BORN: 1933, Worthing, Sussex, England
GENRE: Poetry, drama, fiction
The Microcosm (1966)
The Erotic World of Faery (1972)
All Heaven in a Rage (1973)
Maureen Duffy. Duffy, Maureen, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
A poet, playwright, novelist, and historian, writer Maureen Duffy reflects within her work the loneliness experienced by those living on the fringes of a judgmental and sometimes hostile society. Her characters—lesbians, the homeless, political radicals, displaced intellectuals—are frustrated by unfulfilled aspirations and unmet emotional, sexual, or other needs. Novels such as The Microcosm (1966), All Heaven in a Rage (1973), and Illuminations (1991) exhibit deft characterization, while nonfiction works such as the 1972 Freudian literary study The Erotic World of Faery also speak to the author’s creative talents. Duffy has been praised by critics for her ability to create vivid characters and evoke a sense of place, and her work has been compared favorably to that of Virginia Woolf.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Absent Mother and a Tough Childhood. Maureen Patricia Duffy was born on October 21, 1933, in Worthing, Sussex, to Cahia Patrick Duffy and Grace Rose Wright. Her mother suffered from tuberculosis, and Duffy has acknowledged the political and psychological effects of her mother’s prolonged absences in sanatoriums. Duffy was educated at Trowbridge High School for Girls in Wiltshire and the Sarah Bonnell High School for Girls. She studied English at King’s College, London, and after earning her bachelor of arts degree with honors in 1956, she taught for two years in Italy. She wrote from an early age and acted in school plays. At the age of seventeen she was offered a place at the Old Vic Drama School, and during her university years she performed in plays by William Shakespeare and Sean O’Casey.
Establishing a Writing Career with the Royal Court Theatre. Duffy entered her career during the beginning of the ‘‘women’s liberation’’ or ‘‘feminist’’ movement of the 1960s that called for equal legal rights and the right to make choices about family planning. Although she would have encountered sexism in her work, proximity to the women’s liberation movement was clearly catalytic to Duffy’s career. Unwilling to be confined to female roles as an actor, she concentrated on writing, and in her final year at King’s College she wrote ‘‘Pearson,’’ a modern adaptation of William Langland’s fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, set in a contemporary factory during a strike. Pearson was submitted to Kenneth Tynam, the drama critic for The Observer, who was running a competition to find new playwrights. Though Pearson did not win the competition, Duffy was invited to join one of the writers’ groups at the Royal Court Theatre under the direction of George Devine and William Gaskill. Pearson was performed in 1962 as The Lay-Off (the title was changed by the producer), but it remains unpublished. She won the City of London Festival Playwright’s Award in 1962 for this work. After the publication of her first novel, That’s How It Was (1962), her writing career was established. This period was an exciting time in her life, during which she was introduced to experimental theater forms, improvisation, mask work, and discussion/evaluation groups. In 1969 her play Rites was produced at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre (a branch of the National Theatre) under the direction of Joan Plowright, who recognized the lack of parts for women in the theater. It was then produced at the Old Vic and, subsequently, internationally. It remains Duffy’s most performed play to date.
Leadership Roles. Duffy’s reputation as a writer and critic developed significantly during the 1970s and 1980s as she continued to write poems and novels as well as plays. She was a founder of the Writers Action Group in 1972 and served as joint chairman of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain from 1977 to 1978 and president from 1985 to 1989. She was chairman of the Greater London Arts Literature Panel from 1979 to 1981 and of the British Copyright Council, Authors Lending and Copyright Society in 1982. She received Arts Council bursaries in 1963, 1966, and 1975, as well as a Society of Authors traveling scholarship in 1985. She also became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1985). Her keen interest in literary figures, especially female ones, influenced much of her writing in the 1970s and beyond.
A Prolific Period: 1973-1995. Between the years of 1973 and 1995, Duffy’s artistic efforts were more fully concentrated on the writing of her poems and novels. She was also politically active and involved in environmental and feminist movements. During this time period, she published eighteen books, including novels, essays, and play collections.
Maureen Duffy’s writing, in the many genres she has attempted, reflects both her involvement in contemporary society and her uneasy place in the English social system, as a socialist, a lesbian, and an artist aware of her illegitimate and working-class origins. Her work, with its ambitious range, its versatility, and its vitality of language, is impressive. Her best novels are characterized by their brilliancy of style, their elegance of structural form, and their ability to suggest questions that haunt the mind. Several of her novels have received both critical and popular acclaim in Great Britain and the United States.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Duffy's famous contemporaries include:
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968): American civil rights leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated in 1968.
Rita Mae Brown (1944—): American feminist activist and author of a popular series of mystery novels featuring a cat, Mrs. Murphy, as its star detective.
Philip Pullman (1946—): British fantasy writer of the His Dark Materials trilogy and, like Duffy, a supporter of the British Humanist Association.
