Spurling, Hilary 1940–
SPURLING, Hilary 1940–
(Susan Hilary Spurling)
Born December 25, 1940, in Stockport, England; daughter of Gilbert Alexander (a judge) and Emily Maureen (a teacher) Forrest; married John Spurling (a playwright), April 4, 1961; children: Amy Maria, Nathaniel Stobart, Gilbert Alexander. Education: Somerville College, Oxford, B.A., 1962.
Home—London, England. Agent—c/o David Higham Associates Ltd., 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Sq., London W1R 4HA, England.
Writer. Spectator, London, arts editor and theater critic, 1964-70, literary editor, 1967-69; freelance writer, 1970—.
Rose Mary Crawshay Prize from British Academy, 1976, for Ivy When Young: The Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1884-1919; traveling scholarship from Society of Authors, 1984; Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, 1984, and Heinemann Award, Royal Society of Literature, 1985, both for Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The Later Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1920-1969; Whitbread Biography Award and Whitbread Book of the Year, both 2005, and Los Angeles Book Prize (biography), 2006, all for Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, the Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954.
Ivy When Young: The Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1884-1919 (also see below), Gollancz (London, England), 1974.
(Editor) The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, Davis Poynter (London, England), 1974.
Handbook to Anthony Powell's Music of Time, Heinemann (London, England), 1977.
Invitation to the Dance, Little Brown (Boston, MA), 1977.
Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The Later Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1920-1969 (also see below), Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1984.
Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (contains Ivy When Young: The Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1884-1919 and Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The Later Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1920-1969), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
Elinor Fettiplace's Recipe Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet, Norton (New York, NY), 1990.
Paper Spirits: Collage Portraits by Vladimir Sulgagin, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1992.
The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henry Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
La Grande Therese, or, The Greatest Swindle of the Century, Profile Books (London, England), 1999, published as La Grande Therese: The Greatest Scandal of the Century, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 2002, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2003.
Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, the Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
Book reviewer for the Observer, Daily Telegraph, and New York Times.
Hilary Spurling has published several highly acclaimed biographies, on subjects including British novelists Ivy Compton-Burnett and Paul Scott, and legendary French artist Henri Matisse. Spurling published her biography of Compton-Burnett in two separate volumes, Ivy When Young: The Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1884-1919 and Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The Later Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1920-1969. According to Peter Kemp in the Listener, Spurling's reasoning for this division rests on the fact that Compton-Burnett's life was essentially split in two, "with 1918 acting as watershed," adding: "The first book, Ivy When Young, which appeared [in 1974], was packed to bursting-point with the domestic Grand-Guignol, frock-coated imperiousness and corsetted aggression that became the stock-in-trade of Ivy's subsequent fiction." Several catastrophes marred the early years of Compton-Burnett's life, including the sudden death of her father, the oppressiveness arising from her mother's subsequent grief, and the loss of her favorite brother in World War I. Kemp continued: "When Spurling's biography broke off at 1918, in fact, it looked as though Ivy's life was virtually finished. Her family had fallen apart—and so had she, prostrated by panic and grief. What the second volume, Secrets of a Woman's Heart, … fascinatingly relates is the way she rehabilitated herself until she was able to exorcise in her fiction the traumas of her past."
Reviewers noted that after the tragedies of Compton-Burnett's early decades, her remaining years were essentially nondescript. With this in mind, such critics as A.N. Wilson in the Times Literary Supplement commended Spurling for having the "panache" to flesh out an interesting biography. Wrote Wilson: "[Spurling] has made one of the most fascinating of modern biographies out of what must have been one of the most boring of all modern lives." Wilson went on to note that the author [has guaranteed that [Compton-Burnett] will live on as a tragicomic figure in her own right."
Praise for Spurling's biography is plenteous in another regard, also. As the critics have noted, Compton-Burnett was an enigma. She was the inscrutable woman known to her public in the 1950s as the "English Secret." "Ivy Compton-Burnett kept few personal papers and declined to write her memoirs," wrote Nigel Cross in the New Statesman. "Consequently … Spurling, who did not know her subject, has had to rely on the memories and papers of friends and relatives and on her reading of the novels. It seems the perfect combination." In a similar vein, J.I.M. Stewart remarked in the London Review of Books that "Spurling must surely have been at work from the dawn of life, determined to know as much as God himself about Ivy's ancestors, parents, siblings, enemies, rivals, friends, acquaintances, servants, mentors and (above all) sources and channels of inspiration." Stewart went on to note: "Endlessly curious as she ought to be, she brings sound judgment and taste to bear upon almost everything she finds, and her conclusions are embodied in an admirable expository prose." Though Newsweek critic Walter Clemons argued that Spurling drew too heavily on Compton-Burnett's novels as a means of explaining Compton-Burnett's early life, he admitted that "Spurling has done as much as anyone can to penetrate [Compton-Burnett's] inscrutability." Minor complaints of other reviewers aside, in the opinion of Cross, " Secrets of a Woman's Heart completes a two-volume life of Ivy Compton-Burnett that ranks as one of the more important literary biographies of the century. It is not only an engrossing account of a curiously static life, it is a critical reassessment that enhances an already formidable, if narrow, literary reputation." Cross added: "Few biographies written so soon after their subject's death are definitive. This one must be."
