A. (honors) in English 1963. Career: Freelance writer; reviewer for Financial Times and Evening Standard, both London, and New York Times; columnist, Sunday Telegraph, London. Agent: David Higham Associates Ltd., 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA, England.
All Things Nice. London, Heinemann, 1969.
The Big Dipper. London, Heinemann, 1970.
Lilacs Out of the Dead Land. London, Heinemann, 1971; New York, Saturday Review Press, 1972.
Cock Robin; or, A Fight for Male Survival. London, Heinemann, 1972.
Beautiful. London, Heinemann, and New York, Coward McCann, 1974.
A Painted Devil. London, Heinemann, and New York, CowardMcCann, 1975.
A Woman's Age. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979; New York, Summit, 1980.
Occasion of Sin. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982; New York, Summit, 1983.
The Garish Day. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1985; New York, Morrow, 1986.
Loving Attitudes. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Morrow, 1988.
Theo and Matilda. London, Macmillan, 1990; New York, HarperCollins, 1991.
Bodily Harm. London, Macmillan, 1993.
Magic and Fate: Being the Not Quite Believable Adventures of Sissie Slipper. London, Macmillan, 1996.
Perfect Happiness. London, Sceptre, 1996.
Uncollected Short Stories
"One Afternoon," in Winter's Tales 1 (new series), edited by DavidHughes. London, Constable, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.
"The Photograph," in Winter's Tales 2 (new series), edited by RobinBaird-Smith. London, Constable, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Mrs. Bleasdale's Lodger, 1976; Mary, Mary, 1977;Sister, Sister, 1978; Have You Seen Guy Fawkes?, 1979.
Don't Be Silly, 1979; Life after Death, 1981.
Other (for children)
Rosanna and the Wizard-Robot. London, Methuen, 1981.
The First Christmas. London, Collins Harvill, 1983; Wilton, Connecticut, Morehouse Barlow, 1987.
Star-Time. London, Methuen, 1984.
The First Easter. London, Constable, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1987.
The First Miracles. London, Collins Harvill, 1990; Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1991.
The Great Umbilical, Mother Daughter Mother. London, Macmillan, 1994.
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On a surface level the novels of Rachel Billington reflect the conventions of the upper-class comedy of manners. Her works are invariably set within an aristocratic milieu, their central characters a privileged churchgoing elite of country or London gentry, whose condescension towards the lower orders seems a natural response. Billington's books are distinguished by an adroit use of language, personalities revealed through conversations that display a keen, often caustic wit. Yet beneath the outward show of humor lurks a strong tendency to violence, which manifests itself in the conflicts of obsessional love.
In All Things Nice and The Big Dipper the wit and comedy predominate, these early novels emerging as vehicles for the author's stylistic skills. Lilacs Out of the Dead Land is both deeper and more dark. April, the younger daughter of moneyed parents, travels to Italy with her married lover. During their time together, she is forced to reassess their relationship in the context of her elder sister's death. The infatuation that draws her to the lover is slowly countered by the fear of being smothered by his love. As the tension builds inside her, events move swiftly to the cathartic act of violence. More complex and unsettling than its predecessors, Lilacs Out of the Dead Land shows considerable narrative skill, the author switching fluently from April's time with her lover to scenes with her parents, at the school where she teaches, and her last encounter with her sister. Dialogue fits the dovetailed scenes, each character perfectly matched by his or her patterns of speech. This novel is an early indication of the psychological depths that lie under the surface glitter of Billington's work.
Beautiful and Cock Robin are lighter, but accomplished creations, the elegant prose and polite behavior merely masking the pathological impulses deeper down. Cock Robin centers on the male narrator's passion for three girls at his university, all of them seemingly unattainable. The book follows the four of them in their careers, where the young man gradually emerges as the dominant figure, while the three goddesses prove to be tragic failures. The bitchy wit is in evidence, the story itself eminently credible, if marked by a heartless gloss. In Beautiful, obsessive passion again appears as a destructive force. Lucy, the flawless, amoral heroine of the novel, has thus far been able to shape the world in her image as it revolves around her. Alex, the discarded lover unwilling to let go, threatens to shatter that world and its fake stability: "Lucy prided herself on her understanding of the human psyche; with the unmentionable exception of Alex, no one had ever stepped out of the role in which she had cast them." Once more the course is set for a violent resolution. A light, tautly written work, with short terse scenes and skilful dialogue, Beautiful shows the author at her most assured, the hard sheen of the surface and the murky underlying depths in perfect balance.
A Painted Devil is altogether more sinister, revealing Billington's vision at its grimmest. Obsessional love is again the agent of destruction, embodied in Edward, the negative central character. A painter of genius, Edward draws unquestioning adoration from his wife and friends, while giving nothing in return. His cold, remote personality, its inhuman quality symbolized by his hatred of physical love, is subtly glimpsed in conversation and unuttered thoughts. In A Painted Devil the glittering crust of civilized behavior is thin indeed, the novel becoming increasingly horrific as one tragedy follows another. Cruellest of all Billington's works, it is nevertheless a memorable achievement.
A Woman's Age is a new departure, the comedy of manners forsaken for an epic novel spanning a period of 70 years. It focuses mainly on the figure of Violet Hesketh, who survives a difficult childhood and broken marriages to find a successful career in politics. A mammoth undertaking, the novel shows its author's ability to convey the essence of the passing years, but one cannot help feeling that it lacks the bite and conviction of some of her shorter works, and it is in the latter that her main strength as a writer lies.
With Occasion of Sin is another experiment, this time a contemporary retelling of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; Billington's account of the lawyer's wife who falls for a computer software executive follows the original closely, both in characters and incidents, but avoids too slavish an interpretation, particularly in some of its solutions. A worthy variant of the classic novel, the depth of this novel's theme is matched by a highly effective use of language, with Billington's mastery of dialogue well to the fore. The Garish Day is an ambitious saga covering two generations of diplomats at the time of the British Raj. A similar epic approach is taken in Theo and Matilda, where the lovers of the title are explored in various incarnations, through Saxon, Tudor, and Victorian periods to the present day. Their adventures are set against the background of Abbeyfields, whose landscape changes with the centuries from monastery to manor house, lunatic asylum, mental hospital, and finally "des res." Billington handles her epic materials with style and conviction, and Theo and Matilda must be judged the most impressive of her large-scale works.
Loving Attitudes centers on the confrontation between the successful media professional Mary Tempest and her unacknowledged daughter, the product of a youthful love affair. Their unexpected meeting leads Mary to a reassessment of her marriage and family, and to a fresh exploration of that earlier love. The gradual unfolding of the tangle of relationships is accomplished neatly and without strain, the characters sensitively portrayed as they are forced to confront the consequences of their actions.
Bodily Harm, a more powerful, disturbing novel, opens with a brutal knife attack on a young woman by a total stranger in a London shop. The girl survives and her attacker is jailed, but the passage of time draws them inexorably back together. Their slow recovery and rehabilitation, the reasons behind the attack, and the eventual resolution are achieved with masterly skill, action presented from the alternating viewpoints of the two protagonists, the climactic scene approached with a sequence of brief snapshot images and incidents. Bodily Harm ranks with the finest of Billington's work and is clear proof of her ability to blend stylistic flair with increasingly complex themes.