Elton John (1947—): British singer, songwriter, and composer who has sold hundreds of millions of albums and won an Academy Award for his work on the music for the Disney animated film The Lion King.
Doris Lessing (1919—): British author and winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Lessing is respected for her visionary works and powerful engagement with the female experience.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Duff's works are largely concerned with the place of women in society. Here are some other works that deal with this same theme:
Pride and Prejudice (1813), a novel by Jane Austen. In this novel, Austen paints a sharply humorous portrait of the limited opportunities available to women in early nineteenth century England.
Middlemarch (1874), a novel by George Eliot. In this book, the author—whose real name was Mary Ann Evans—offers a complex portrait of the residents of a fictional English town, notably Dorothea Brooke, an ambitious young woman with grand plans that her husband does not support.
A Room of One's Own (1929), a nonfiction piece by Virginia Woolf. In this book-length essay, Woolf argues that female authors will be able to find success only by becoming financially independent and by creating a private work space in which to practice their art.
Works in Literary Context
Duffy’s work is marked by an attempt at realism—the accurate portrayal of both the physical and emotional world of her characters. Duffy, however, utilizes this realism in order to explore the questions and lives of those at the fringes of ‘‘acceptable society.’’ As such, Duffy employs her considerable descriptive skills to dive deep into the lives of a group of lesbian women in her novel The Microcosm (1966), and in other novels, she explores questions about sexual conventions and their relationship to other social restrictions. Duffy’s work, then, is a continuation of the work of Virginia Woolf, who is famous for, among other things, analyzing the place creative women have in society and for suggesting alternatives to the conventions that restrict artistic genius in women. Woolf’s ideas can be examined in texts like A Room of One’s Own.
Realism. Realism is the touchstone of Duffy’s style; like many other observers of working-class life, she is at her best when she relies on accurate, detailed reportage and at her weakest when tempted by sentiment. The Paradox Players (1967) is an example of her writing at its most compelling. It describes a man’s retreat from society to live for some months in a boat moored on the Thames. The physical realities of cold, snow, rats, and flooding occupy him continually and the hardship brings him peace. He is a novelist, suffering from the hazards peculiar to that profession and has some pertinent comments to make about the vulnerability of the writer. ‘‘When I saw the reviews I could have cut my throat. You see they’re very kind to first novels for some mistaken reason but when the poor bastard follows it up with a second and they see he really means it they tear its guts out.’’ The experience of winter on the river restores his faith in his own ability to survive.
Lesbianism. Duffy’s observations are acute, her use of dialogue witty and direct; this authenticity is complemented by an interest in the bizarre, the fantastic. Her best-known book uses these qualities of realism to great effect in a study of lesbian society which is both informative and original. The Microcosm begins and ends in a club where the central characters meet to dance, dress up, and escape from the necessity of ‘‘all the week wearing a false face.’’ Their fantasies are played out in front of the jukebox; then the narrative follows each woman back into her disguise, her social role. Steve is Miss Stephens, a schoolmistress; Cathy is a bus conductress; Matt works in a garage. Their predicament as individuals, the author suggests, extends beyond the interest of their own minority group. A plea is made for tolerance, understanding, and that respect without which the human spirit must perish. ‘‘Society isn’t a simple organism with one nucleus and a fringe of little feet, it’s an infinitely complex structure and if you try to suppress any part ... you diminish, you mutilate the whole.’’ Wounds (1969) and Love Child (1971) reaffirm this belief.
Freudian Psychology, Greek Mythology, and Philosophy. In other novels Duffy explores the relationships between sex, gender, and the larger society. In Wounds, for example, recurring scenes featuring a nameless couple making love are punctuated by longer episodes involving a variety of people in modern England who face painful restrictions on their lifestyle. This contrasting of sex with societal limitations sets up a number of questions about the power of love in the modern world and the relationships between personal and public concerns. In Love Child Duffy relates the story of Kit, a child of indeterminate sex who takes a deadly revenge on his/her mother’s lover. Combining elements of Freudian psychology and Greek mythology, Love Child examines a world where gender is subordinate to wealth, power, and the kind of permissiveness that sanctions even the most destructive behavior. A similarly gender-ambiguous narrator is found in Londoners (1983), the story of Al, a struggling writer in a London of predatory inhabitants who dreams of writing a film script about the French poet Franyois Villon. Al’s essential loneliness and isolation amid the incessant activity of the bustling metropolis, brought on by his/her vocation as a writer as well as by his/her sexual preferences, confronts the issue of private versus public behavior and how sexual identity can serve to marginalize people from the larger society. As she was one of the first homosexual female authors to ‘‘come out’’ to the public, she continues to be hailed as a forerunner in the struggle for homosexual law reform and influence writers who incorporate related themes into their work. Accordingly, Duffy’s work is often included in anthologies of feminist influence.
