Cecily Mackworth

Travel writer, biographer and critic whose first book, of poems, was published by Henry Miller
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The Independent Online

Cecily Joan Mackworth, writer: born Llantilio Pertholey, Monmouthshire 15 August 1911; married 1935 Leon Donckier de Donceel (died 1938; one daughter), 1956 Marquis de Chabannes la Palice (died 1980); died Paris 22 July 2006.

Cecily Mackworth was a poet, critic, novelist, biographer, journalist and globetrotter. In her autobiography, Ends of the World, published in 1987, she explained her restless travelling as a form of self-exploration.

Mackworth was a tall, handsome woman - magnanimous, sociable and gifted. She was one of the few remaining links to the writers and artists - European and American - who flourished in the 1930s, and her work on Villon, Apollinaire and Mallarmé mark her as an authority on French poetry. Although as a child she had been introduced to Thomas Hardy, and later enjoyed friendships with her fellow Welsh poets Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas, she made more impact as a travel writer, biographer and critic than as a poet.

She had a delinquent streak, and the urge to travel seized her when young. As a teenager she eloped with a Hungarian. At 22, in Berlin, she watched the Reichstag burn. Later she trekked across the Algerian desert in search of the shade of Isabelle Eberhardt, the Russo-German adventurer and Muslim convert.

Cecil Mackworth was born at Llantilio Pertholey, Monmouthshire, in 1911, a member of the Mackworth dynasty - Welsh coal-owners of the more liberal persuasion. Her father, Francis, died in 1914, fighting in France, her mother was one of the first women to drive a car, her aunt, Margaret, Viscountess Rhondda, was the founding editor of Time and Tide.

She was privately educated, attended the LSE for two years and worked briefly for Time and Tide before escaping abroad. In 1935, she married Leon Donckier de Donceel, a Belgian, by whom she had a daughter the following year, but in 1938 he died of tuberculosis. Mackworth, still in her twenties, settled in Paris. There, in 1937, she had met Henry Miller, frequenting his salon at the Villa Seurat. Through Miller, she met the young poet David Gascoyne, who had published his first book at the age of 16 and A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) at the age of 19, and the electrifying 26-year-old Lawrence Durrell, then wrestling with his third novel, The Black Book. Gascoyne and Durrell became her lifelong friends. She contributed to The Booster, the magazine Miller and company were intent on destroying with obscenity, and Miller published a collection of her poems (Eleven Poems, 1938).

Paris became her home until the blitzkreig of June 1940. Forced to flee from the advancing Germans, she joined the flood of refugees trudging westwards, strafed as they went by diving Stukas, and finally made it back to England via Spain and Portugal. The account of that dramatic escape appears in her books I Came Out of France (1941) and the later Ends of the World.

Working in London for the Free French (Maurice Schumann, later French Foreign Minister, was her boss) she published two books on Czechoslovakia (Czechoslovakia Fights Back, 1942, and, with Jan Stransky for the Cross-Roads Series, Czechoslovakia, 1943, with a preface by her friend Jan Masaryk). On one occasion during the Blitz, while she was visiting T.S. Eliot in his office in Russell Square, a bomb fell close by, shattering the windows. Eliot, quite unperturbed, brushed the splinters of glass from his desk and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Wartime London brought her the friendships of a number of writers - Arthur Koestler, Nancy Cunard, Stevie Smith, George Barker and Dylan Thomas. Once, at a party, Dylan's wife, Caitlin, stubbed a cigarette out on Mackworth's hand, annoyed, it seems, that she was gossiping too intimately with Dylan.

After the Second World War she returned to a France now in the grip of a new intellectual passion, existentialism. In 1947 she published a well-received short biography of François Villon (François Villon: a study) and edited an equally successful verse anthology, A Mirror for French Poetry, 1840-1940. She became a friend of Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce's biographer and translator, and Samuel Beckett's friends Roger Blin and Arthur Adamov.

Writing commissions took her to Palestine to cover the birth of the State of Israel. She had a haunting encounter with Menachem Begin, on the run from the British, and a curious one with King Abdullah of Transjordan, later assassinated for his moderation. Apart from Clare Hollingworth, the great Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent, Mackworth was the only female journalist covering the event. The book that emerged, The Mouth of the Sword (1949), shows her at ease with both Jewish settlers and the Bedouin whom she especially admired.

The lure of the desert took her next to Algeria in pursuit of Isabelle Eberhardt, who lived disguised as a man among the Arabs. The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt (1954) greatly influenced Paul Bowles, who later translated some of Eberhardt's writings.

In 1956, Mackworth married a French marquis, becoming from that time the Marquise de Chabannes la Palice. Although this was a love-match, she later came to see her marriage as an interruption of her writing career. The Marquis died in 1980 and afterwards she lived alone in Paris, close to the Picasso Museum in the Marais district.

There she lived an interesting double life - Cecily Mackworth to her artistic friends, the Marquise to her aristocratic ones. She was a sociable figure on the Paris scene, a frequenter of bookshops such as Shakespeare and Company and the Village Voice, where she was often to be found attending talks by visiting writers. As a critic she had appeared in Cyril Connolly's Horizon, and she contributed also to Le Figaro, Time and Tide and Twentieth Century - for which she produced the first important review of Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet.

As a writer she had great powers of endurance. She published her first novel, Spring's Green Shadow (1952), aged 41, and her second, Lucy's Nose (1992), aged 81 - the latter based on an obscure case of Freud's and a brilliant work of what one critic called "deductive imagination". She worked on her second volume of autobiography, Out of the Black Mountains, until a few weeks before her death.

Her company was delightful and invigorating, and her friendships were enduring; her friends will remember her for her wisdom, empathy and critical insight. She was buried beside her second husband in Normandy.

Gordon Bowker