OBITUARY : Lady Caroline Blackwood

Grey Gowrie
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:57

Caroline Blackwood was a writer with a small number of books to her name. These have an intensity, a black and humorous concentration on the pitilessness of experience, which should ensure their survival. They are also very funny.

Ireland was in her blood and upbringing. Ireland suffers Blackwood's forensic surgery in her first book, For All That I Found There (1973), a collection of short stories and meditative pieces. With courage and a certain breathtaking cruelty she followed it with two autobiographical novels. The Stepdaughter (1976) is a miniature Greek tragedy, done as farce, about an unhappy relationship with your child. The title is the only figleaf permitted; the book is based on her eldest child, Natalia Citkowitz, who died through addiction before the book was published. There is something of Evelyn Waugh in Blackwood's ability to make you laugh reluctantly at her ruthlessness: Waugh done over by the painter Francis Bacon. Great Granny Webster is lighter and funnier. Here the Anglo- Irish world of Elizabeth Bowen is allowed no smidgen of decadent charm; water drips relentlessly through the roof, room after oppressive room of the statutory mansion. Yeats, you feel, would have had a nervous breakdown had he lived to read it. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977 and was greatly admired by Philip Larkin.

Subsequent novels such as The Fate of Mary Rose (1981) and Corrigan (1984) were less successful, though they well repay re-reading. A further collection of short stories, Good Night Sweet Ladies (1983) and a sympathetic yet merciless account of the predominantly female protest at Greenham Common, On the Perimeter (1984), confirmed her talent. If her last book, an account of the last days of the Duchess of Windsor, The Last Duchess (1995), betrays some signs of Caroline Blackwood's cancer and alcoholism, it does contain one of the greatest pieces of comic writing I know: her own attempts at interviewing Maitre Suzanne Blum, the terrifying French lawyer who took charge of the Duchess's fortune and bedridden body before dying herself in her nineties.

Caroline Blackwood's dark temperament, perfectly realised in her writing, is in some ways a puzzle, given the facts of her life. It was a rich life literally and metaphorically She was one of the most beautiful women of her generation (a more intense and fascinating version of the film star, Michelle Pfeiffer, I found). Even in the last years, when life and illness ravaged her, you could not look at anyone else when she was in the room. She was loved by some of the most talented men of the age and married two of them, the painter Lucian Freud and the poet Robert Lowell. She was well-off (her mother was Maureen Guinness, now Maureen, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava) and aristocratic in a period when that added rather than subtracted glamour. Her father, who died when she was 13 was Basil Dufferin, eulogised in a Betjeman poem; her brother Sheridan Dufferin, whom with her sister Perdita she loved, was the kind of man whose charm, generosity and modesty give aristocrats a good name.

As well as passion, Caroline Blackwood experienced love both giving and receiving. In some ways a difficult mother, she was always close to her daughters Eugenia and Ivana Citkowitz and her son Sheridan Lowell. She made great and enduring friendships with men and women: I was lucky enough to enjoy her friendship for nearly 35 years. She was very funny because polite and well-mannered on the surface, in no sense a person who shocked in order to make an effect, she mercilessly cut straight through to the core of things. Like Lucian Freud, and her friend Francis Bacon, she hated padding. You could not pretend in her company. Even on her deathbed, black Blackwood gold was mined. One of the women she loved most, a Catholic and fellow novelist, had brought water from Lourdes. Some of it spilt on the sheets. "I might have caught my death," she muttered.

Lucian Freud's portraits of her are in my view his greatest paintings. She was pleased to get a recent long telephone call from him. "I had forgotten how funny Lucian can be," she said. Some time after leaving him, she married Israel Citkowitz, a talented composer and delightful man who sadly suffered most of his career from a debilitating writer's block.

Without turning into a figure of tragic suffering, Citkowitz followed her to England after her marriage to Robert Lowell and continued as a father to his children, and as a kind of nanny-duenna to Blackwood for the rest of his life. She was his great achivement. He always registered a quiet pride in it.

Robert Lowell's life with Blackwood and his traumatic parting and final reunion with his previous wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwicke, is relived in three books of poems. A long sequence of love poems, The Dolphin, praises and anatomises Caroline as the Muse who put an end to his philanderings.

Any clear thing that blinds us with


your wandering silences and bright


dolphin let loose to catch the

flashing fish . . .

They lived in London, in a manor she bought in Kent and later in her cousin Desmond Guinness's great house Castletown in Co. Kildare. The marriage ran aground on the shoals of Blackwood's drinking, Lowell's sense that he had little time he had to live and terror of his bouts of manic depression - ironically less persistent after their meeting. Their love affair never floundered. Lowell lived with Elizabeth the last year of his life, but visited Blackwood.

Three days before he died I delivered to him in Ireland a picture I had procured, a Freud of Caroline. He died clutching it in a cab on his way to Elizabeth in New York. At his graveside the two women clung to each other.

Grey Gowrie

Caroline Maureen Blackwood, writer: born 1931; married 1953 Lucian Freud (marriage dissolved), 1959 Israel Citkovitz (marriage dissolved; three daughters, one deceased), 1972 Robert Lowell (died 1977; one son); died New York 14 February 1996.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments