Obituary: Maggie Hemingway

Margaret Joan Hemingway, writer: born Orford, Suffolk 17 March 1946; died London 9 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?