Blackburn, Julia 1948-
BLACKBURN, Julia 1948-
PERSONAL: Born 1948, in Great Britain; daughter of Thomas Blackburn (a poet).
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Pantheon Publicity, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
AWARDS, HONORS: Orange Prize nominations, for The Book of Colour and The Leper's Companions; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 2003, for Old Man Goya.
The White Men: The First Response of Aboriginal Peoples to the White Man, foreword by Edmund Carpenter, Times Books (New York, NY), 1979.
Charles Waterton, 1782-1865: Traveller and Conservationist, Bodley Head (London, England), 1989.
The Emperor's Last Island: A Journey to St. Helena, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1991.
Daisy Bates in the Desert: One Woman's Life among the Aborigines, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.
Old Man Goya, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2002.
(Author of preface) Goya: A Life in Letters, edited by Sarah Symmons, Pimlico (London, England), 2004.
With Billie, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2005.
The Book of Colour, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.
The Leper's Companions, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: British author Julia Blackburn has written biographies of widely known figures as well as relatively obscure individuals, and has also penned several novels. Her books, which include the biography Charles Waterton, 1782-1865: Traveller and Conservationist and the National Book Critics Circle award-nominated Old Man Goya, have fared well with critics, who roundly praise Blackburn for her unique treatment of her subjects' unique histories. Dubbing the latter book "short but stirring," Christian Science Monitor reviewer Sasha Brown wrote that Blackburn's ability to sustain "imagery [that] is profoundly simple, yet evocative" results in a sensation that the reader could "reach and and touch" the Spanish painter, "if only we could catch up."
Blackburn's 1989 volume Charles Waterton, 1782-1865 profiles the eccentric English conservationist who took lengthy treks barefoot through the forests of Brazil. On these treks Waterton conserved wildlife and practiced the art of taxidermy by preserving the remains of animals. His latter years were spent at his home in England, Walton Hall, where he maintained a bird sanctuary and, despite his age, regularly shimmied to the top of towering trees to have a look at the birds' nests.
Blackburn was applauded for her depiction of Waterton, Times Literary Supplement contributor Desmond King-Hele writing that Charles Waterton "is well researched and well written. It would be easy to overplay his oddities, or claim too much for his pioneering efforts in conservation, but [Blackburn] steers a judicious course between these dangers," creating a book that "is lively and informative." Writing in the Spectator, John Jolliffe called Blackburn "an astute and gifted biographer" whose "style is economical, and where appropriate graceful; always lucid, sometimes poetic, never gushing." Continued Jolliffe: "Her book will intrigue and enthrall many readers who have no particular interest in natural history: all they will need is a little curiosity to spare on a human being of great originality, with an unprecedented concern for modern problems."
The Emperor's Last Island: A Journey to St. Helena portrays French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the final six years of his life. Bonaparte spent these years in exile on St. Helena, a remote South Atlantic island. Blackburn journeyed to the island and toured a recreation of the emperor's home in preparing her biography, which also includes a history of the island itself. Although Napoleon Bonaparte has been the subject of many other biographers, Times Literary Supplement contributor Erik De Mauny wrote that "Blackburn has achieved a small triumph in finding something new to say about Napoleon," and added that "the novelty of The Emperor's Last Island, it is true, is more one of approach than of substance."
A self-taught anthropologist who lived from 1863 to 1951 is the subject of Daisy Bates in the Desert: One Woman's Life among the Aborigines. The volume chronicles the life of Bates, who described herself as a journalist of aristocratic roots. According to her own accounts, Bates inherited a piece of property in Australia and, upon arriving there, met the Aborigine people. Inspired by their lifestyle, she settled among them, although she maintained her Edwardian customs and manner of dress. Blackburn heard of Bates some twenty-five years before she wrote the woman's story. The author was intrigued by Bates, asking herself why a woman of her stature in life would want to leave her husband and child to live among Aborigines in the desert. In researching her subject, Blackburn discovered that the "facts" of Bates's life were largely fabricated. Bates was actually born to poor parents, and she was never a journalist.
In dealing with the unique subject of Daisy Bates in the Desert, Blackburn takes a unique approach. While one portion of the book is biography, the main text is in the first person, with Blackburn imagining what the woman's life would have been like. Commenting on this first-person narrative, Spectator contributor Michael Davie judged Blackburn to be "daring" and wrote that "one trembles for her, up on the high wire, but she never puts a foot wrong. It is of great importance to the success of this risky enterprise that Blackburn is a first-rate writer." Davie further noted that Blackburn's book does not answer all of the questions about Bates's life, but wrote that it is doubtful "whether it could possibly have been more successful than Blackburn's in perceiving, or apprehending, the truth about Daisy Bates. The book is so ingenious that it may well tempt others to apply similar methods to different subjects."
