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Marilyn Duckworth Biography

Marilyn Duckworth comments:

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Marilyn Adcock, Auckland, New Zealand, 1935. Education: Victoria University of Wellington, 1953, 1956. Career: Full-time writer. Has held positions in public relations, nurse aiding, factory work and library work. Awards: Scholarship in Letters, 1961, 1972, 1993; New Zealand award for achievement, 1963; Katherine Mansfield fellowship, 1980; New Zealand Book award, 1985, for fiction; Fulbright Visiting Writers fellowship, 1986; Australia New Zealand Exchange fellowship, 1989; Victoria University of Wellington Writers fellowship, 1990; Hawthornden Writers fellowship, Scotland, 1994; Sargeson Writers fellowship, Auckland, 1995. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1987. Member: New Zealand Society of Authors. Agent: Tim Curnow, Curtis Brown (Australia) Pty. Ltd., P.O. Box 19, Paddington, New South Wales 2021, Australia.



A Gap in the Spectrum. Auckland, Hutchinson, 1959.

The Matchbox House. London, Hutchinson, 1960; New York, Morrow, 1961.

A Barbarous Tongue. London, Hutchinson, 1963.

Over the Fence Is Out. London, Hutchinson, 1969.

Disorderly Conduct. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.

Married Alive. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.

Rest for the Wicked. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.

Pulling Faces. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1987.

A Message from Harpo. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.

Unlawful Entry. Auckland, Random Century, 1992.

Seeing Red. Auckland, Random House, 1993.

Leather Wings. Auckland, Random House, 1995.

Studmuffin. N.p. 2000.

Short Stories

Explosions on the Sun. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.

Fooling (novella). Auckland, Hazzard Press, 1994.


Other Lovers' Children. Christchurch, New Zealand, Pegasus Press, 1975.


Camping on the Faultline: A Memoir. Auckland, Random HouseNew Zealand, 2000.

Editor, Cherries on a Plate: New Zealand Writers Talk about Their Sisters. Auckland, Random House New Zealand, 1996.


In my fiction I focus on the tension between individuals' need for each other and their need for independence. I'm fascinated by the words and the devices they use to conceal and reveal these needs.

Critic Heather Murray has said of my work that I espouse no ideology and that I refuse to dress my novels in the current colours of political correctness. My characters "continue to search, perchance to make sense of the existential void in which they haplessly float."

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During a prolific 40-year career as the writer of 13 novels, short fiction, and poetry, Marilyn Duckworth has written about the plight of ordinary people, particularly women, in an indifferent universe. An early convert to Existentialism, Duckworth shows people adrift in free-falling mode amidst the trivia of daily life: nothing stays the same, the boundaries continually shift. Archetypal character Sophie in Disorderly Conduct realizes that her "disorder" is life itself:

What she suffers from is the human condition, no less…. She can expect a succession of bizarre and distressing symptoms. Small disasters, small rejections, dripping like acid onto her nerves and burrowing into her sense of well being. Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.

In breaking away from the certainties of the great tradition of the English novel, with its underpinning faith in a benevolent God and an ordered universe, Duckworth was initially misunderstood by critics who believed her characters lacked morality and were impelled by nothing worthier than a shallow animal fortitude. But as she demonstrated in A Message from Harpo, once characters realize that there is "No message," they are freed to pursue their own self-determination, a radical humanist and feminist message not often understood by her early readers. To Duckworth, the traditional English novel was male in themes, values, and modes of expression. She prefers to follow Virginia Woolf in seeking a female form of narrative, a code of values, which readers would accept as necessarily different but valid. Inspiration comes also from Muriel Spark's characters, who Duckworth said in a 1960 series of radio talks on women's writing, exude a sense of female normality and completeness: they are "rarely martyrs, rarely self-pitying, and in spite of their eccentricities appear totally sane." Duckworth shows the influence also of Penelope Fitzgerald, who "has a great deal to say and says it fast and quietly."

