Marilyn Duckworth is a novelist, poet, and a writer of short stories and memoir. Her narratives focus on relationships and the historical contexts in which they transpire. Her heroines often strive to make personal choices and achieve degrees of self determination. Duckworth has published many novels, as well as collections of short fiction, poetry and a novella. She has also written extensively for radio. Duckworth has received distinguished awards, fellowships and grants, and she was awarded an OBE in 1987. Her autobiography, Camping on the Faultline, was published in 2000.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Duckworth, Marilyn (1935– ), is most significant for her idiosyncratic novels of contemporary mores. Born in Otahuhu, she spent a wartime childhood in England (with her sister, Fleur Adcock), and now lives in Wellington.
She has published twelve novels since 1959, a novella, Fooling (1994), a collection of short stories, Explosions on the Sun (1989), a collection of poetry, Other Lovers’ Children (1975), and most recently edited Cherries on a Plate: New Zealand Writers Talk About their Sisters (1996), to which both she and Adcock contribute chapters.
Duckworth’s novels investigate the way people become trapped in relationships. Although she dwells on the plight of the young to middle-aged woman in love who faces the competing claims of marriage, children, lovers and husbands, masculine narrators also perceive the vagaries of her sex, in Pulling Faces (1987) and Leather Wings (1995). Her first two novels are set in England: A Gap in the Spectrum (1959) reveals the prototype Duckworth heroine at her earliest stage, a virgin striving for independence from her parents whose feyness and idiosyncracy soon emerge as she becomes steadily disenchanted with her boyfriend.
The Matchbox House (1960) demonstrates her other side: a non-coping heroine with an unfaithful husband, who shirks her responsibilities to a friend’s children and sinks into fantasy. Duckworth’s third novel, A Barbarous Tongue (1963), which won the Award for Achievement, is about a young woman pregnant to a wimpish, unreliable lover mystifyingly attached to his sister, and who finally, in the hands of a sympathetic older man, learns independence.
In Over the Fence is Out (1969), set in England and Wellington, a passive English heroine incapacitated by her sadistic, egocentric husband is counterbalanced by his mistress, a strong and self-empowering New Zealander. This pivotal novel signalled the end of Duckworth’s first phase; a fifteen years’ silence ensued during which she published only the poetry collection, Other Lovers’ Children (1975).
She resurfaced in grand style, winning the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction with Disorderly Conduct (1984). This is vintage Duckworth, set in 1981 during the Springbok tour, its heroine, Sophie, afflicted by a mysterious ailment, trying vainly to juggle various lovers against the competing demands of her several children by different fathers.
Married Alive (1985), by contrast, has a futuristic theme; New Zealand is hit by a dangerous epidemic whose violent effects are symbolically reflected in the sinister, malevolent behaviour of the heroine’s lover. Rest for the Wicked (1986) uses an English setting: Jane escapes from her family by volunteering as a guinea-pig in a Sleep Research Centre; strangers whom she encounters there catapult her into new life experiences which eventually force her to reconcile the temptations offered by a new lover with her family’s demands. But Duckworth’s most readable novels have a New Zealand, specifically Wellington, suburban setting, and often foreground the personal saga against contemporary public events or themes: Pulling Faces (1987) interweaves its love story with the mysteries of hypnotism and a brain-reading machine; in Message from Harpo (1989), three generations of women confront the social upheavals which Halley’s Comet apparently introduced in 1986, including homosexuality and the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, Alzheimer’s disease and the Women’s Movement.
Unlawful Entry (1992) also covers three generations, an elderly woman, Joan, a teenage renegade, and Joan’s daughter’s friend Roey; Seeing Red (1993), a study of women’s violence, sets on a collision course two family mésalliances which throw her heterosexual heroine into the worlds of incest and lesbianism; Fooling (1994) could be read as a cynical tale of abuse, but her heroine is deluded by love; her acquiesence makes her oblivious to masculine sexual ambiguity and the real predator, the media personality. Leather Wings (1995) investigates the themes of child kidnapping and paedophilia, revealing as fatally obsessed with a child’s innocence that New Zealand icon of the middle class, the Rawleigh’s Man. Studmuffin was published in 1997.
