5 minute read

Elizabeth (Osborne) Mavor Biography

Nationality: British. Born: Glasgow, 1927. Education: St. Leonard's School, St. Andrews, Scotland; St. Anne's College, Oxford (editor, Cherwell), 1947-50, B.A. in history, M.A. Address: c/o Hutchinson, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA, England.



Summer in the Greenhouse. London, Hutchinson, 1959; New York, Morrow, 1960.

The Temple of Flora. London, Hutchinson, 1961.

The Redoubt. London, Hutchinson, 1967.

A Green Equinox. London, Joseph, 1973.

The White Solitaire. London, Hutchinson, 1988.


The Virgin Mistress, A Study in Survival: The Life of the Duchess of Kingston. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Doubleday, 1964.

The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship. London, Joseph, 1971; New York, Penguin, 1984.

Editor, Life with the Ladies of Llangollen. London, Viking, 1984.

Editor, The Grand Tour of William Beckford: Selections from Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents. London, Penguin, 1986.

Editor, Fanny Kemble: The American Journals. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

Editor, The Grand Tours of Katherine Wilmot: France 1801-3 and Russia 1805-7. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992.

Editor, The Captain's Wife: The South American Journals of Maria Graham 1821-23. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.

* * *

The strength of Elizabeth Mavor's writing is her sensuous evocation of nature, gardens, art, and sex. The quirky interest in the past apparent in her earlier novels flowered in The White Solitaire into a full-scale historical novel. Each of her four earlier novels centres on a woman in love, around whom revolve questions of the justification of adultery, and who pits herself against time, past or future.

In Mavor's first novel, Summer in the Greenhouse, the predominant mood of lyrical reminiscence contrasts with the stylized and fantastic plotting on which it is hinged. The middle-aged Claire Peachey recounts the sad love affair of her youth to a child and a young man who see "not so much Mrs. Peachey's house and the walks and flower-beds about it as the buildings and monuments of Florence beneath an identical burning sky in that June of 1895." Mrs. Peachey is observed through the granddaughter of her old admirer; the child's quest for the Fra Angelico painting of "the face," which she has seen reproduced, brings the adults together after forty-five years. Though anticipated throughout the book, this encounter remains a tour de force, upstaged by the radio announcement of Britain's entry into World War II.

Mavor extends the range of broad comedy in The Temple of Flora, which switches from rural fun reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm to sometimes serious theology. Dinah Gage's aspirations to reform the semipagan village of Thrussel are complicated by her tangling with a local youth. In a heavily symbolic but hilarious climax, a bull disrupts the harvest festival, which has already transformed the church into the temple of the title. The novel shifts to a consideration of the eternal triangle in which Dinah now involves herself. In the closing farewell scenes, as she decides to renounce her married lover, Mavor successfully treads a dizzy tightrope between poignance and ridicule, with Dinah's wish for "a sacramental relationship between him and me so that I could live apart from him with courage and a belief that I was doing something true and creative."

In The Redoubt Mavor broke away from the third-person narration of her two previous novels for a mixture of first-and third-person narration which she retained in A Green Equinox and The White Solitaire, though in all three books the potentialities of this freedom are left unexplored. In The Redoubt, too, she extended her range of characterization with the publican Lil, who is her only full-scale lower-class portrait before the eighteenth-century figures of The White Solitaire. The novel is set over the weekend of the 1953 East Coast floods, as Eve gives birth to a child. Through flashbacks grafted on to the chaos of the floods and the proverbial reliving of the past before drowning, the flickering validity of a childhood friendship comes across, "a kind of marriage in that childhood moment." Mavor's most experimental writing in any of her novels shows Eve's mind, in labour, ranging across history in hysterical metaphors for her life and predicament now. But the novel's ending is facile as Eve, who wishes that the father of her child were not her abandoned husband, but Faber, her rediscovered—married—and now drowned childhood friend and recent lover, resolves that "it is out of his death that my own life must be remade somehow."

A Green Equinox ends on a similar note after a death: "'Now,' she had said, 'do without me!"' Earlier, it had ranged even wider than The Temple of Flora, and fuses its diverse material better in an ironical circular structure. It follows Hero Kinoull's search for "Heaven now" in her successive loves for Hugh Shafto, the rococo expert, his wife and his mother, in Beaudesert—to be found on the same allegorical map as Thrussel. The novel partially resolves itself into a meditation on age, as Hero's third love is seen as the most lyrical; old Mrs. Shafto's gardens and model boats—"a love for the miniature"—recall Faber's in The Redoubt. A Green Equinox combines the bathetic comedy of saving the Bunyan Elm with a plethora of dramatic disasters—car accident, typhoid epidemic, near-drowning, drowning, and fire. Complete with metaphysical overtones, all this is crammed into six months which culminate in Hero's defiance of time; the reader has been initially forewarned of her "love affair, sexual almost, with the lost past." The rococo, "the worst and most provocative of all styles," subsumes all the ramifications of this tale under its imagery.

In The Virgin Mistress, the earlier of her historical biographies, Mavor affirmed that "a human personality is not mewed up in its own life-span." She has an antiquarian fascination with objects, just as Imogen in Summer in the Greenhouse listening to Mrs. Peachey's story was spellbound by "all the props of the play that had been." In A Green Equinox, the extended metaphor of rococo frivolity permitted her even greater licence for lyricism and satire.

The White Solitaire relates the life of the pirate Mary Read (1693-1715). This book tellingly musters a huge amount of historical and geographical detail as context for Read, whose roles included trooper in Marlborough's army as well as innkeeper in Holland with her husband. At the beginning, Mavor prints "the only known biography" of Read from Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (probably written by Defoe), though as there seems no structural rationale for outlining Read's drift into piracy in advance, it might have been better printed as an appendix at the end. If the rationale for Mavor's use of extended extracts supposedly from Read's journal is to point to the contrast between Read as seen by others and by herself—most of his/her life disguised as a man with consequent sexual complications—this technique isn't fully developed. Mary Read seems a less vivid presence in the novel than Eve or Hero in their contexts. In fact, Eve's and Hero's motivations don't bear very close scrutiny, and The White Solitaire albeit using "given" historical material parallels this interesting author's weakness elsewhere—over-reliance on exciting plot.

—Val Warner

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Al Loving Biography - Loved Painting from Early Age to Alice McGill Biography - Personal