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Mitchell, (Charles) Julian (Humphrey)

MITCHELL, (Charles) Julian (Humphrey)

Nationality: British. Born: Epping, Essex, 1 May 1935. Education: Winchester College, Hampshire, 1948-53; Wadham College, Oxford, B.A. 1958; St. Antony's College, Oxford, M.A. 1962. Military Service: Served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, 1953-55: Midshipman. Career: Member, Arts Council Literature Panel, 1966-69; formerly, Governor, Chelsea School of Art, London; chair, Welsh Arts Council Drama Committee, 1988-92. Lives in Gwent, Wales. Awards: Harkness fellowship, 1959; Rhys Memorial prize, 1965; Maugham award, 1966; International Critics prize, for television play, 1977; Christopher award, for television play, 1977 (U.S.A.); Florio prize, for translation, 1980; Society of West End Theatre award, 1982. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.

Publications

Novels

Imaginary Toys. London, Hutchinson, 1961.

A Disturbing Influence. London, Hutchinson, 1962.

As Far as You Can Go. London, Constable, 1963.

The White Father. London, Constable, 1964; New York, FarrarStraus, 1965.

A Circle of Friends. London, Constable, 1966; New York, McGrawHill, 1967.

The Undiscovered Country. London, Constable, 1968; New York, Grove Press, 1970.

Short Stories

Introduction, with others. London, Faber, 1960.

Plays

A Heritage and Its History, adaptation of the novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett (produced London, 1965). London, Evans, 1966.

A Family and a Fortune, adaptation of the novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett (produced Guildford, Surrey, 1966; Seattle, 1974; London, 1975). London, French, 1976.

Shadow in the Sun (televised 1971). Published in Elizabeth R, edited by J.C. Trewin, London, Elek, 1972.

Half-Life (produced London, 1977; New York, 1981). London, Heinemann, 1977.

Henry IV, adaptation of the play by Pirandello. London, Eyre Methuen, 1979.

The Enemy Within (produced Leatherhead, Surrey, 1980).

Another Country (produced London, 1981; New Haven, Connecticut, 1983). Ambergate, Derbyshire, Amber Lane Press, 1982; New York, Limelight, 1984.

Francis (produced London, 1983). Oxford, Amber Lane Press, 1984.

After Aida; or, Verdi's Messiah (produced London, 1986). Oxford, Amber Lane Press, 1986.

Adelina Patti, Queen of Song (produced Swansea, 1987).

The Evils of Tobacco, adaptation of a work by Chekhov, translated byRonald Hingley (produced London, 1987).

August, adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (produced Mold, 1994). Oxford, Amber Lane Press, 1993.

Falling Over England (produced London, 1994). Oxford, AmberLane Press, 1994.

Screenplays:

Arabesque, with Stanley Price and Pierre Marton, 1966;Another Country, 1984; Vincent and Theo, 1990; Wilde, London, Orion Media, 1997.

Radio Documentary:

Life and Deaths of Dr. John Donne, 1972.

Television Plays:

Persuasion, from the novel by Jane Austen, 1971; Shadow in the Sun, 1971; The Man Who Never Was, 1972; A Perfect Day, 1972; Fly in the Ointment, 1972; A Question of Degree, 1972; The Alien Corn, from a story by W. Somerset Maugham, 1972; Rust, 1973; Jennie, 1974; Abide with Me, from the book A Child in the Forest, by Winifred Foley, 1976; Staying On, from the novel by Paul Scott, 1980; The Good Solider, from the novel by Ford Madox Ford, 1981; The Weather in the Streets, from the novel by Rosamond Lehmann, 1984; episodes for Inspector Morse series, 1986-93; All the Waters of Wye (documentary), 1990; Survival of the Fittest, 1990.

Other

Truth and Fiction (lecture). London, Covent Garden Press, 1972.

Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill: A Portrait with Letters, withPeregrine Churchill. London, Collins, 1974; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1975.

Editor, with others, Light Blue, Dark Blue: An Anthology of Recent Writing from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. London, Macdonald, 1960.

*

Film Adaptations:

August, 1995.