A Duckworth novel is instantly accessible almost as a generic type; her composite heroine, always vulnerable to love, lives in a welter of domestic demands and confusions, which is compounded by the doubly damning powers of her compulsive sexuality and its equally unpredictable target, the male hero.
Orgasms abound, hot chocolate is an instant palliative; but inevitably her denouements restore the reader to the everyday with a sharpened sense of its oddness. Duckworth’s writing has been much praised for her sharp ear for dialogue (the ‘crispest and crackliest … of any of our novelists’ according to Kevin Ireland), her brilliant powers of observation, and her skillful enquiries into les affairs du coeur.
She has also written for radio, Home to Mother (1976) and Feet First (1981), adaptations of A Gap in the Spectrum (1972) and A Barbarous Tongue (1973), and television scripts, The Smiler and the Knife (1971) and instalments of Close to Home (1975–76). She has won many fellowships and grants, including the Scholarship in Letters (1961, 1972), the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship (1980) and the Victoria and Auckland University writing fellowships (1990, 1996). She was awarded the OBE in 1987.
Marilyn Duckworth was the 1980 recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France.
Disorderly Conduct jointly received the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction (shared with C. K. Stead) at the 1985 New Zealand Book Awards.
She was awarded both the Auckland University Literary Fellowship and the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship in 1996.
Camping on the Faultline, published in 2000, is her autobiography.
Duckworth was a wide-eyed twenty-two when the letter arrived from London accepting her first novel A Gap in the Spectrum. A dozen more would follow. Today she describes herself as a 'New Zealander in her wooden tent above a faultline, practising the trick of permanence'.
There was never much of that in her rather hectic earlier life: two countries, forty-nine houses (and a shelter shed), twelve schools, four husbands, passing lovers, and friends who die - the ultimate desertion. But there are constants, too - her sister, poet Fleur Adcock, her four lively daughters - and weaving through all this: her writing.
Encroaching sometimes dramatically on her life and work are her friendships with other writers: Shadbolt, Duggan, Baxter. We accompany her through the stirring sixties and seventies and as far as the nervous nineties. Hovering over her story are the benign ghosts of her first love, Richard, and his friend Dan, whom she married twenty years after Richard's death. Like a novel she might have written herself, this memoir folds neatly back upon itself, an autobiographical origami. (From publisher press release.)
Swallowing Diamonds (2003) traces the life of Bundle who started off abandoned as a baby at a Wainuiomata house. Now 28, she’s thinking of writing her own story, 'bits of real stuff, diamonds of truth…' but Bundle has difficulty swallowing some of the normal aspects of life.
The NZ Society of Authors announced Marilyn Duckworth as the recipient of the 2004 Foxton Fellowship. Playing Friends (2007) follows Clarice, fifty nine and widowed, with not much money coming in and not many friends, who decides to buy a flat with Una, an acquaintance from her school days. Una unexpectedly comes complete with a very loud, very pregnant sixteen year old. These wacky but entirely believable women bounce off each other uncomfortably. 'Lively, pertinent and honest about the realities of growing older.'
Marilyn Duckworth was the 2011-2012 President of Honour of the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA). She delivered the March 2012 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, held each year as part of New Zealand Book Month, and delivered by the NZSA President of Honour.
Duckworth received the 2016 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in fiction, which is awarded to an author with a distinguished body of work.
In 2017, Te Herenga Waka University Press published The Chiming Blue, Duckworth’s first poetry collection since Other Lovers’ Children, published in 1975.
- Radio New Zealand interview
- Selected work by Marilyn Duckworth on the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre site
Updated July 2022.