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Unsworth, Barry 1930– (Barry Forster Unsworth)

Unsworth, Barry 1930–(Barry Forster Unsworth)


Born August 10, 1930, in Durham, England; son of Michael (an insurance salesman) and Elsie (Forster) Unsworth; married Valerie Moor, May 15, 1959; children: Madeleine, Tania, Thomasina. Education: University of Manchester, B.A. (with honors), 1951. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening.


Home—Umbria, Italy. Agent—Vivien Green, Sheil Land Associates, 52 Doughty St., London WC1N 2LF, England.


Norwood Technical College, London, England, lecturer in English, 1960; University of Athens, Athens, Greece, lecturer in English for British Council, 1960-63; Norwood Technical College, lecturer in English, 1963-65; University of Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey, lecturer in English for British Council, beginning 1965; writer in residence, Liverpool University, 1984-85, and Lund University, Sweden, 1988; teacher at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, 1999. Military service: British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, 1951-53, became second lieutenant.


Royal Society of Literature (fellow).


Heinemann Award for Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1974, for Mooncrankers Gift; Arts Council CreativeWriting fellowship, Charlotte Mason College, Ambleside, Cumbria, 1978-79; Literary fellow, Universities of Durham and Newcastle, 1983-84; Booker Prize (joint winner), 1992, for Sacred Hunger; Litt.D., Manchester University, 1998.



The Partnership, Hutchinson (London, England), 1966, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.

The Greeks Have a Word for It, Hutchinson (London, England), 1967.

The Hide, Gollancz (London, England), 1970, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.

Mooncrankers Gift, Allen Lane (London, England), 1973, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1974.

The Big Day, M. Joseph (London, England), 1976, Mason/Charter (New York, NY), 1977.

Pascali's Island, M. Joseph (London, England), 1980, published as The Idol Hunter, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1980.

The Rage of the Vulture, Granada (London, England), 1982, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1983.

Stone Virgin, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1985, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1986.

Sugar and Rum, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1988.

Sacred Hunger, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1992.

Morality Play, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1995.

After Hannibal, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1996, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1997.

Losing Nelson, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1999.

The Songs of the Kings, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 2002, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2003.

The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the Twelfth Cenury, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2006.


(With John Lennox Cook and Amorey Gethin) The Students Book of English: A Complete Coursebook and Grammar to Advanced Intermediate Level, Blackwell (Oxford, England), 1981.

Novels and Novelists in the 1990s, Random House (London, England), 1993.

Crete, National Geographic (Washington, DC), 2004.

Also author of television play, The Stick Insect, 1975.


A film adaptation of Pascali's Island was handled by Avenue Entertainment; Morality Play was adapted as a film, The Reckoning 2003).


Barry Unsworth's novels have garnered him wide critical acclaim and recognition as one of the finest historical novelists writing in English. "Unsworth has explored his stated interest in ‘moral complexities and ambiguities’ in a wide variety of genres and settings," according to William F. Naufftus in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Several of his books have been primarily comic or have mixed serious moral messages and tragic story lines with comic material. Half of his novels have been set, entirely or primarily, in Greece, Turkey, or Italy, often developing plotlines concerned with murder or political intrigue. Perhaps most significantly, he has participated in the recent rebirth of the British historical novel, dealing with periods as different as the late Middle Ages, the eighteenth century, and the last days of the Ottoman Empire, but always providing messages clearly intended for modern times. The moral content of these messages often deals with the dangers posed to individuals by their own obsessive behavior. Another preoccupation of his work has been a broadly political concern for the fate of helpless ‘subaltern’ people (individuals or races) at the mercy of brutal power." Winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1992, Unsworth has time-traveled in his fiction to such places as turn-of-the-century Constantinople in The Rage of the Vulture, to Renaissance Venice in Stone Virgin, to an eighteenth-century slave ship in Sacred Hunger, and to fourteenth-century Yorkshire in Morality Play. Amy Gamerman, interviewing Unsworth for the Wall Street Journal, found that "few contemporary writers have been as bold in mining history's provocative recesses for their fiction." Though Unsworth has been well regarded in England since the 1970s, it is only with his more recent novels that he has won international acclaim.

Sugar and Rum, published in 1988, is the story of a writer blocked in his attempts to write an historical novel on the slave trade. Unsworth's research for this novel led to his next work, as he explained in a Wall Street Journal interview: "I thought—well, couldn't I maybe do the novel that he was blocked about." The result was Sacred Hunger. Sacred Hunger's central character is one Matthew Paris, a doctor who signs on as ship's surgeon on the maiden voyage of his uncle's slave-trading ship. The ship is captained by a man Paris describes as "an incarnation, really, of the profit motive," a man who throws a group of sick passengers—bound for sale into slavery—overboard because while there is no market for sick slaves, there is insurance compensation for lost cargo. The slaves and crew, partly at Paris's instigation, mutiny, killing the captain and setting up a would-be utopia in Florida where blacks and whites live, ostensibly, as equals. This paradise is itself eventually brought to ruin by the "sacred hunger" for money and power.

Critics have widely praised Sacred Hunger's moral and philosophic aims and import. In the Times Literary Supplement, Mark Sanderson wrote that the author is, in this and other of his novels, "concerned with nothing less than the fall of man." He also stated that "the concepts of justice, liberty and duty are debated through the medium of a genuinely exciting historical adventure." Several critics, such as Adam Bradbury, writing in the London Review of Books, believed Unsworth's themes to be a commentary upon contemporary times: "It is hard to escape the impression that Unsworth is talking about the economic miracle with which we are supposed to have been blessed in the Eighties. But he is going further, chipping away at the fundamentals of capital trade with the question gradually emerging: would man, free and happy in a state of nature, still seek to accumulate wealth by enslaving others? Don't know, is the resounding reply."

Unsworth's next novel, Morality Play, concerns a young monk-errant in fourteenth-century England who joins a traveling troupe of actors. When the troupe's stock morality play, the "Play of Adam," fails to draw paying crowds, they decide to make current events—the murder of a local boy—the focus of the onstage drama. "It has been in my mind for years now that we can make plays from stories that happen in our lives," says the troupe's leader. "I believe this is the way that plays will be made in the times to come." Their choice thus prefigures the evolution of modern western drama.

At least one critic, Marc Romano writing for the Boston Review, found his credulity stretched too far by this novelistic strategy. "The historical shift from morality plays based on stock figures," Romano stated, "to modern drama based on psychological realism was a qualitative leap…. Psychological realism … asks its audience to draw its own conclusions…. That, in the end, Morality Play never manages to do—it is determined to tell modern readers about the history of drama … even at the expense of its own credibility as a historical novel." Yet the Los Angeles Times Book Review's critic, Charles Nicholl, had a more sanguine take on Unsworth's narrative intent. He contrasted the inn-yard stage with the jousts taking place on the feudal manor, where "knights and ladies play their parts in a performance that reinforces the hierarchies and assumptions of feudal society." "The play," Nicholl wrote, "does something different: it questions and explores, and … creates an area of comment and debate." Nicholl argued that Unsworth's intent in recapitulating the evolution of theatrical modernism is to tell a story "about the capacity of art … to create new meanings, and thereby new possibilities, in the lives of its audience."

Critics have taken particular note of Unsworth's historical evocation of the earthy, impoverished atmosphere in which much of Morality Play is staged, his "wintry scenes, hard-bitten lives etched against a background of frost and snow … the presence of hunger and plague; the daily oppression of feudal society," to quote Nicholl. And though Romano believed that the author "has the misfortune … of using history as a device rather than recreating it," Janet Burroway, in the New York Times Book Review, praised his subtlety in this regard: "Mr. Unsworth has the art to enter the sensibility of a period—its attitudes, assumptions and turns of phrase—so convincingly that he is able to suggest subtle yet essential parallels between an earlier era and our own."