"Bates is the kind of subject who defies a biographer to enter her world. But she has met her match in Julia Blackburn," observed Linda Simon in the New York Times Book Review. Simon also found the book's narrative style fascinating: "In asking us to recognize the complicity of the writer in creating historical truth, Julia Blackburn suggests new possibilities for the relationship between biographer and subject. Hers is a bold literary experiment; it results in an eloquent and illuminating portrait." In a New York Times Book Review interview with Margalit Fox, Blackburn explained why she spoke for Bates: "If she had freedom in inventing her life, I felt I had it also."
With Billie focuses on a well-known subject: blues singer Billie Holiday. Working from transcripts, correspondence, and other primary documents—most importantly a set of interviews that were recorded by journalist Linda Kuehl in the early 1970s—Blackburn delves into the gritty underside of the singer's life, creating what Washington Post Book World critic Carolyn See described as "the antithesis of a celebrity biography," a profile, in fact, of "an African American demimonde, a host of just plain poverty-stricken, psychologically orphaned ex-slaves and their children who had nothing—absolutely nothing—but managed to make something amazing out of that daunting void." While some critics faulted the book for being what a Kirkus Reviews writer described as "flatly written" with sections "drawn entirely from secondary sources," See found the biography "wonderful." In Library Journal William G. Kenz agreed, writing that With Billie is a "riveting oral biography" that serves as a "gold mine of material on Holiday's often hectic and out-of-control life," that fueled Holiday's memorable music.
Blackburn's first novel, The Book of Colour, at turns surreal and lyrical, traces four generations of a family's history and reveals the secrets that haunt each generation. The book's narrator explores her familial roots back to the late 1800s, when her missionary great-grandfather arrives on the island of Praslin in the Indian Ocean. His self-appointed duties are to convert islanders to Christianity and eliminate copulation among them. He marries a Creole woman and the two have a son, but the father disapproves of the boy's dark skin and tries to lighten it by bleaching it. The boy grows up to become a minister who bleaches the skin of his own son, the narrator's father.
Blackburn's inspiration for the novel came from her own family: her ancestors, like the narrator's ancestors, worked as island missionaries. Paul Sussman, writing in the Spectator, noted that The Book of Colour "is not entirely dissimilar to" Blackburn's prior books since the novel "gives us fiction coaxed from a kernel of truth." James Saynor made a similar observation in the New York Times Book Review, finding that Blackburn's earlier books use "fiction as a way of getting at the truth" and that "this fine short novel therefore seems part of a very natural progression." Saynor also remarked that "Ms. Blackburn's writing is meditative but brisk, her intelligence displayed in the choice and ordering of material rather than in showy prose." Judith Chettle, writing in the Washington Post Book World, also praised the author, writing that "Blackburn not only never strikes a wrong note in a novel where that would be so easy to do, but she brilliantly illuminates one of the most bitter legacies of racism."
Blackburn told CA: "I suppose my primary motivation has always been curiosity. I enjoy getting to know people who are long-since dead, visiting the places they knew well and trying to see the world with their eyes. I sometimes let my presence overlap with the person I am busy with, as with my book Old Man Goya—in which I sometimes felt I was stalking the Spanish painter—but in my book With Billie I have used interviews with people who knew Billie Holiday and I have to step back, letting her complex and magnetic personality take shape, or take many shapes. I hope it works."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, June, 1992, pp. 126-127.
Booklist, April 15, 1992, p. 1499.
Books, July, 1989, p. 17.
Boston Globe, May 13, 1992, p. 46.
British Book News, February, 1980, pp. 86-87.
Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2003, Sasha Brown, review of Old Man Goya, p. 21.
Commonweal, December 4, 1992, p. 21.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1994, p. 746; March 1, 2005, review of With Billie, p. 270.
Library Journal, April 1, 1992, p. 132; March 15, 2005, William G. Kenz, review of With Billie, p. 86.
London Review of Books, December 19, 1991, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 24, 1992, p. 3.
National Review, August 17, 1992, p. 50.
Newsweek, August 24, 1992, p. 62.
New York Review of Books, October 22, 1992, pp. 17-20.
New York Times, July 31, 1992, p. C25.
New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1992, p. 3; May 30, 1993, p. 20; August 14, 1994, pp. 1, 23, 24; October 1, 1995, p. 27.
Observer (London), February 5, 1989, p. 42; May 22, 1994, p. 16; June 12, 1994, p. 17; June 25, 1994, p. 20; July 24, 1994, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1992, p. 52; March 1, 1993, p. 54; June 27, 1994, p. 63; July 10, 1995, p. 42.
Spectator, May 20, 1989, pp. 38, 40; March 7, 1992, p. 32; June 18, 1994, p. 35; November 11, 1995, p. 49.
Times Literary Supplement, May 26-June 1, 1989, p. 586; March 1, 1991, p. 9; January 31, 1992, p. 28.
USA Today, May 22, 1992, p. D8.
Wall Street Journal, September 30, 1992, p. A12.
Washington Post Book World, November 5, 1995, Judith Chettle, review of The Book of Colour, p. 4; April 8, 2005, Carolyn See, "Lady Writes the Blues," p. 4.