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Lovell, Mary S. 1941-

Lovell, Mary S. 1941-

(Mary Sybilla Lovell)


Born October 23, 1941, in Prestatyn, Wales; daughter of William G. and Mary Catherine Shelton; married Clifford C. Lovell, October 22, 1960 (divorced, 1974); married Geoffrey A.H. Watts, July 11, 1992; children: Graeme, Robert. Politics: Conservative. Religion: Church of England. Hobbies and other interests: Flying, sailing, foxhunting, history, travel.


Home and office—Stroat, Gloucestershire, England. Agent—Robert Ducas, The Barn House, 244 Westside Rd., Norfolk, CT 06058. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, novelist, lecturer, and accountant. Worked as an accountant and business director, 1963-83, and as a technical writer and documentation manager, 1983-86; writer, 1986—; lecturer on writing and associated topics.


Society of Authors, Royal Overseas League, New Forest Hunt Club, R.S. Surtees Society, Master of Foxhounds Association, Royal Geographical Society (fellow).


A Hunting Pageant, Saiga Publishing (Hindhead, Surrey, England), 1981.

Cats as Pets, Saiga Publishing (Hindhead, Surrey, England), 1982.

Straight on till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987.

(Editor) Beryl Markham, The Splendid Outcast (stories), North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1987.

The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1989.

Cast No Shadow: The Life of the American Spy Who Changed the Course of World War II, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1992.

Rebel Heart: The Scandalous Life of Jane Digby, Norton (New York, NY), 1995, published as A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby el Mezrab, Richard Cohen Books (London, England), 1995.

A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, Norton (New York, NY), 1998.

The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family, Little, Brown (London, England), 2001, published as The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.

Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, 1527-1608, Little, Brown (London, England), 2005, published as Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, Norton (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. Author of introduction to The Perfumed Garden of Cheikh Nefzaoui: A Manual of Arabian Erotology, Signet (New York, NY), 1999.

Some of Lovell's works have been translated into French, German, and Danish.


British writer Mary S. Lovell has received acclaim for her biographical portraits of adventurous people who challenged the mores of their times. The first of her books, Straight on till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham, documents the life of the colorful, tempestuous pilot who in 1936 became the first person to fly solo from England to North America. Markham grew up in Africa, was married three times, knew how to repair an airplane engine, and had trained several successful racehorses. She was, ac- cording to Lovell, a beautiful, strong, eccentric woman with a magnetic personality. Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post Book World that Markham "seems, in fact, to have been a character rarely encountered in life or in art: the female equivalent of a rogue."

Lovell penned the biography after meeting Markham in 1986 and becoming her friend. Lovell helped care for the aging woman during the final months of her life. The author described Markham as "highly intelligent and totally single-minded" in an interview with London Times reviewer Sally Brompton. New York Times Book Review contributor Diane Ackerman observed that Straight on till Morning "is the story of a phenomenal life told convincingly by someone fascinated by her subject…. Every page is filled with revelations, gossip, and fascinating details about Markham and the people she knew." Ackerman further commented that "Lovell's superbly researched biography is likely to be definitive."

Lovell followed Straight on till Morning with The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart. The biography recounts the exploits of Earhart, the aviator who gained fame by becoming the first woman to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. Earhart's unexplained disappearance while flying over the Pacific in 1937 has long been a source of mystery, but as Lovell once told CA, The Sound of Wings is "not a theory on her disappearance." The book is, instead, a biography that follows Earhart from her quiet childhood to her years of celebrity in the 1930s. Rhoda Koenig described the story of Earhart's life as "extraordinary," in her New York review, and declared that Lovell writes about Earhart with "expertise and understanding." Similarly, New York Times Book Review contributor David M. Kennedy noted that Earhart's "life and death were the stuff of tragedy" and reported that Lovell manages to "vividly evoke that tragic aspect." The Sound of Wings, the critic added, provides "fascinating detail both on Earhart's relationship with her husband … and on technical aspects of her final flight."

Lovell also penned Cast No Shadow: The Life of the American Spy Who Changed the Course of World War II, which was published in 1992. Cast No Shadow chronicles the life of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe Pack, who spied for the Allies during World War II, often getting privileged information by seducing enemy officers. The American wife of a British diplomat, Pack was able to produce Italian and French Vichy code books for the Allies. Brooke Kroeger, reviewing Cast No Shadow in the New York Times Book Review, commended Lovell's "fast-paced narrative" and vivid descriptions.

