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Unsworth, Barry (Forster) 1930-

UNSWORTH, Barry (Forster) 1930-

PERSONAL: 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.

ADDRESSES: Home—Umbria, Italy. Agent—Giles Gordon, Anthony Sheil Associates, Lauranpolku 1A 35, 01360 Vantaa 36, Finland.

CAREER: 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.

MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow).

AWARDS, HONORS: Heinemann Award for Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1974, for Mooncrankers Gift; Arts Council Creative Writing 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.

Pascalis 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, published as Umbrian Mosaic, 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.

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


(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 1990's, Random House (London, England), 1993.

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

ADAPTATIONS: A film adaptation of Pascalis Island was handled by Avenue Entertainment.

SIDELIGHTS: 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 pre-occupation 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 LiterarySupplement, 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 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." The London Observer's Jonathan Keates, writing specifically of Stone Virgin, summed up the tenor of general critical response to Unsworth's recent novels: "The cumulative effect of such consistently sound storytelling is to remind us of an almost vanished art, to which Unsworth holds the enviable key."



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.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 11, 1992, p. K13.

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

Booklist, February 15, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 1051.

Books, March, 1990, p. 21; March, 1992, p. 5; November, 1992, p. 18; January, 1993, pp. 15, 21.

Books and Bookmen, October, 1986, p. 37.

Book World, September 13, 1992, p. 2; November 1, 1992, p. 15; November 28, 1993, p. 12.

Boston Globe, August 9, 1992, p. B38.

Boston Review, February-March, 1996, p. 34.

British Book News, October, 1985, p. 624.

Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1992, p. 1.

Contemporary Review, October, 1985, p. 213; July, 1992, p. 43.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1986, p. 88; May 15, 1992, p. 636; January 1, 2003, review of The Songs of the Kings, p. 24.

Library Journal, March 1, 1986, p. 110; July, 1992, p. 130; October 15, 1999, Edward B. St. John, review of Losing Nelson, p. 109; July, 2001, Caroline M. Hallsworth, review of The Partnership, p. 126.

Listener, September 19, 1985, p. 28; December 1, 1988, p. 33.

London Review of Books, June 11, 1992, p. 27.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 2, 1992, p. 3; November 12, 1995, p. 2.

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

New Statesman, August 15, 1985, p. 28; August 8, 1986, p. 29.

New Statesman & Society, February 28, 1992, p. 45; October 16, 1992, Janet Barron, review of Sacred Hunger, p. 41.

Newsweek, January 28, 1983.

New Yorker, May 26, 1986, p. 106.

New York Times, November 20, 1980; February 7, 1983; December 23, 1992, p. C15.

New York Times Book Review, January 11, 1981; March 13, 1983; April 6, 1986, p. 27; August 28, 1988, p. 32; July 19, 1992, Thomas Flanagan, review of Sacred Hunger, p. 3, Susannah Hunnewell, "Utopia Then and Now," p. 23; December 12, 1993, p. 36; June 5, 1994, p. 60; November 12, 1995, Janet Burroway, review of Morality Play, p. 11; August 12, 2001, Tom Gilling, review of The Partnership, p. 13.

Observer (London, England), July 21, 1985, p. 22; July 27, 1986, p. 23; September 18, 1988, p. 43; September 13, 1992, p. 55; October 18, 1992, p. 59; November 22, 1992, p. 64; March 31, 1993, p. 62; May 30, 1993, p. 62.

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

Publishers Weekly, January 31, 1986, p. 363; May 11, 1992, p. 52; May 22, 1995, p. 55; August 21, 1995, p. 43; November 6, 1995, p. 60; 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.

Punch, August 13, 1986, p. 45.

Spectator, August 24, 1985, p. 25; November 21, 1992, pp. 42-43; 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.

Stand, spring, 1990, p. 75.

Times (London, England), June 19, 1980; July 25, 1985; June 11, 1992, p. 4.

Times Educational Supplement, October 7, 1988, p. 34; April 3, 1992, p. 32.

Times Literary Supplement, August 30, 1985, p. 946; September 16, 1988, p. 1014; February 28, 1992, p. 23; September 8, 1995, Bernard O'Donoghue, review of Morality Play.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 9, 1992, p. 1; December 6, 1992, p. 13; November 14, 1993, p. 8.

USA Today, December 7, 1992, p. D6.

Wall Street Journal, December 5, 1995, p. A16.

Washington Post, January 24, 1981; September 13, 1992; October 14, 1992, p. C2.

Washington Post Book World, April 3, 1983.

World Literature Today, 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)., (May 28, 1999), Marion Lignana Rosenberg, review of Sugar and Rum.*

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