Obituary: Maggie Hemingway
Monday 17 May 1993
MAGGIE HEMINGWAY was a fine novelist but very much more.
When young she wanted to be a painter and she has left some good water-colour landscapes. She gave up because she 'knew she would get no better' but she had acquired a wide knowledge and deep love of paintings, as she had of music. Poems of hers have been set for voice and piano and soprano and orchestra and she was working on the words for an oratorio commissioned by the Huddersfield Choral Society at her death. She had worked as editor and rights manager for the publisher JM Dent. She was a superb cook and a great beauty who could easily have made a career in a number of glossier worlds.
Yet for 20 years her writing was central to her life. From the Seventies all her creative imagination was poured into four novels - three published between 1986 and 1990 and the fourth, unbelievably the last, for there was so much more to come, will be published in July. Her disappearance so suddenly and so young - she died of aplastic anaemia - has left incredibility, for in spite of her extreme physical fragility there was a fine-drawn, wire-like strength about her. Her hesitant speech and what a critic has called her 'gentle air of Victorian vulnerability' was belied by a straight, amused, sparkling glance of perfect confidence. You felt that she could hear you thinking as she sat watching you with great repose.
She was born to Yorkshire and Northumbrian parents at Orford, in Suffolk, her father a Professor of Medicine who had traced his family back a thousand years to Vikings called Heming. When Maggie was two they moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where she spent six years at Brown's Bay very homesick and clearly remembering Suffolk. They returned because her father thought he had discovered a cure for cancer and took up a research post at Cambridge. Maggie went to the Cambridgeshire High School for Girls then, after the family had moved again to Scotland, to Edinburgh University to read English and some French. There was a very young marriage, two daughters born and she became a housewife but feeling that, though in the eyes of the world she had everything she could wish for, she had not grown up.
She left and went desolately to London where she worked in publishing and met David Matthews, the composer, with whom she found great happiness in Clapham and their minute fisherman's cottage at Deal which she loved because it reminded her of Suffolk. 'It is the light', she said, 'in the streets parallel to the sea in the afternoons.' This was the only time she saw them for she worked every day from nine to three - in longhand and in bed - the pages, she said, flowing away one by one across the floor. The house was full of pale pictures (two of them by her, which she thought a joke) on orange walls. She loved orange and had had her living room in Clapham painted orange by two Buddhist monks. She liked the idea of orange paint and saffron robes.
She had come to Deal for solitude and to work with David Matthews, to 'know nobody', but in a short time he was running the highly successful Deal Festival of Music and Maggie hostessing crowds of more and more talented musicians who in August were to be found sleeping all over the floors of the tiny rooms and eating at the table in the walled garden behind.
Maggie Hemingway's great happiness makes her novels the more startling. Her first - published as her second, Stop House Blues (1988) - was described by Victoria Glendinning as 'worse than sad. It is a heart-breaking narrative of loneliness, desperation and doom', but 'it has a classic quality about it that will ensure its survival'. The Bridge (1986), a tale of Victorian love between the painter Wilson Steer and a lonely married woman holidaying alone with her children in Suffolk, had led to softer expectations. Not that The Bridge is in the least sweet. Maggie Hemingway had noticed, brooding on Steer's work, that there was a year when he had come to life, then seemed to have sunk away into conventional uninspired landscapes. It was, she said, like detective work. When The Bridge was filmed, someone in the audience, whom she had noticed already as strangely like Steer, introduced himself as son of Steer's secret illegitimate son.
She took two years over her third book, The Postmen's House (1990), which was the result of her visits to Czechoslovakia with Matthews, at the height of Communist domination, when 'everyone, everyone was afraid'. Matthews was lecturing secretly - the lectures made to look like parties - on modern music, and was probably at some risk, as were his audience. The book describes fear - of the knock on the door, the imprisonment within a regime and also the hazards of the second prisons - the 'freedom' of a foreign land with loss of childhood anchorage, genetic identity, language, ways. The landscape is less dreadful than in Stop House Blues, less deathly, but there is an element of the surreal in it still. The quiet London streets the postmen walk are unnerving, as if in a moment the city could crumble away.
Her last book, Eyes, for which she passed the proofs the week before she died, is a huge canvas and touches depths in her horrific imagination not plumbed before. It extends over four centuries, four sets of evil people, the 'eyes', the watchers who don't step in when they see evil being done. They include the tainted world of Browning's Italian 'Last Duchess', a pair of 18th-century French brothers who watch murder as they quietly cut reeds on a marsh, a fin-de-siecle lounge-lizard who watches the destruction of his female prey and two dreadful 20th-century English women of the WI who stand by at a drowning. The stories grow nearer and nearer together in separated paragraphs and the conclusion, the most advanced bit of writing she has done, is a stream-of-consciousness prose rather like Beckett. Short, staccato, leading to a last single, engulfing image that is death itself.
Maggie, however, did not believe in death. She was a Buddhist and believed that the body must be left behind for the soul to progress. Her faith was entire and she 'died' with great calmness, and full of Grace; but leaving loneliness behind her.
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