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Gillian (Elizabeth) Tindall Biography

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1938. Education: Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, B.A. (honours) in English, M.A. 1959. Career: Freelance journalist since 1960. Awards: Mary Elgin prize, 1970; Maugham award, 1972. Agent: Curtis Brown, 28-29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England.



No Name in the Street. London, Cassell, 1959; as When We Had Other Names, New York, Morrow, 1960.

The Water and the Sound. London, Cassell, 1961; New York, Morrow, 1962.

The Edge of the Paper. London, Cassell, 1963.

The Youngest. London, Secker and Warburg, 1967; New York, Walker, 1968.

Someone Else. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Walker, 1969.

Fly Away Home. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Walker, 1971.

The Traveller and His Child. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

The Intruder. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1979.

Looking Forward. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983; New York, Arbor House, 1985.

To the City. London, Hutchinson, 1987.

Give Them All My Love. London, Hutchinson, 1989.

Spirit Weddings. London, Hutchinson, 1992.

Short Stories

Dances of Death: Short Stories on a Theme. London, Hodder andStoughton, and New York, Walker, 1973.

The China Egg and Other Stories. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

Journey of a Lifetime and Other Stories. London, Hutchinson, 1990.


Radio Play:

A Little Touch of Death, 1985.


A Handbook on Witches. London, Barker, 1965; New York, Atheneum, 1966.

The Born: Exile: George Gissing. London, Temple Smith, and NewYork, Harcourt Brace, 1974.

The Fields Beneath: The History of One London Village. London, Temple Smith, 1977.

City of Gold: A Biography of Bombay. London, Temple Smith, 1982;New York, Penguin, 1992.

Rosamond Lehmann: An Appreciation. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

Countries of the Mind: The Meaning of Place to Writers. London, Hogarth Press, 1991.

Célestine: Voices from a French Village. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1995.

The Journey of Martin Nadaud: A Life and Turbulent Times. London, Chatto & Windus, 1999.

* * *

Gillian Tindall's first novel, No Name in the Street, was published soon after she graduated from Oxford, and its heroine, Jane, is 19 years old. However, it was not just another autobiographical first novel about teenagers, jazz, and ennui. Though concerned with bohemian life on the Left Bank in Paris, it is written in a lucid and formal prose, and the novel is straightforward, if unexpected in its movement and denouement.

Jane is a half-French visitor from England who falls in love with Vincent Lebert, a painter much older than herself. She lives happily with him till she discovers that Vincent is having a homosexual affair with an English boy, and finds herself pregnant. Up to this point, the novel is merely pleasant, chiefly because of its somewhat naive, but innocent and thorough, romanticism; from this point on, it develops a dramatic power which Tindall handles with striking maturity and dexterity. The contrast between the everyday materials she chooses to use, and the depth of the uses to which she puts them, marks all of Tindall's most successful work.

Her second novel, The Water and the Sound, is also about a young girl, Nadia, and about Bohemian life in Paris. Nadia hopes to find out the truth about her parents, both of whom died young. She has been told that her father was a poetic genius, wild in his private life; and that her mother had misguidedly attempted to save him from himself, having loved him so much that she had committed suicide the day after he died. Nadia interviews every person she can find who had known her parents: friends, enemies, literary critics, servants, doctors, gossips, all. Tindall's sketches of these people are memorable, and her allusive descriptions bring the atmosphere of Paris, with its night clubs and trendies, to vivid life. There is nothing notable about the story itself: it is interesting because of Tindall's delineation of her characters, her compassionate insight into their psychology. She masters her wealth of material by the sheer quality of her writing, welding together the similar but historically separate worlds of Nadia and her parents with unhurried aplomb.

The Youngest, too, is a kind of psychological detective story of the soul. Elizabeth, intelligent, sensitive, educated, articulate, gives birth to a deformed baby, whom she smothers. Tindall's novel explores the question of what sort of woman Elizabeth is. Increasingly disturbed, Elizabeth undergoes a hard journey of self-discovery, realizing that her response to her deformed baby has typified her response to life as a whole: she has consistently rejected her responsibility towards others in her absorption with herself and her towering effort to become "independent," and she has, without earlier realizing it or putting it in these terms, actually sacrificed her mother, sister, and husband to her own views and desires. Written in the mid-1960s, this implicit condemnation of the attitudes of the "me-generation" was highly unusual in the fiction of the time, and remains unusual in contemporary fiction. Possibly for this reason, the virtues of this novel were not as widely appreciated as they might have been. Tindall has always been keen to use symbolism, but it had not been wholly integrated into her earlier novels; here, however, the deformed baby provides a powerful symbol of Elizabeth herself, with her own character and actions triggering her self-discovery. The book was variously received; some people perceived it as a complex and insightful work, her best book so far; others thought of it as "intelligent but limited," as failing to subjugate a social problem to the art of fiction, and as a fictionalised documentary rather than a novel.

In Fly Away Home Antonia is a fairly sensitive, but not particularly intelligent woman nearing 30 and going through an emotional crisis. She is married to Marc, a well-to-do and thoroughly assimilated Parisian Jew; her two daughters are growing up and needing her less than they did. We share Antonia's journey of self-discovery through the diary she keeps from 1966 to 1968. This diary is one of Tindall's best achievements, revealing the pattern of Antonia's life with something of the surprising-but-inevitable quality of reality. Events that are outwardly dramatic (deaths, births, violent quarrels) rub shoulders with more internal, emotional dramas "which prepare themselves for years and then are abruptly revealed." Antonia is excited by the Israeli victories, and she cannot understand why Marc remains unelated, putting it down to his Jewish fear of involvement. However, when students take over the Sorbonne, Marc's youthful revolutionary romanticism is stirred and he does become enthusiastically involved; Antonia, on the other hand, finds herself unmoved by the excitement of the times, perceiving the events as obscure and senseless. Such moments come rarely in fiction, moments in which people who think they know each other discover, by their unexpected reactions to events, how little they know each other in reality. Such moments occur repeatedly in this novel—for example, in the different way that people regard Marc's brother Jean-Luc after his accidental death in Israel; or in Antonia's deepening understanding of her mother whom she had earlier regarded as a typical do-gooder, always rushing after the latest thing which might be considered progressive, without her activities actually making much positive impact; or in the change in Marc's attitude to his parents, from dutiful politeness to anger when they condemn the students as gangsters or, worse, as anarchists. Like all of Tindall's best novels, this is moving and tender in its portrayal of human relationships, exquisitely written, and packed with insights. These qualities are even more in evidence in the short stories in Dances of Death: Short Stories on a Theme and The China Egg and Other Stories.

The Traveller and His Child concerns the unusual theme of the paternal instinct. Robert, divorced by his appalling American wife for his inability to adjust to her orgasmic sexuality, finds that he misses his son Robbie terribly; so much, in fact, that he decides to kidnap another boy, the seven-year-old son of old friends. This is apparently done on impulse, though Tindall shows how his character and situation have been leading up to this moment through the years of his miserable childhood and unfortunate marriage. Robert's longing for his own son, now in America, and the way in which that unexpressed love and longing are focused on the boy, Pip, are convincingly narrated. In showing us Robert's heart, Tindall is showing us too the heart of the woman who steals someone else's baby from a pram. Robert is selfish as much as he is self-deceived but, on a desperate journey through France with the boy, he experiences fear and shame, and slowly gains insight. He realizes that he has caused overwhelming anguish, and that he has caused this anguish to people who have trusted him and for whom he cares. He sees that his action is unforgivable. Yet, miraculously, he is forgiven, by the child, by his friends, and—it is hinted—by himself.

In Looking Forward Tindall's protagonist is a childless gynaecologist concerned with finding ways of overcoming infertility. The book typifies the qualities of Tindall's less successful novels. The infertility is emblematic of the book itself: good intentions struggle against creative deficiency. Earnest, professional, and well researched, it lacks the germ of imaginative vitality which might be warmed to life by Tindall's brooding. This is partly due to an over-concern with formal cleverness. The characters—families and friends whose careers are charted through the first seven decades of this century—are relatively inert, but arranged in tableaux characteristic of the various periods in which the narrative is set. To the City, the tale of a young man saved from the Holocaust as a boy and now returning to Vienna after many years, suffers many of the weaknesses of its predecessor. Much stronger is Give Them All My Love, which uses flashbacks far more effectively than did To the City. The protagonist has murdered the man who killed his daughter, and now he sits in jail, remembering the events that got him there. It is a powerful and cinematic portrayal on Tindall's part.

What really interests Tindall and brings her characters to life are the emotional cores of people. Where she is content to let her heart lead her, Tindall's work comes alive; where she allows her considerable intellectual gifts too much play, she has not yet shown that she can embody her strong and subtle moral sense to produce impressive fictional work. This is not to deride her intellectual gifts, which are best evidenced by her non-fictional books. In all her books she has a highly accomplished style, and her fictional examination of current shibboleths is cool and penetrating. Unpretentious and unusual, she has an impeccable sense of the nuances of life.

—Prabhu S. Guptara,

updated by Judson Knight

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