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Nell (Mary) Dunn Biography

Nationality: British. Born: London in 1936. Education: A convent school. Awards: Rhys Memorial prize, 1964; Susan Smith Blackburn prize, for play, 1981; Evening Standard award, for play, 1982; Society of West End Theatre award, 1982. Agent: Curtis Brown, 162-168 Regent Street, London W1R 5TB.



Poor Cow. London, MacGibbon and Kee, and New York, Doubleday, 1967.

The Incurable. London, Cape, and New York, Doubleday, 1971.

I Want, with Adrian Henri. London, Cape, 1972.

Tear His Head Off His Shoulders. London, Cape, 1974; New York, Doubleday, 1975.

The Only Child: A Simple Story of Heaven and Hell. London, Cape, 1978.

My Silver Shoes. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Short Stories

Up the Junction. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1963; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1966; with drawings by Susan Benson, Washinton, D.C., Counterpoint, 2000.


Steaming (produced London, 1981; Stamford, Connecticut, and NewYork, 1982). Ambergate, Derbyshire, Amber Lane Press, 1981; New York, Limelight, 1984.

Sketches in Variety Night (produced London, 1982).

I Want, with Adrian Henri, adaptation of their own novel (producedLiverpool, 1983; London, 1986).

The Little Heroine (produced Southampton, 1988).


Poor Cow, with Ken Loach, 1967.

Television Plays:

Up the Junction, from her own stories, 1965; Every Breath You Take, 1988.


Talking to Women. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1965.

Freddy Gets Married (for children). London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1969.

Grandmothers Talking to Nell Dunn. London, Chatto and Windus, 1991.

Editor, Living Like I Do. London, Futura, 1977; as Different Drummers, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1977.

* * *

Nell Dunn begins with vignettes or fragmental episodes to build a picture of British urban life. Much like Charles Dickens, with his newspaper sketches and small portraits of London street life, she began her career with a set of brilliant realistic snapshots of the mod world. In Up the Junction she collected these sketches, which in effect are much like the 17th-century Theophrastan "character." They deal primarily with young working-class Britons in their milieu, incised in photographic reportage, built on their dialect, street signs, bits of popular music, the clichés and repetitious folk-wisdom of ghetto life. The feeling for the nagging, obstinate details of daily life is very strong—the sketches demonstrate how complex yet unrewarding most of these lives can be.

In Poor Cow Dunn develops the same method of terse, richly detailed sketches into a more unified form, a novel centering on the life of one young woman. Ironically named Joy, she becomes a "poor cow" through the constant erosion of her life. At 22 she has gone through one luckless marriage, and her life moves centrifugally around Jonny, her son. Joy drifts into casual prostitution, random affairs with anchorless men. She worries constantly about her looks, her body, her sexual responsiveness, the prospects of aging. Life is intractable, and wishes evaporate in the face of simple necessities. Joy's role as a mother is a transference of her egocentrism to Jonny, as an extension of her former hopes for herself. Her own life has run down a blind alley, but her son's life may be different. As she clings to Jonny, Joy invents a bitter epitaph for her youth: "To think when I was a kid I planned to conquer the world and if anyone saw me now they'd say, 'She's had a rough night, poor cow."'

A vision of the confusion and oppressiveness of modern life is extended in The Incurable, which deals with a middle-class woman, Maro, whose life collapses in crisis. Maro's husband develops multiple sclerosis, and her formerly orderly and manageable existence is destroyed. She falls into a state of anomie which, like her husband's progressive disease, eats up her life. She too is "incurable," although her malaise is mental and spiritual. Her children's cannibalistic demands and the relentless pressure of everyday routine erode her will and energy: "She felt like some country that had been oppressed for a long time and was slowly rising up and throwing over its oppressors. She was making a revolution but the bloodshed was horrifying and how many lives would be lost and when was it going to end and would she ever make the country of the free spirits?"

Tear His Head Off His Shoulders is another set of related vignettes and episodes in the lives of women. The narrative revolves around the sexual obsessions and conflicts of women, viewed in retrospect. The vernacular style and complex combination of nostalgia and revulsion give a bittersweet flavor to the work. A strong "fascination of the abomination" feeling makes the stories of sexual compulsion convincing.

In The Only Child Dunn constructs a novel again focused on sexual obsession and possessiveness—of a mother for her son. We follow Esther Lafonte through Dunn's careful sensual details as she drifts from her over-comfortable marriage to a search for her identity—sexual and spiritual—in her 19-year-old son, Piers. At one point she speaks for all of Dunn's lost women: "I want to get in, I want to be somebody, I have a feeling that I could have done very much more with my life, that I could be doing more now, I want to be a part of things."

Dunn's special province is the mind and spirit of the beleaguered woman—a view from the "oppressed country" of the woman trapped by circumstances. The vignettes she presents deal with developing sexuality, the allure of the pop world, the deadly immobility of domestic responsibilities. Her later fiction extends this vision to the perimeters of middle-class life.

—William J. Schafer

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