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Lovell, Mary S(ybilla) 1941-

LOVELL, Mary S(ybilla) 1941-

PERSONAL: Born October 23, 1941, in Prestatyn, Wales; daughter of William G. and Mary Catherine (Wooley) 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.

ADDRESSES: Home and office—Stroat House, Stroat, Gloucestershire NP6 7LR, England. Agent—Robert Ducas, The Barn House, 244 Westside Rd., Norfolk, CT 06058. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Worked as an accountant and business director, 1963-83, and as a technical writer and documentation manager, 1983-86; writer, 1986—.

MEMBER: Society of Authors, Royal Overseas League, New Forest Hunt Club, R. S. Surtees Society, Master of Foxhounds Association.

WRITINGS:

A Hunting Pageant, Saiga, 1981.

Cats As Pets, Saiga, 1982.

Straight on Till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham, St. Martin's (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 (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.

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

(Author of introduction) The Perfumed Garden of Cheikh Nefzaoui: A Manual of Arabian Erotology, Signet (New York, NY), 1999.

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

Contributor to periodicals, including Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire.

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

SIDELIGHTS: 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, according 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 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 in the National Review commented: "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 in the New York Times Book Review found the 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 the Library Journal, Amy Strong complemented 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."

Lovell 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."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

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

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.

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

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.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 4, 1987, pp. 3, 12.

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.

New York Times, August 15, 1987.

New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1987, p. 1; November 26, 1989, pp. 1, 28-29; June 21, 1992, 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.

Time, October 5, 1987; January 21, 2002, Laura Miller, "Mad about the Mitfords," p. 142.

Times (London), July 15, 1987.

Tribune Books (Chicago), September 27, 1987, p. 6; December 10, 1989, p. 1.

Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1987, p. 3; June 26, 1988, p. 12.

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