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Jennifer Dawson Biography

Jennifer Dawson comments:

Nationality: British. Education: Mary Datchelor School, London; St. Anne's College, Oxford, M.A. in history 1952. Career: Has worked for Clarendon Press, Oxford, as a social worker in a mental hospital, and as a teacher. Lives in Charlbury, Oxfordshire. Awards: James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1962; Cheltenham Festival award, 1963; Fawcett prize, for Judasland, 1990.



The Ha-Ha. London, Blond, and Boston, Little Brown, 1961.

Fowler's Snare. London, Blond, 1962.

The Cold Country. London, Blond, 1965.

Strawberry Boy. London, Quartet, 1976.

A Field of Scarlet Poppies. London, Quartet, 1979.

The Upstairs People. London, Virago Press, 1988.

Judasland. London, Virago Press, 1989.

Short Stories

Penguin Modern Stories 10, with others. London, Penguin, 1972.

Hospital Wedding. London, Quartet, 1978.


My greatest passion in life has always been music. I regard writing as a last resort, a faute de mieux for me. In a world where language has been eroded, gutted ("pre-emptive strike," "take-out" for the murder of eight million civilians, etc.) all art "aspires to the condition of music," which cannot be exploited, interpreted, which explores the lost places of the heart, which makes all things new. Two of my novels have had musicians as their main characters—studies of the composer/musician who for social and political reasons experience dryness, aridity, and cannot play any more. Politics creep, burst inevitably into my novels. They then become shrill, rhetorical, routine, etc.

One feeling that has haunted me all my life is that life, social life as we know it, is a kind of game with correct moves, correct remarks and replies, correct procedures. I don't know the rules. I have struggled in vain for the real life as opposed to the game of menand-women.

But the thing that obsesses me most, and which I feel I shall never put into language, is the strangeness of life, its accidentalness. Here we all are on a tiny, blue-green balloon in the midst of naked gases, chambers of violence. The planet as an accident that has produced music, literature, art, and the extraordinary theme-and-variations of religions. Here we are, with our fitted carpets and Mixmasters and spin-dryers, stilted above the world, talking about mock O-levels, who is to be next Master of St. Judas's, how all the cars in St. John's Street seemed badly parked today. Here we are in the midst of nothingness, in the midst of a mystery, accidental and yet behaving politically and socially as though the bizarre nature of our life on this planet has not hit us yet. To me this freak of life (like a purple flower growing out of the dumped tippings of a Hoover-bag) is the invitation to a new kind of freedom. Only art can introduce us to this. But my art? No! It must be someone else's. I shall never succeed in saying what I want to say.

* * *

Novels which explore madness have certain qualities in common. They describe a world which is enclosed, static and ruled by obsessions; they are vivid, fragmented, highly personal documents in which only one character can be fully realized. This intensity is double-edged. It can exclude, and ultimately bore, the reader or it can provide him with a vision of life which has a relevance beyond the barriers of mental illness. Kafka's metaphors have been readily accepted and understood. Jennifer Dawson's The Ha-Ha is one of the few contemporary novels significant enough to deserve the appellation "Kafkaesque."

The Ha-Ha is set in a mental hospital where the narrator, Jean, is slowly recovering from a breakdown. She has progressed from the ward and the company of the irretrievably mad; she is now allowed her own room and promised a suitable job, an eventual regrading. Even as the nurse explains these steps towards freedom, we see their sad irrelevance. Jean's private world is ready to obtrude at any moment; her existence is precarious, threatened by the anarchy in her own imagination. One of the most moving illustrations of her plight is given in the description of her work as a librarian. She happily catalogues books for an elderly couple in the nearby town but is nonplussed by their casual, friendly conversation. When fine weather is mentioned she remarks "I wonder whether the monkeys would be better at the top or the bottoms of the trees." Her own company of animals, spotted, sleek, furred and quilled, wait relentlessly for the time when she will step back into their universe.

The inevitable relapse is brought about by her first real relationship, a love affair with another patient. Alastair is critical of doctors and routines; he alarms Jean by telling her the true nature of her illness, and she panics when he leaves the hospital. She runs away, is picked up by the police and brought back to face "the black box crashing down around my head." It is at this point that the novel changes direction. Jean remembers Alastair for his anger; she begins to share his indignation, rejects the doctors and escapes for good, feeling that her own identity is worth more than any medical tag of health.

Schizophrenia is a disease that has received much attention from modern writers, particularly during the mid-twentieth century. It has been used to symbolize the artist's alienation from society and, by extension, presented as the condition of modern man—lost, lonely, unable to communicate. The schizophrenic is sometimes hailed as a prophet, whose view of life is not only as valid as that of his doctors but also morally superior to the standards they uphold. Dawson shares this fashionable, essentially romantic, attitude, but her writing is without the stridency of propaganda. The parallels with Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar are many, and the prose is equally fine. Dawson has written further explorations of her subject, but has not yet matched the sustained brilliance of this first novel.

—Judy Cooke

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