Novelist Paul Scott is known for his masterful portraits of the British presence in India. Many who read his works, especially The Raj Quartet, assume that he was raised as a privileged member of the Raj and was a lifelong resident of India. In fact, he spent surprisingly little time there. Yet as Spurling pointed out in Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet, he had an innate understanding of the politics of occupied India, for he had always identified with marginal figures and the oppressed even in his own London neighborhood. His work habits were severe, eventually destroying his personal life. He would enter his study at 7 a.m., begin drinking, emerge for a silent lunch, and finally end his day by watching television without a word to those around him. One of the most surprising revelations in Spurling's biography is that of Scott's long-repressed homosexuality; she also sensitively analyzed how his sexual orientation informed his work. Michael Gorra noted in the New Republic: "Spurling treats here discoveries with the sort of tact whose light touch does not force interpretation beyond the bounds of common sense." Gorra added: "And she tells a good story," noting that the author's "life must have been a difficult one for a biography to describe, and not only because of his reticence. For its surface seems so unmarked by event, so featureless." Gorra concluded: "In places Spurling collapses months and even years into an essayistic portrait of the tenor of his life at one period or another. The end has all the drama one could wish for, a sense of achievement won against great odds and through enormous pain to himself and to others."
Another one of Spurling's noted works is the first volume of the first biography ever written of Henri Matisse, titled The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908. The book tells the story of the great Impressionist painter's beginnings, a subject never previously explored. Thoughtfully discussed are his childhood in a drab northern industrial town, his father's ferocious opposition to his son's wish to be an artist, and his own dogged determination to overcome tremendous obstacles. Also examined in detail is the Humbert Affair, a national politico-financial scandal that brought disaster to Matisse and his family. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book "a masterfully written biography." A reviewer for the Economist commented that the details of Matisse's early life form "an astonishing story which Ms. Spurling tells with all the sympathy and skill of a novelist. Her next part is eagerly awaited."
In The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell, Spurling tells the story of the woman who married noted author George Orwell fourteen weeks before he died from tuberculosis. Spurling's biography of Sonia Orwell provides a look at the woman who oversaw Orwell's literary reputation after his death and staunchly fought off those who wanted access to Orwell's papers to do a biography of him, something the author expressly opposed in his will. Ultimately, Sonia obtained a reputation as a fierce defender of her late husband, which often earned her a reputation as being an opportunist. Nevertheless, Sonia ultimately granted access to a writer for an authorized biography of her late husband. Although Spurling, who was a friend of Sonia's, delves into her problem drinking and her other failed marriages, the author points out that Sonia was also a kind benefactress to many other artists and writers in the mid-twentieth century and was an esteemed editor in her own right. "Her critical volumes of Orwell stand as testimony to her editorial talents, which had been questioned only by those men who could not seem to abide the coincidence of talent and beauty in the same tamperproof package," wrote Stacy Schiff in the New York Times Book Review. Schiff also noted: "Under Spurling's care, Sonia blossoms into a medieval enchantress." In a review in the New Republic, Frank Kermode wrote: "Hilary Spurling has brought a good biographer's skills to the defense of a friend whom she is sure was not only unlucky in her life but also wantonly wronged. She understandably avoids much talk of her subject's more extreme behavior, preferring to stress both her high spirits and her fundamental unhappiness. She has done the job well."
Spurling's second volume on the life of Matisse, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, the Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, follows the later years of Matisse's life. Here Spurling delves into the artist's career and his troubled personal life. "Volume 2 … is the punctilious exploration of a Painter's Progress in terms of stoic resolve, an ecstatic sense of what Spurling calls 'the conquest of color,' and of Matisse's failure to win a public in France, with wrenching consequences for someone enslaved to his vision, for his wife and children, and indeed for his reputation," wrote Richard Howard in the New York Times Book Review. Howard also noted: "Spurling's enthusiastically detailed biography is a complete expression of the life of Matisse, and necessarily a splendid account of his art." In a review in Vogue, Robert Hughes commented: "What Spurling turns out to have written is not a mere 'art book' but a marvelous and intensely touching epic of love with, as its subtext, an equally inspiriting epic of creativity in old age." Noting that the author's "analysis of Matisse's paintings is always spot-on, beautifully written, and fascinatingly supported by Matisse's own letters," Hughes went on to write: "Spurling's book is a joy throughout, and worthy of the paintings." John Hallmark Neff, writing in Art in America, called the biography "intelligent, measured and evenhanded in its treatment of people, especially the artist himself." Neff also noted that Spurling "has a fresh and rather unexpected take on Matisse's private life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scholar, January, 1986.
Art in America, January, 2006, John Hallmark Neff, review of Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, the Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, p. 35.
Economist, June 9, 1984; February 13, 1999, review of The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, review of The Unknown Matisse.
Listener, June 7, 1984, Peter Kemp, review of Ivy When Young: The Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1884-1919 and Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The Later Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1920-1969.
London Review of Books, July 19-August 1, 1984, J.I.M. Stewart, review of Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The Later Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1920-1969.
New Republic, May 20, 1991, Michael Gorra, review of Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet, p. 47; August 11, 2003, Frank Kermode, review of The Girl From the Fiction Department, p. 23.
New Statesman, June 15, 1984, Nigel Cross, review of review of Secrets of a Woman's Heart.
Newsweek, December 24, 1984, Walter Clemons, review of Secrets of a Woman's Heart.
New York Times Book Review, June 15, 2003, Stacy Schiff, review of The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell, p. 9; September 4, 2005, Richard Howard, review of Matisse the Master, p. 7.
Times Literary Supplement, June 8, 1984, A.N. Wilson, review of Secrets of a Woman's Heart.
Vogue, September, 2005, Robert Hughes, review of Matisse the Master, p. 579.
MSNBC.com,http://www.msnbc.msn.com/ (January 24, 2006), "Hilary Spurling Takes Whitbread Award."*