Winwar, Frances

views updated

WINWAR, Frances

Born Francesca Vinciguerra, 3 May 1900, Taormina, Sicily; died July 1985

Daughter of Domenico and Giovanna Sciglio Vinciguerra; married Bernard D. N. Grebanier, 1925; Richard W. Webb, 1943; F. D. Lazenby, 1949; children: one son

Frances Winwar spent her early years playing in and around the Greek theater of her native Sicilian town, peering between symmetrical columns at Aetna and the Ionian Sea. Her fascination with other cultures and languages was inspired by the many foreign tourists who regularly visited the site, considered one of the most scenic in the world. Brought to America at the age of eight, she mastered English and demonstrated a talent for writing; soon she could claim a reputation as a book reviewer, translator, novelist, and biographer. As a concession to the editor of her first book, she agreed to anglicize her lengthy Italian name. She married three times and was the mother of one son.

Four books, beginning with Poor Splendid Wings (1933), form a tetralogy covering some of the major figures and movements of 19th-c. English literature. The first gained Winwar wide recognition, winning the Atlantic Monthly prize for the best nonfiction book of the year. A biography of those young artists who, during Queen Victoria's reign, started the movement known in England as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it is imbued with sympathy and compassion for desperate souls who, despite strong wills and the superiority of talent and refined sensibilities, are frequently caught in the tragedy of circumstances beyond their control. The center of interest is Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his frustrating courtship and marriage to the idol of the brotherhood, Elizabeth Siddal. Assimilating a mass of material, Winwar retells familiar tales; but she does so with originality, for she represents the personal interrelationships of her subjects as they existed in a colorful age.

The Romantic Rebels (1935) is a composite biography in which Winwar, taking liberties with the historical facts, depicts the temperamental natures of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. She concentrates her efforts more on relating the eccentricities of her subjects than their poetic achievements and describes relationships that never actually existed between the three poets. Nevertheless, the book is well documented, even offering some previously unpublished letters, discovered by Winwar herself in the Morgan Library.

Farewell the Banner (1938) is a biography of William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Exploring the close and curious relationship of the famous literary trio, Winwar analyzes their individual yet merging personalities, stopping short of Freudian interpretations. She demonstrates the self-destructive nature of Coleridge's worship of Wordsworth, Dorothy's attachment to both men, and the eventual rupture between Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Nineties (1940) is a treatment both of an era, the decadent "yellow nineties," and a notorious figure of the age, Oscar Wilde. Winwar gives a full account of Wilde by relating his work to the aesthetic movements of the time and viewing his personal degradation against the backdrop of Victorian morality. Handling her controversial subject with frankness and sufficient delicacy to avoid offence, Winwar presents a moving account of the tragedy of Wilde's life.

The Life of the Heart (1945), a biography of George Sand and her times, proved the most popular with the general reading public. In it, one of the most fascinating women writers in history is brought to life by a woman biographer who is able to convey the authenticity of the Sand's many roles: wife, mother, mistress, novelist, political revolutionist. Since George Sand encountered many famous men in art and politics, Winwar created excellent individual portraits, including Chopin, Sainte-Beuve, Musset, Flaubert, and Louis Napoleon. The book's outstanding feature is the accurate assessment of George Sand in relation to the social revolution of her age and ours.

The Haunted Palace (1959) presents a romantic and psychologically facile portrait of Edgar Allen Poe. Carefully basing her flights of fancy upon a large body of published and unpublished material, Winwar reconstructs Poe's life, especially his emotional involvements and his inability to face the realities of rejection, poverty, and physical and mental suffering.

Neither an historian nor a literary critic, Winwar demonstrates a masterly handling of material as she heightens fact with imagination to recreate the lives of legendary figures from exciting epochs.

Other Works:

The Ardent Flame (1927). The Golden Round (1928). Pagan Interval (1929). Gallows Hill (1937). Puritan City (1938). American Giant: Walt Whitman and His Times (1941). The Sentimentalist (1943). The Saint and the Devil (1948). Immortal Lovers (1950). The Land of the Italian People (1951). Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo (1953). The Eagle and the Rock (1953). The Last Love of Camille (1954). Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada (1954). Wingless Victory (1956). Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Conscience of an Era (1961). Up from Caesar (1965).

The papers of Frances Winwar are at the Brooklyn College Library, New York, and the Rutgers University Library in New Brunswick, New Jersey.


Peragallo, O., Italian-American Authors (1949).

Other references:

Atlantic (May 1940). Booklist (1 Mar. 1959). KR (15 Nov. 1958). NY (8 Oct. 1938, 23 Mar. 1940, 10 Nov. 1945). NYTBR (24 Sept. 1933, 17 Nov. 1935, 25 Sept. 1938, 24 Mar. 1940, 23 Dec. 1945, 18 Jan. 1959). SR (7 Oct. 1933). Time (25 Mar. 1940, 29 Oct. 1945, 26 Jan. 1959).