* * *

Julian Mitchell's books reveal a remarkably talented writer, whose work is consistently fluent, witty and ingenious. But they do leave a doubt in the mind whether his literary gifts are, in the last analysis, those of a natural novelist. He began his career precociously early, and published four novels before he was thirty. The first of them, Imaginary Toys, is, like many other first novels, a partly sentimental, partly satirical recreation of university life. It covers a small group of young people during a few days in one summer term at Oxford; the story is of the slightest, but Mitchell uses it as the vehicle for some serious disquisitions on sexual and social problems. The novel is at its most engaging, though, in its fanciful, essay-like speculations, which make it a little reminiscent of the early Aldous Huxley. Mitchell is like Huxley, too, in his acute sense of period; Imaginary Toys effectively catches the feel of the late 1950s, though this responsiveness to contemporary atmosphere inevitably made the book seem dated after a few years. His next novel, A Disturbing Influence, was not a particularly exciting development, though it was a smoothly written narrative. It described the impact on a complacent, even sleepy Berkshire village of a strange, destructive, amoral young man, the "disturbing influence" of the title. Such types evidently have a particular fascination for Mitchell, for they tend to recur in his fiction. This book was followed by a more substantial and interesting work, As Far as You Can Go, in which Mitchell drew on some of his own recent experience to write the kind of novel that was to become increasingly common in England in the 1960sthe account of a peripatetic Englishman's adventures in America. Harold Barlow, the central character, is a typical Mitchell herointelligent, amiable, rather ineptand he conveys a tourist's eye view of life in the hipster subculture of California.

The White Father, which won Mitchell the Somerset Maugham award, was a more determinedly ambitious novel than its predecessors. The narrative is divided between London and a remote African territory, and Mitchell shows much of the action through the eyes of Hugh Shrieve, a district officer in Africa who has come to London to plead for his tribe at a conference to arrange independence for the territory. Shrieve has been out of England for years, and he is unprepared for what he finds when he arrives: the frenetic beginnings of the "Swinging London" cult. Mitchell looks satirically though tolerantly at the world of pop music, and there is a powerful imaginative touch in his portrayal of the megalomaniac Mr. Brachs, head of a vast commercial empire catering to the youth cult, who is going steadily mad in his inaccessible penthouse on top of the London skyscraper that houses all his many enterprises. The White Father is one of Mitchell's best novels, which makes some sharp observations about life in a high-consumption society, as well as telling an entertaining story. The novelist and the essayist are more closely fused than is usual in his fiction. Two years later Mitchell published an extremely thin novel, A Circle of Friends, which moves between New York and the English Home Counties, showing how one of his characteristically weak young men gets unhappily entangled with a wealthy Anglo-American family, culminating in a wholly undeserved position as co-respondent in a divorce action.

All these novels present, at varying levels of literary achievement, some recurring characteristics: a tendency to draw fairly directly on personal experience and to use the novel as a vehicle for airing ideas, a taste for likable but weak central characters, and a generally relaxed and good-humored tone. In The Undiscovered Country, Mitchell's most striking fiction, all these qualities are present in a new combination. Unlike his previous novels, it is a deliberately experimental work, which plays with the conventions of fiction writing, and the relations between art and reality, in the manner of Nabokov or Borges. The first part is, on the face of it, undisguised autobiography, where Mitchell writes in his own person about his friendship with an enigmatically attractive young man, Charles Humphries, who dies at an early age. He leaves behind the fragmentary manuscript of a novel called "The New Satyricon," which Mitchell edits with introduction and commentary, and presents as the second part of The Undiscovered Country. Undoubtedly "Humphries" is an alter ego for "Mitchell" (whose full Christian names are Charles Julian Humphrey), though the relation between them remains teasing. The Undiscovered Country is a generally entertaining novel, and the second part is full of pleasant literary jokes, where Mitchell engages to the full his essayistic tendencies. It also marks his dissatisfaction with his more conventional earlier novels. Indeed, at the end of part one, before he introduces "The New Satyricon," Mitchell observes, "I think it unlikely that I shall write another book of my own for a long time, with the fact of this one before me. Charles said that all art comes from an inner need. He said that I began to write because I wanted to be a writer, and that was the wrong kind of need." Mitchell continued to write, but as a dramatist rather than a novelist. He has not published a novel since The Undiscovered Country, which is a pity, given the wit and liveliness of his fiction at its best. But the course of his later career suggests that for Mitchell novel-writing was a temporary early phase, where he learned how to be a writer but was never entirely at home.

Bernard Bergonzi

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