In Losing Nelson Unsworth tells of Charles Cleasby, a Londoner with an overwhelming obsession with England's greatest naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson. Cleasby enjoys reenacting Nelson's victorious battles using model ships in his basement and celebrates key days in Nelson's career as personal holidays. He also believes himself to be somehow psychologically "joined" to the eighteenth-century admiral. As Cleasby writes a biography of his hero, the lives of the two men become oddly entwined. "Paragraph by paragraph, Cleasby's sense of self shifts and dissolves," according to a critic for Publishers Weekly. "As he imagines Nelson's life," Ed Peaco wrote in the Antioch Review, "the novel sprouts an intensely dramatized parallel narrative—exciting sea battles, intriguing diplomacy, an alluring illicit affair." Edward B. St. John, reviewing the novel for Library Journal, believed that "Unsworth is in complete control of his material, effortlessly sustaining an almost unbearable level of tension that is suddenly resolved in an unusually effective surprise ending." Peaco found that "the ending is both ugly and beautiful, horrific yet strangely entertaining." Peter Bien in World Literature Today called Losing Nelson "a brilliant historical novel" and "a fascinating read both psychologically and historically, one that questions the very authenticity of history."

Speaking to Anson Lang of BoldType Magazine, Unsworth explained that he wrote Losing Nelson after trying to write a biography of the naval hero: "I was supposed to do a biography of Nelson. I was invited to do it, but I thought it was going to be too difficult. At least, living in rural Italy, there wasn't very good access to libraries or research facilities. And then, Nelson is a much-biographied figure. There have been about 200 biographies already. So there wasn't much prospect of doing something new in that way. In the end, I changed it into a Nelson novel."

In The Songs of the Kings Unsworth retells the story of the Trojan War, in which the Greek army, led by King Agamemnon, attacks Troy to avenge the abduction of Helen, wife of the Spartan king, Agamemnon's brother Menelaus. New York Times Book Review contributor Neil Gordon admired the book, praising Unsworth's "sheer storytelling power, his gift for precise and evocative language, [and]his deep feeling for the people he is creating." But Gordon felt that, in his eagerness to deflate "ancient icons of heroism," Unsworth veers toward the "cartoonish" in his depictions of the story's main players: Achilles, Ajax the Larger and Ajax the Lesser, Nestor, and Odysseus. In the critic's view, the more nuanced characterization of Agamemnon's seer, Calchas, "rings with imaginative truth" and demon- strates a "breathtaking insight" into the complexities of this character, who struggles with moral anguish about the king's determination to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphegenia, in order that the gods might look favorably on his martial plans. As compelling as he found this psychic dynamic in the novel, however, Gordon found the book more successful as an exploration of ideas than as an "imaginatively powerful novel in its own right."

Penelope Lively, on the other hand, reviewing The Songs of the Kings in Spectator, admired its "wonderfully skewed version" of events. The novel's particular grace, she observed, "lies in its fusion of an elegant reversal of the received perception of an epic tale with a vivid evocation of the Homeric world." A Publishers Weekly writer, describing the novel as "provocative and subversive," noted the political aspect of Unsworth's perspective, which, in the reviewer's words, shows how a "wily, ambitious and power-hungry man can distort the truth, convince the masses to support him and incite his country to wage war." The result, for the Publishers Weekly reviewer, is an "audacious blending of myth with sharp contemporary resonance."

Set in twelfth-century Sicily, a diverse society of Muslims, Jews, and Christians ruled by a Norman king, The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the Twelfth Cenury, tells the story of Thurstan Beauchamp, a minor courtier whose official job is to provide King Roger with various entertainments but who also acts as a spy. The Second Crusade has just ended, and the badly defeated Normans stir up resentment against the island's Muslim and Jewish populations. King Roger must keep civil tensions under control while also dealing with the external threat of Sicily's rival, the Byzantine Empire. Caught up in escalating political intrigues, Thurstan experiences romantic entanglements as well, pining for Alicia, the innocent love of his youth, but drawn to the dazzling bellydancer, Nesrin, who sports the jewel to which the novel's title refers. Thurstan becomes a pawn in a complex political game that involves Alicia's kidnapping and that pressures him to betray his mentor, a Muslim.