Works in Critical Context
Duffy has been praised by critics for her ability to create vivid characters and evoke a sense of place. Nonetheless, critics often fault her novels for lack of structural cohesiveness. In all, her work has received warm critical reception, including recognition for her talents in the form of a number of literary awards. Indeed, some critics think highly enough of her work to compare her to the inimitable Viriginia Woolf. As one critic for Time noted, ‘‘both have the knack of tuning the physical world precisely to the pitch of the characters’ emotions. Miss Duffy has a special talent for describing landscape, seascape and weather.’’
Praise for Poetry and Clarity of Vision. Citing Duffy’s ‘‘passionate interest in history and in language,’’ Shena Mackay commended the versatile author’s oeuvre in the Times Literary Supplement. With numerous books to her credit that span the genres of history, literary criticism, poetry, and fiction, Duffy’s later works, according to Mackay, ‘‘should consolidate her reputation as a writer, an imaginative poet of the city and someone who is committed to the cause of both human and animal rights.’’ Contemporary Women Poets essayist Geoff Sadler echoed such praise, noting of Duffy’s poetry that ‘‘the variety of subjects covered, and the pure, intense clarity of her vision lift her work above the ordinary, giving to it the quality of a personal testament.’’
The Paradox Players. Duffy’s ability to handle description and develop characters is perhaps most apparent in her fourth novel, The Paradox Players. Taking place on a houseboat floating on the Thames during a winter in the 1960s, The Paradox Players details the voluntary isolation of the writer Sym. Thinking to abandon his ‘‘square’’ lifestyle, which includes a wife and child, Sym buys an old, forty-foot boat called ‘‘Mimosa’’ and attempts to keep it afloat while also endeavoring to ‘‘find a point to work from’’ in his writing. A critic for the New Yorker writes that ‘‘no one character in ... [ The Paradox Players] is outstanding, although each human being and each animal is impeccably drawn and treated with thorough understanding. As a study in gray, animated and given sad meaning by the slow movement of gray figures, gray weather, and fateful gray light, her book is a work of art.’’
All Heaven in a Rage. Duffy’s 1973 novel All Heaven in a Rage, published in England as I Want to Go to Moscow, reflects one of the author’s personal concerns: the proper treatment of animals. The novel’s main character, an incarcerated felon named Jarvis Chuff, is sprung from prison by a group of antivivisectionist vegetarians who promise to give Chuff his freedom if he will help them free a number of animals from captivity. Calling the novel a ‘‘romp’’ on the order of writer P. G. Wodehouse, New York Times Book Review critic Paul Theroux added that All Heaven in a Rage features a plot that ‘‘is at best only amusing and at worst quite preposterous.’’ Maintaining that the work shows a lack of focus, Anatole Broyard added in the New York Times that Duffy’s seventh novel contains ‘‘a topical message delivered without urgency, a romance that is well above average in its arbitrariness, a teetering between suspense fiction and morality tale ... an intermittent flaring up of fine writing. The book,’’ Broyard concluded, ‘‘consistently refuses to settle on one level and stay there.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Duffy’s work has often been praised for its exceptional portrayal of character but has been faulted for its uncertain and, at times, unrealistic plots. Read All Heaven in a Rage. Respond to the analysis that Duffy’s characters are better developed than her plots as it relates to All Heaven in a Rage. Make sure to cite specific passages to support your response.
2. One of Duffy’s best characteristics as a writer is her ability to capture the details of a character and a place that make that character or place feel real. Realism in writing is based largely on the writer’s ability to capture physical details in the text. In order to improve your ability to capture physical detail, perform a short study of a physical object. Look at it closely, feel it, and hold it in your hand; pay attention to its temperature, the texture on the surface of it, whether it has a distinct smell or not, and other sensory details. Then, in a paragraph or two, describe that object as vividly as you possibly can.
3. Duffy began her writing career in the middle of the Woman’s Rights Movement. Using the Internet and the library, research this important time in history. Then, in a short essay, discuss how the movement and Duffy’s writing complement one another. Make sure to cite specific examples from Duffy’s work to support your response.
4. Duffy is sometimes compared to author Virginia Woolf, particularly in her descriptions that relate her characters’ internal landscapes to the outside world. Find a descriptive passage in one of Duffy’s novels, and compare it to a descriptive passage by Woolf from her novel Mrs. Dalloway. What similarities do you see between the two writers’s techniques? How do they differ? Based on your limited experience, do you think the comparison between the two writers is valid? Why or why not?
Neumeier, Beate, ed. Engendering Realism and Postmodernism: Contemporary Women Writers in Britain. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.
Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. London: Peter Davies, 1976.
Sage, Lorna. Maureen Duffy. London: Book Trust in conjunction with the British Council, 1989.
Sizemore, Christine. A Female Vision of the City. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.