Lovell's 1995 publication, Rebel Heart: The Scandalous Life of Jane Digby, explores the highly unconventional life of a Victorian era beauty whose 1830 divorce made the front page of the London Times. Jane Digby, an English aristocrat, defied the morals of her times by engaging in multiple marriages and infidelities; in mid-life she married a bedouin sheik many years her junior. In Booklist, Brad Hooper noted that Digby's "incredible existence is told respectfully and authentically in all its full color" in Lovell's book. A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that Lovell "brings her unconventional subject to life in this outstanding portrait."

A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton is a dual biography of the notorious British explorer and linguist Richard Burton, and his equally adventurous wife, Isabel. Burton's travels in Africa, the Middle East, and India are documented in his own memoirs, but in this work Lovell deepens readers' understandings of the Burton marriage and the role Isabel played in popularizing and publishing her husband's works. In the New York Times Book Review, James R. Kincaid described the book as "an extraordinary biography" that offers proof that previous biographers of the couple "have made a set of serious blunders in understanding Isabel, the marriage, Burton and the accomplishment of both people." New Republic correspondent Fouad Ajami wrote of A Rage to Live: "Meticulously researched, it overwhelms the other accounts and it has a fuller treatment of [Burton's] wife Isabel than anything attempted in earlier books." John Reader commented in the National Review, "It is not often that a book comes along which inspires a serious reconsideration of all that had previously been written on its subject. But A Rage to Live is just such a book." Kincaid concluded that Lovell "writes with a zeal that seems to ring right out of Isabel herself. This biography is both admirably scholarly and, now and then, engagingly reckless. Lovell has transformed our view of the Burtons and their accomplishments."

Few aristocratic families have come under greater scrutiny than the Mitfords, an eccentric clan of six sisters and a brother who came of age in the early-to mid-twentieth century. Born into a slightly impoverished household, the six Mitford sisters—Nancy, Diana, Unity, Pamela, Jessica, and Deborah—all managed to court controversy in one manner or another. Lovell's biography gives equal time to the exploits of all six women, although their paths verged widely during the Second World War and afterwards. Robert Gottlieb, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family "fascinating the way all great family stories are fascinating." The critic added: "In her tapestry of the sisters' lives, Lovell has handled some of the big things very well. It's not easy to keep six narratives going at once, particularly when the lives of your subjects start to diverge. Yet The Sisters keeps track of everyone with a minimum of confusion; things are revealed in a straightforward and sensible order, so that we always know where we are. Even more important, she has managed to present everyone both clearly and with sympathy." A Publishers Weekly contributor felt that the book "rises with aplomb to the challenges of a group biography, deftly weaving together the narrative threads … to create a fascinating account of a fascinating family." In Library Journal, Amy Strong complimented the book as "an engrossing narrative" and "a captivating read." Gottlieb concluded: "This is a book that will educate those who hope to understand the Mitfords' hold on the imagination of an entire era and entertain those who enjoy an upper-class family saga. It's Upstairs without the Downstairs."

In Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, first published in England as Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, 1527-1608, Lovell profiles one of the most powerful and formidable women of Tudor and Elizabethan-era England. She uses Bess's successful and eventful life as an example of how "education, connections, marriage and property management shaped the life of women in the sixteenth century," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Bess was born in 1527, the fifth daughter of a nobleman in Derbyshire whose fortunes were on the wane. At the age of fifteen, Bess entered into the first of a series of four prosperous, fortuitous marriages that left her increasingly wealthy and schooled in the methods of acquiring land and capital. Her first marriage ended with her widowed after only two years. Her second marriage, to Sir William Cavendish, Henry VIII's treasurer, involved her deeply in land purchasing and speculation. After Cavendish's death, Bess married Sir William St. Loe, the man Lowell believes was her one true love in life. After St. Loe died suddenly and mysteriously in 1564, Bess made her fourth, final, and probably most important marriage, to the Earl of Shrewsbury, considered the richest man in England at the time. Through these marriages, Bess rose to become the second richest woman in England, outclassed in wealth only by Queen Elizabeth herself. In addition to her financial success, Bess was also involved with some of the most notable characters of her day. She served in royal households during the reign of the notorious King Henry VIII. In her later years, along with the Earl of Shrewsbury, she helped guard the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots. Bess also secretly arranged a marriage between her daughter and Margaret Lennox's younger son, and (unsuccessfully) groomed the child of that union, Lady Arbella, to succeed Elizabeth on the throne of England. The biographer "has synthesized admirably a staggering amount of information here (in lineage alone), and she presents it with verve," creating "a fascinating life within an endlessly fascinating era," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. Alexander Waugh, writing in the Independent about the English edition, remarked that Lovell "has written one of those biographies in which the reader really doesn't want the subject to die." A reviewer in Bookseller described Lovell's work as "a remarkable biography," while Library Journal contributor Tessa L.H. Minchew declared it a "meticulously researched and riveting tale."

Lovell once told CA: "Writing a biography is writing history. One is therefore obliged to stick ruthlessly to the facts, so it is not surprising that two-thirds of my work on any book consists of research. If I find a piece of information that I cannot substantiate elsewhere—hearsay, for example—I will only use it if it seems absolutely vital to the story and in those cases I quote that source and stress that I have been unable to substantiate it. My books contain thousands of facts relating to my subjects and the times in which they lived, and I receive hundreds of letters from readers, but I get very few letters suggesting corrections, though I do get offered additional information for which I am always grateful. I enjoy writing about adventurous women, especially those who managed to break out of the conventional mold allotted to them, before women enjoyed today's freedoms."



African Business, December, 1998, Stephen Williams, review of A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, p. 25.

Biography, summer, 2006, Adam Goodheart, review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, p. 509.

Booklist, October 15, 1995, Brad Hooper, review of Rebel Heart: The Scandalous Life of Jane Digby, p. 382; December 1, 2001, Allen Weakland, review of The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, p. 626; February 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, p. 37.

Bookseller, June 17, 2005, review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, p. 38.

Economist, November 3, 2001, "Blame the Governess: English Lives."

Independent (London, England), October 9, 2005, Alexander Waugh, review of Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, 1527-1608.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2006, review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, p. 123.

Library Journal, October 1, 1998, Julie Still, review of A Rage to Live, p. 103; November 1, 2001, Amy Strong, review of The Sisters, p. 102; March 1, 2006, Tessa L.H. Minchew, review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, p. 100.

National Review, December 7, 1998, John Reader, "Two for the Road," p. 67.

New Republic, January 18, 1999, Fouad Ajami, "The Fire of Great Designs," p. 27.

New York, December 4, 1989, Rhoda Koenig, review of The Sound of Wings, p. 148.

New York Times, June 25, 2006, Adam Goodheart, "Elizabeth 1.5," review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder.

New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1987, Diane Ackerman, "The Splendid Cast," review of Straight on till Morning, p. 1; November 26, 1989, David M. Kennedy, review of The Sound of Wings, p. 1; June 21, 1992, Brooke Kroeger, review of Cast No Shadow, p. 16; January 17, 1999, James R. Kincaid, "A Wild, Roving, Vagabond Life," p. 14; February 17, 2002, Robert Gottlieb, "The Might of the Mitfords," p. 12.

Publishers Weekly, September 4, 1995, review of Rebel Heart, p. 60; November 12, 2001, review of The Sisters, p. 46; February 13, 2006, review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, p. 75.

Reference & Research Book News, August, 2006, review of Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder.

Spectator, August 20, 2005, Anne Somerset, "House-Building and Husbandry," review of Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, 1527-1608, p. 39.

Time, October 5, 1987, John Skow, review of Straight on till Morning, p. 83; January 21, 2002, Laura Miller, "Mad about the Mitfords," p. 142.

Times (London, England), July 15, 1987, Sally Brompton, interview with Mary S. Lovell.

Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1987, Jonathan Yardley, "Beryl Markham: Flying High," review of Straight on till Morning, p. 3; June 26, 1988, review of Straight on till Morning, p. 12.


Mary S. Lovell Home Page, (December 17, 2006).

WGBH Forum Network, (December 17, 2006), biography of Mary S. Lovell.

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