In a New York Times Book Review assessment of The Ruby in Her Navel, Jason Goodwin observed that Unsworth creates a "brilliantly realized society" in the novel, the plot of which "has plenty of contemporary resonance." But while Goodwin found Thurstan a likable character, the critic felt that the protagonist's basic naivete detracted from the book's overall effect. Spectator reviewer William Brett, however, considered Unsworth's characterization of Thurstan nothing less than brilliant. "The Ruby in Her Navel is told by a fictional character so convincing in his strengths and weaknesses," wrote Brett, "that all considerations of politics, religion, history and morality are subordinate to his enormous and realistic charm." Describing Thurstan as deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable, Brett observed that "Unsworth succeeds by investing Thurstan with an endearing awareness of his failures. We care what happens to him despite his being a fool and a peacock, because he knows it and he regrets it."

Crete, a nonfiction account of the visit that Unsworth and his wife made to that country, blends myth, historical fact, and contemporary observations—including laments that tourism is spoiling the island—in a mix that many reviewers found exceptionally engaging. Library Journal contributor Ravi Shenoy described the book as a "literate pastiche … full of descriptions of monasteries, frescoes, and goats clambering on hillsides." Chris Springer, writing in International Travel News, praised the "clear, dignified cadences" of Unsworth's prose and commended the book as a welcome addition to the literature on Crete.

In spite of his success as a novelist, Unsworth, in the Wall Street Journal interview, expressed a writer's dissatisfaction with his finished product: "The idea is so radiant and the conception so exciting, and somewhere the shadow falls between the idea and the execution.… I always feel that I did the best I could, I just didn't do proper justice to it." Unsworth's critics have tended to be less harsh. Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bob Hoover maintained that "Unsworth is a hypnotic writer whose prose quietly snares the reader into a fully realized world."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 194: British Novelists since 1960, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Antioch Review, spring, 2000, Ed Peaco, review of Losing Nelson, p. 241.

Book, March-April, 2003, Tom LeClair, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 77.

Booklist, June 1, 1996, Jim O'Laughlin, review of The Hide, p. 1678; February 1, 1997, Ted Leventhal, review of After Hannibal, p. 927; February 15, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 1051; February 1, 2004, Ray Olson, review of Crete, p. 946; August 1, 2006, Sarah Johnson, review of The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the Twelfth Cenury, p. 44.

Books in Canada, October, 2003, Andy Lamey, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 3.

Boston Review, February-March, 1996, Marc Romano, review of Morality Play, p. 34.

Entertainment Weekly, March 14, 1997, Michael Giltz, review of After Hannibal, p. 74.

Financial Times, September 2, 2006, James Urquhart, "Fiction—Divide and Rule Barry Unsworth's New Novel Is a Slow-burn Tale of Islamic-Christian Rivalry in Medieval Sicily," p. 31.

International Travel News, February, 2005, Chris Springer, review of Crete, p. 97.

Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2003, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 24; July 15, 2006, review of The Ruby in Her Navel, p. 699.

Library Journal, October 1, 1980, Henri C. Veit, review of The Idol Hunter, p. 2110; February 1, 1997, Francisca Goldsmith, review of After Hannibal, p. 108; October 15, 1999, Edward B. St. John, review of Losing Nelson, p. 109; July, 2001, Caroline M. Hallsworth, review of The Partnership, p. 126; February 1, 2004, Ravi Shenoy, review of Crete, p. 115; October 1, 2006, Joseph M. Eagan, review of The Ruby in Her Navel, p. 62.

London Review of Books, June 11, 1992, Adam Bradbury, review of Sacred Hunger, p. 27.

Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2003, Michael Harris, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 6; December 7, 2003, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 12.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 12, 1995, Charles Nicholl, review of Morality Play, p. 2; March 30, 2003 Michael Harris, review of The Songs of the Kings.

New Criterion, May, 2000, Brooke Allen, "Meditations, Good and Bad," p. 63.

New Statesman, August 16, 1996, Boyd Tonkin, review of After Hannibal, p. 45.

New Statesman & Society, October 16, 1992, Janet Barron, review of Sacred Hunger, p. 41.

New Yorker, February 23, 1981, review of The Idol Hunter, p. 126; June 2, 1997, review of After Hannibal, p. 89.

New York Review of Books, October 9, 2003, Hilary Mantel, "The Hour before Dawn," p. 4.

New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1992, Thomas Flanagan, review of Sacred Hunger, p. 3, Susannah Hunnewell, "Utopia Then and Now," p. 23; November 12, 1995, Janet Burroway, review of Morality Play, p. 11; August 12, 2001, Tom Gilling, review of The Partnership, p. 13; March 30, 2003, Neil Gordon, "With Gods on Their Side: In Barry Unsworth's Trojan War, the Greeks Don't Care about Helen; They Care about Gold, Copper and Jade," p. 8; November 12, 2006, Jason Goodwin, "After the Crusade," p. 62.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 13, 2006, Frank Wilson, review of The Ruby in Her Navel.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 7, 1999, Bob Hoover, review of Losing Nelson.

Publishers Weekly, October 31, 1980, Barbara A. Bannon, review of The Idol Hunter, p. 78; April 8, 1996, review of The Hide, p. 53; June 16, 1997, review of The Hide, p. 57; November 10, 1997, review of Pascali's Island, p. 71; August 23, 1999, review of Losing Nelson, p. 42; November 1, 1999, review of Losing Nelson, p. 47; June 25, 2001, review of The Partnership, p. 44; February 17, 2003, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 57; November 17, 2003, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 26; January 19, 2004, review of Crete, p. 66; July 17, 2006, review of The Ruby in Her Navel, p. 133.

Spectator, September 23, 1995, Harry Mount, review of Morality Play; August 24, 1996, review of After Hannibal; September 21, 2002, Penelope Lively, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 47; September 23, 2006, William Brett, "The Peacock and the Belly-dancer."

Times Literary Supplement, September 8, 1995, Bernard O'Donoghue, review of Morality Play; August 30, 2002, Michael Kerrigan, "A Fair Wind for Troy," p. 8; September 15, 2006, Nicholas Vincent, "The Royal Rot," p. 22.

Tribune Books, March 9, 1997, review of After Hannibal, p. 4; July 13, 1997, review of The Hide, p. 8; August 26, 2001, review of The Partnership, p. 6.

Wall Street Journal, December 5, 1995, Amy Gamerman, interview with Barry Unsworth, p. A16.

Washington Post Book World, March 7, 2004, Wayne Hoffman, "Travel: Mediterranean Journeys—Mythical, Historical and Personal," p. 8; November 26, 2006, Barry Durham, "A Knight's Tale: An Ambitious Youth Is Drawn into a Murder Plot That Threatens Sicily's Uneasy Peace," p. 7.

World and I, April, 2000, Merritt Moseley, "The Dark Angel: Barry Unsworth's Career," p. 236.

World Literature Today, summer, 1998, Peter Bien, review of After Hannibal; summer, 2000, Peter Bien, review of Losing Nelson, p. 598.


Bold Type Magazine, (October, 1999), Anson Lang, "Interview with Barry Unsworth."

Contemporary Writers Web site, (January 18, 2003).

In the News, (November 9, 2007), Carolyn Robertson, review of The Ruby in Her Navel.

Mostly Fiction, (November 9, 2007), Mary Whipple, review of The Ruby in Her Navel.

Reviews of Books, (November 9, 2007), W.R. Greer, review of The Songs of the Kings., (May 28, 1999), Marion Lignana Rosenberg, review of Sugar and Rum.

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