Kavan, Anna (1901–1968)

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Kavan, Anna (1901–1968)

French writer whose work continues to receive considerable attention. Name variations: original name Helen Woods changed by deed poll to Anna Kavan; Helen Ferguson; Helen Woods Edmonds. Born Helen Woods in Cannes, France, in 1901; died in London England, on December 5, 1968; daughter of C.C.E. Woods and Helen (Bright) Woods; attended church school and was privately tutored; married Donald Ferguson; married Stuart Edmonds (a painter); children: (first marriage) one son (deceased).

Selected novels, all under the name Anna Kavan, except as noted:

(as Helen Ferguson) A Charmed Circle(1929); (as Helen Ferguson) The Dark Sisters (1930); (as Helen Ferguson) Let Me Alone (1930, reprinted under Anna Kavan, 1979); (as Helen Ferguson) A Stranger Still (1935); (as Helen Ferguson) Goose Cross (1936); (as Helen Ferguson) Rich Get Rich (1937); Change the Name (1941); The House of Sleep (1947, published in England as Sleep Has His House, 1948); A Scarcity of Love (1956); Eagles' Nest (1957); Who Are You? (1963); Ice (1967).

Short stories as Anna Kavan:

Asylum Piece and Other Stories (1940); I Am Lazarus (1945); A Bright Green Field and Other Stories (1958); Julia and the Bazooka and Other Stories (1970); My Soul in China: A Novella and Stories (1975).

Writer Anna Kavan was born Helen Woods in 1901, the daughter of C.C.E. Woods and Helen Bright Woods . Initially, she would write under the name Helen Ferguson, reflecting her first marriage to Donald Ferguson. By 1940, she would be writing under the name Anna Kavan, borrowed from a central character in her novel, A Stranger Still (1935). She had an identity and past that she longed to put behind her.

Kavan was born in Cannes, France, but grew up in California, in a well-to-do but troubled environment. Her father committed suicide when she was 14, and her emotionally distant mother generated a rage in her that frequently surfaced in her work. "What could have been done to make me afraid to grow up out of such a childhood?," she wrote in the short story, "A World of Heroes." "Later on, I saw things in proportion. I was always afraid of falling back into that ghastly black isolation of an uncomprehending, solitary, oversensitive child."

Kavan wrote conventional romantic novels during the 1920s and 1930s, reflecting aspects of her first two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. Her first marriage to produced a son who died in World War II. After her second marriage to painter Stuart Edmonds failed, Kavan entered a Swiss clinic for treatment of acute depression, a mental illness that would plague her for the rest of her life and lead to a dependence on daily doses of heroin. She initially wrote about her experiences with mental illness in Asylum Piece (1940), a collection of short stories and her first work under the name Anna Kavan. It was viewed as "extraordinarily moving and original," by Rhys Davies, a critic for Books and Bookmen and a friend of Kavan's from her Ferguson days. Davies, who lost track of Kavan for three or four years and knew nothing of her mental problems or her drug addiction, scarcely recognized his friend when they reunited. "This spectral woman, attenuated of body and face, a former abundance of auburn hair shorn and changed to metallic gold, thinned hands restless, was so different that my own need to readjust to her was a strain."

The conventional novels of Kavan's early period are strongly biographical and foreshadow her later development. Her first novel, A Charmed Circle (1929), concerns a family living in an isolated British house near an ugly manufacturing town and examines the struggle of the children to escape the forces of their environment. The themes of isolation and retreat from a threatening world turn up again and again in Kavan's work. The later novel, A Stranger Still (1935), is also rich in autobiographical elements from her fear-filled childhood. Change the Name (1941) is considered by some to be Kavan's best early novel, although it is also something of a transitional work. The story, again autobiographical, traces Celia Henzell's development from a privileged but neglected child to a successful writer who pursues her ambition while destroying the lives around her. Although a growing disillusionment is evident in its pages, Davies refers to this novel as part of Kavan's "metamorphosis," as it still contains traces of the Ferguson style.

Despite her addiction and a number of stays in mental institutions, Kavan managed to carry on the activities of a normal life. She traveled extensively and purchased and renovated several houses at Campden Hill, in England. She also designed and supervised the building of a modernistic house in which she resided for the last 12 years of her life. In addition to writing novels and numerous short stories, she did editorial work for a literary magazine. However, her mental instability did shape her work into its later surrealistic form. Both House of Sleep (1947) and Ice (1967) fall into the science-fiction genre, which Kavan explained as the way she "sees the world now."

Kavan committed suicide in 1968, after two unsuccessful attempts during her lifetime. Since her death, her work has received worldwide recognition and has been translated into seven major European languages. Re-releases of her books bring accolades from the critics and a new generation of readers. "Kavan's prose is like pollen, frail yet enduring," commented science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss, "She is de Quincey's heir, Kafka's sister and a true writer." Kavan's appeal is perhaps best explained by Jill Robinson in an article in The New York Times BookReview: "The facts of one's difficult existence do not guarantee literature," she writes. "Anna Kavan is not interesting because she was a woman, an addict or had silver blond hair. She is interesting because her work comes through with a powerful androgynous individuality and because the stories are luminous and rich with a fresh kind of peril. She knows how to pull us into her world, her dreams and nightmares—how to have all of it become ours."


Evory, Ann, ed. Contemporary Authors. New Rev. Series. Vol 6. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1982.

Harris, Gale. "Reprints," in Belles Lettres. Vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 65–66.

Yntema, Sharon. More Than 100 Women Science Fiction Writers. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1988.

suggested reading:

Callard, David. The Case of Anna Kavan: A Biography, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts