Obituary: Jill Neville

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The Independent Online
Jill Neville published seven novels in the 30 years 1966-96 and was the author of The Poet and the Goddess, a play about Robert Graves and Laura Riding, which was staged at Oxford, the Cheltenham Festival and the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, in 1995. For many years she was the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer; latterly she wrote in the Independent. She also had a controversial London column in the Australian, Sydney.

As an active member of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature (she was elected a Fellow in 1995), she had organised the society's 1997 spring lecture programme, which played to packed houses. But she herself did not witness them. Always abnormally healthy, she was struck down early in the year by liver cancer; she came to terms with her painful plight with dignity.

The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English praises Neville's "spare style", her "wiry wit and often startling imagery". When The Day We Cut the Lavender was published in 1995 the Australian High Commission in London hailed it, after her two earlier novels set all or in part in her native country, Last Ferry to Manly (1984) and Swimming the Channel (1993), as "the last of a classic Australian trilogy".

Jill Adelaide Neville was born in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1932, almost at the height of the Depression in Australia. She dreamt as a girl of growing up an artist - poet, dancer, actress or writer of stories. Her grandmother Laura McKnight was a well-known Sydney diva; her grandfather the owner of a private library in New South Wales. Her father, Colonel Clive Neville, came from a large Sydney family, among whose military scions were a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade and Australia's most decorated First World War soldier, Daulton Neville.

She began writing as a child and her stubborn sense of vocation was at once under attack. When her father returned from a triumphant war bearing samurai swords and silk parachutes for his daughters to make petticoats, he was displeased that the younger seemed to have "swallowed the dictionary".

He packed her off to a draconian boarding-school in the Blue Mountains called Osborne Ladies College to make, as it were, a man of her. She thrived at this eccentric place, which pretended to be a boat with its English "Admiral" headmistress (her retired father's rank) parading "my gels" on Empire Day to sing "Rule Britannia" in front of the Katoomba War Memorial.

Her mother Betty, though an intellectual and newspaper columnist, echoed the colonel's concern about her "fey" and "impractical" daughter, ensuring that she became the star pupil of a business college in Military Road, Mossman (a Sydney suburb). Typing, Betty Neville believed, was the key to a woman's independence. It stood her daughter in good stead as an audio- typist at the Daily Mirror in Sydney and, later, the BBC in London.

A striking beauty with shoulder-length auburn hair, "Blue", as she was known, was established by 17 as the Madonna of Sydney artistic life, known then as "The Push". Early "older men" escorts included Keith Miller, the cricketer-turned-Mirror sportswriter, Murray Sayle, who wore a blue fedora and wrote a gossip column as "Mr Midnight", and the painter and eroticist Norman Lindsay. Max Harris, who flew the (lonely) flag of art and literature via his South Australia syndicated column was a profound admirer of "Blue's" modern verse and huge eyes, all the more when he learnt she had been conceived in Adelaide, hence her middle name.

She published poems and stories in little magazines, but her sights were targeted on London. Saving ferociously until she had acquired the pounds 80 "Under 21" steamer fare, she sailed for London with an attractive friend, Judy Gillespie.

Thanks to unlikely literary serendipity, a fellow passenger proved to be the aspiring poet Peter Porter. They became lifelong friends. Soon after arriving in Chelsea, Judy met a handsome baronet she subsequently married and returned decorously to Mossman. The Nevilles hoped at least as much of their own eminently marriageable daughter. When she acquired a Chelsea houseboat, green fingernails and a Sally Bowles cigarette holder, as "Blue" was transmogrified into Jill, Betty paid a memorable and angry visit to ensure her daughter was leading the Right Kind of Life.

An optimistically choreographed "Welcome Mum" party ended in alcohol and "reefer"-fuelled chaos. A wrecked black saxophonist, an exotic in Betty's 1950s Sydney vision, fell into the Thames. Ignoring pleas to return, Jill was swept into the pub society of poets and jazzmen patronising the French, Muriel's and other cultural outposts in Fitzrovia and Soho.

This Bohemian, unconventional society was just to Neville's taste, and when years later, tiring of its incessant emotional demands, she fled to Paris with her seven-year-old daughter Judy in a red mini, she fell at once into George's Bar in the Rue des Canettes, and so a Parisian version of similar raffish and often gifted people based around the Coupole, the Select, and La Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse.

Although in some ways a man's woman, Jill Neville had a gift for deep and long female friendships. Her guru and London mother-figure was the Canadian novelist Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and for three decades she was close to Barbara Blackburn, widow of the Labour MP Raymond Blackburn, and Mary Tuck, the senior civil servant.

Thanks to Smart, as a young expatriate Neville found herself well off by the female standards of the time, working with, among others, Fay Weldon and Ted Hughes's friend Assia Wevill, as Creative People at J. Walter Thompson, Bensons and a handful of other leading ad agencies. Thanks to Smart, whom she loved as much as she hated her consort, the poet George Barker, she published plays and short stories in Harper's & Queen and Alan Ross's London Magazine, and completed her first novel, Fall Girl.

Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1966, brilliantly edited by Tony Godwin, here was a picaresque "woman's" novel ahead of its time, as well as a thinly disguised a clef account of a brief affaire with the American poet Robert Lowell. It was written in deft and sharp-edged prose honed by professional copy-writing skills, but her terrain was literary London at a lurid moment, particularly around Soho. A witty, sexy and blessedly short-winded tale, it was meat and drink to jaded, often male critics. They lavished compliments, citing Anais Nin, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys and, of course, Smart in a pantheon of influences. One review called it "the best first novel by a woman" since The Dud Avocado, the best-selling title by Elaine Dundy, first wife of the critic Ken Tynan.

Film options followed, and thereafter Neville was able to work as a writer/journalist at home full-time, continuing as a freelance copywriter for Thompson's in London, Paris and, later, Sydney.

In 1960 Neville met, married and separated from the memorably rumbustious South African poet and broadcaster Peter Duval-Smith, by whom she had a daughter, Judy. Neville and Duval-Smith had met by the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead one day when Duval-Smith had stormed out of the famously fiery menage a trois he shared with the poet William Empson and his longtime wife Hetta. The women quarrelled violently both before and after the marriage broke down but in later years they reached an accommodation. In the meantime Duval-Smith had fathered more children and he died a violent death in the Hotel Royale, Saigon, in 1967 while working as a war correspondent for the BBC.

When Jill Neville's younger brother Richard came to London and started Oz magazine the Good Sister put him up in her Cleveland Square flat with his friend Louise Ferrier. Because of a "life-style" extreme even by Jill's own standards, which did not tolerate police busts, she was relieved when he moved to Palace Gardens Terrace in Notting Hill Gate.

A London of hippies was too soft-minded for her, and soon after moving to Paris she became obsessed and involved with the student revolt of May 1968. In her novel The Love Germ (1970), she tells an outrageous and retrospectively almost innocent story of a chain of Paris lovers transmitting what now seems a comparatively harmless sexual disease to each other while celebrating the revolution.

During the Paris revolution she had been involved with the extreme "Street Left" Italian politician Angelo Quattrocchi, but left him after a conflict involving her friend Smart's daughter Rosie Barker. After 1969 she took up with and later married David Leitch, then Paris correspondent of the Sunday Times and New Statesman. A son, Luke, was born but they were divorced in 1981, and Neville first lived with and then married Professor Lewis Wolpert, the University College London geneticist.

They proved a highly compatible and entertaining couple and were well- known for their parties.

One of the joys of friendship with Jill Neville was that she - as she sometimes said of other people - "lightened one's soul", writes Ruth Dudley Edwards. She would harness her formidable intellect and her passion for literature in service to frivolity.

A classic example came during a Christmas holiday in her Normandy cottage a few years ago. I was exhausted, and Jill - a great physical, as well as spiritual, nurturer - had decided to wait on me hand and foot. This involved her casting me as an irascible aristocrat, herself as Greasy Joan - a hobbling, half-witted slut - and a fellow guest, Stephen Cang, as Bunter, a classy but sardonic butler. Throughout the week, my servants held innumerable and ever ruder conversations just within my earshot about the egregiousness, snobbery and capriciousness of " 'Er Ladyship": to Jill's delight, I repaid the compliment by giving her a walk-on part in my next book as a slattern with a wall eye, a hump and an exaggerated limp, who was a victim of Fens inbreeding.

When I needed some atrocious verse in my next two novels, Jill, who was a good poet, took on the job giggling. I particularly appreciated her animal rights version of "Jerusalem", which began "And did those paws in ancient times / Scamper on England's mountains green?", though her evangelical poem - "Clean your teeth for Jesus" - ran it close.

A phone-call from Jill usually presaged laughter, drama or an escapade, though often too it was a demand for a thoroughly rewarding evening of talk. She was a wonderful confidante, for she revelled in her friends' good fortune, sympathised intelligently when times were bad and always encouraged one to take chances and trust in one's talent.

Jill's own career had more highs and lows than most, and she wore her professional triumphs with grace and her reverses with the gallantry that distinguished her approach to death. It was a great disappointment of the last few years that, despite her heroic efforts, her play about Robert Graves and Laura Riding, which brilliantly and wittily mocked the silliness of intellectuals, was never put on commercially. Yet there was the consolation that her last novel, The Day We Cut the Lavender, was one of her most successful. Not only did its treatment of drug addiction strike a contemporary chord, but it showed her exceptional gift for describing sensual pleasure.

Jill had acquired wisdom through hard experience, and she expressed it in a way that lodged in one's mind. A couple of years ago, when she was holding my hand through a bereavement, she warned me of the dangers of letting talent dissipate. "Your friend died at 50," she said. "When you reach middle age, you have to look at life as you would look at your last package of typing paper: you can't afford to waste any of it."

Jill Neville wasted none of it. She was - in another of her favourite words - a "Mensch", and a loving and inspiring woman who shone luminously in the lives of her friends.

Jill Adelaide Neville, novelist, playwright and poet: born Sydney, Australia 29 May 1932; FRSL 1995; married 1960 Peter Duval-Smith (died 1967; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1962), 1970 David Leitch (one son; marriage dissolved 1981), 1993 Professor Lewis Wolpert; died London 11 June 1997.