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Janice Elliott Biography

Janice Elliott comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Derby, 1931. Education: Nottingham High School for Girls; Oxford University, 1950-53, B.A. (honours) 1953. Career: Journalist, House and Garden, House Beautiful, Harper's Bazaar, and Sunday Times, all London, 1954-62; since 1964 freelance reviewer, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, Times, and New Statesman, all London. Awards: Southern Arts award, 1981. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1989. Agent: Vivien Green, Richard Scott Simon Ltd., 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England.



Cave with Echoes. London, Secker and Warburg, 1962.

The Somnambulists. London, Secker and Warburg, 1964.

The Godmother. London, Secker and Warburg, 1966; New York, Holt Rinehart, 1967.

The Buttercup Chain. London, Secker and Warburg, 1967.

The Singing Head. London, Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Angels Falling. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Knopf, 1969.

The Kindling. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Knopf, 1970.

England Trilogy:

A State of Peace. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1971.

Private Life. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1972.

Heaven on Earth. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

A Loving Eye. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.

The Honey Tree. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.

Summer People. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

Secret Places. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

The Country of Her Dreams. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1982.

Magic. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.

The Italian Lesson. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985; New York, Beaufort, 1986.

Dr. Gruber's Daughter. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.

The Sadness of Witches. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1987.

Life on the Nile. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.

Necessary Rites. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.

City of Gates. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.

Figures in the Sand. London, Sceptre, 1994.

Short Stories

The Noise from the Zoo. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991.

Other (for children)

The Birthday Unicorn. London, Gollancz, 1970.

Alexander in the Land of Mog. Leicester, Brockhampton Press, 1973.

The Incompetent Dragon. London, Blackie, 1982.

The King Awakes. London, Walker Books, 1987.

The Empty Throne. London, Walker Books, 1988.


I have always tried to avoid writing in a way that might invite categorisation in either subject matter or treatment. The result is a body of work ranging from the bizarre and darkly magical (Dr. Gruber's Daughter, Magic, The Sadness of Witches) to the social realism of the England Trilogy and the poignancy of Secret Places—set in the war-time Midlands where I grew up.

I make frequent use of myth, which fascinates me (most overtly in The Singing Head). So does modern history (Angels Falling set in Britain 1901-68; Life on the Nile, Egypt today and in the 1920s). The domestic scene has interested me only when it is set in and interacts with, the larger, outer world (e.g. the menace of the authoritarian state in Necessary Rites). A sense of place is vital to me, even when I have invented a country (The Country of Her Dreams).

I have been consistent only in my aspiration, my attempt each time to try something that will set me a fresh challenge as a writer. I am consistent too, in my conviction that style is not the icing on the cake but an organic and essential element in a good novel. If there is one recurring theme it may be the fall from grace, the image of exile from the garden.

In the last decade I have felt an urge to get out of England (mentally, imaginatively, and physically), and so made use of a number of foreign settings (The Italian Lesson, Life on the Nile).

I have also been more drawn by humour, sometimes to the forefront, more often as a bright, sharp thread in the weave. I believe that as a result, my novels may become more accessible to a wider audience.

Given my inclination to dash off in different directions, I have been lucky in my critical reception. Not that I could have done otherwise. I am an entirely intuitive writer, often astonished to find myself where I am and in what company (e.g. with Hitler in an attic in North Oxford in Dr. Gruber's Daughter).

* * *

Most of Janice Elliott's carefully crafted novels share the same background (the affluent English middle-class), the same period of time, the same preoccupation with the menopausal crises of well-established marriages, and, to a surprising extent, the same characters under different names. The Farmers of The Italian Lesson, the Tylers of Summer People, the Contis of Magic, the Watermans of The Sadness of Witches, the Franklands of Necessary Rites, appear to be all in admired and envied perfect marriages, while in private they are becoming estranged, even hostile to one another. Infidelity in thought and deed is commonplace, but the real issue seems to be a questioning of the need to continue living together.

The stress is on women's strength and ability to survive while men crack up and break. When disaster strikes, women will instinctively carry on with the daily round, knowing its therapeutic value ("cooking being an orderly process, a gesture, in a small way, against chaos.") Repeatedly Elliott emphasises the value of feminine friendships ("Friends … are family nowadays, which is why there is so much kissing. For whatever reason, we seem to feel the need to touch"), in which there is unspoken understanding, the "dolphin language, mind to mind communication."

It is perhaps inevitable in these times when modish, half-understood cults and myths are elbowing out Christianity, that the bond between women should take the surprising form of a witches' coven, as in Magic.

Set against the praise of friendships between women is the recurrent theme of the absence of any such understanding between a mother and her daughter. Hinted at in The Italian Lesson, it is openly declared in Summer People ("she never cared for her mother because they were alike. And who can bear for long speaking to a mirror?"), and in The Sadness of Witches and Necessary Rites.

Conversely Elliott emphasizes the strength of the bond between a mother and her adolescent son (Summer People, The Sadness of Witches, Necessary Rites). There is a marked similarity both of physical appearance and of turn of mind between all these boys, as there is also between the young girls who float in and out of these people's houses and lives: long-haired, bare-foot flower children with little in the way of conversation and a terrifying egocentricity.

Some of the minor characters too bear an uncanny resemblance to one another (Felix Wanderman in The Italian Lessons and Max Stiller in Life on the Nile are both wise, elderly, Jewish, widowed, close to death—and sporting the same tufts of cottonwool after shaving).

Such similarities may perhaps be expected in a novelist who restricts herself largely to chronicle one small section of society. They are not due to a poverty of imagination; when she chooses Elliott can exercise her imagination with astonishing results: in Dr. Gruber's Daughter Adolf Hitler is hiding in a North Oxford attic, while his daughter, the offspring of an incestuous affair with his half-sister, roams leafy Oxford, a wraith from hell, in search of human and feline victims to devour. In Magic Sir Oliver and his housekeeper practise the skill of out-of-body experiences, and in The Sadness of Witches Martha, like the witches in Macbeth, can cause storms at sea and wreck or save boats.

The style is plain, straightforward; indeed in The Italian Lesson the short sentences seem to mimic those of the heroine's Italian phrase book. The form is usually that of a straight narrative; the horrors of bomb scares, car crashes, oil spills, murder, and suicide are all the more telling for this plainness. Only in Life on the Nile do we find a more complex form: the present-day story of Charlotte Hamp's experiences in Egypt is interwoven with extracts from the diary of her great-aunt who had lived in Egypt in the 1920s and was murdered there. This temporal crosscutting appears to even greater advantage in Figures in the Sand, which depicts the dying Roman Empire—only it is in the future, in a world of armored vehicles and cell phones. Christianity has been outlawed again, a fact that affects General Fidus Octavius's believing wife Livia, but not the agnostic general, who haunts a Syrian necropolis in hopes of finding proof that an afterlife truly exists.

Characteristic perhaps of most novels which present life through a woman's eyes are the descriptions of the small pleasures with which women shore up their lives. But always there is an undercurrent of unease beneath the calm surface ("a small daily terror"). In this respect particularly Elliott is a true chronicler of her chosen society.

—Hana Sambrook

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