A recent memoir, Camping on the Faultline (2000), reveals Duckworth to have experienced a domestic life as full of incident, upheaval, and uncertainty as that of any of her characters. As wife to four husbands, and lover of many others, amidst her role as mother to four and stepmother to three, Duckworth is well placed to write of the unheroic but fraught lives of women at home. The daily round of women barely coping, but searching for some personal vindication of their deep need to find love and independence (usually incompatible), is placed against, and affected by, the upheaval of contemporary societal events or issues, such as the Puritanism and maleness of New Zealand society, feminism, pedophilia, incest, homosexual law reform, gambling, female violence, and HIV/AIDS. Duckworth uses a bare minimum of description and explanation, relying on carefully drawn character and on crisp dialogue; her plots unwind at a brisk speed, usually offering at the end some hope of personal advancement, although not the happiness of knowing that everything is sorted and under control.

Duckworth has been a chronicler of women's lives since the 1950s. In A Barbarous Tongue, Frieda, a teenage unmarried mother, still hopes for happiness after a bleak start. Her break for freedom from her inadequate lovers on the final page suggests she will strike out alone with greater confidence, even though she knows that "only children expect to be happy." As women have been engaged in redefining their status in society, claiming the right to a life of their own and to enjoy sex, so changing gender roles occupy a recurring place in Duckworth's novels. Children suddenly deprived of parents through death or desertion, the power games of siblings, incest, female refusal to mother and nurture, gender swapping and homosexuality, all provide tension and constitute traps for the unwary. In Seeing Red, Duckworth examines destructive family ties and female violence (not endearing herself to feminist readers). Pulling Faces transposes the traditional roles of man as leader and woman as dependent follower: in a tragi-comic love story that combines science fiction and social satire with the thriller genre, Stuart tries to bind elusive Gwyn in a conventional union. Towing her caravan wherever she likes, she eludes her mother and child, and Stuart; she alters her mind with drugs, and is ultra-secretive about her movements, playing childhood games of pulling faces to disguise self. Ironically she uses a machine to try to bind others to her by capturing their thoughts on videotape. Women are as prone to power complexes as the traditional male, and if communication exists only via computer, Utopia is a long way off.

Disorderly Conduct, Unlawful Entry, and A Message from Harpo are sophisticated studies of women as daughters, wives, and mothers. Duckworth is skilled at creating believable families and is particularly good at their intimate conversations. Aging mothers entrap and manipulate the young, but are often redeemed by some residual nobility. Children devour the strength of mothers with selfish demands, but are saved from monsterhood by honesty and disarming acts of kindness.

In the novella Fooling, Ros feels the strain of her independence (hard won by earlier generations of Duckworth women): "A woman of the nineties is expected to want control of her life—but not necessarily self-control—to be centred and self-sufficient, but not, of course, self-centred. It isn't easy." Ros is honest in an age when everyone else is fooling. She wants to find love, but her hopes of finding lasting happiness are fading: "Ros, you're going to have to grow up one day. You're 28 years old—aren't you?—and this is the real world. The freaky old real world."

In Leather Wings, female independence has transmuted into selfishness. No one will put aside self to care for and love 6-year-old Jania, whose mother has recently died. Her father wallows in self-pity, sending Jania to her grandparents, but grandfather is preoccupied and introverted by decrepitude, and grandmother is too busy juggling her job, a lover, and the Mills & Boon novel she is writing. To fill the void, a pedophile door-to-door salesman steps in, providing threat, tension, and suspense. Duckworth shows feeling for the tragedy of pedophilia, as the simple Warren fails to understand the feelings that grip him so violently, and she is percipient in this complex study of hard-won female independence, showing that putting self first leads to failure to care for those who should be loved and cherished. What is the answer for women?

Studmuffin is a modern reworking of the Alice-in-Wonderland story, using magic realism, and looking to a future when humans lose the power of speech, either through destroying their brains by drugs, or through the power of a mad mind controller. Alice, a career girl, slips through the looking glass with her newly acquired "white rabbit," an unhappily married albino accountant from her place of work, and they sail to a magic island that is in the grip of a nineties Mad Hatter who enslaves his community and destroys their power of speech and memory. Meanwhile in London, Alice's sister destroys her own speech and addles her mind with drugs. In the most optimistic end to a Duckworth novel yet, Alice and the albino escape after gothic adventures. Both find love: "I love, therefore I am," says Alice as she rows back to the "real world."

—Heather Murray

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