3. The Author and his Works

Barry Unsworth was born into a miners´ family in a village in County Durham in 1930 . After attending the Grammar School at Stockton-on-Tees, he continued his education at Manchester University, where he read English. During most of the 1960s, he taught English in Greece and Turkey, and in 1966 he published his first novel, "The Partnership".

One year later followed "The Greeks Have a Word for It" (1967), a novel resulting from his experiences when teaching abroad. It satirizes numerous members of the British Council, a government organization aiming at promoting a wider knowledge of Britain and the English language in foreign countries.

Returning to England he settled in Cambridge where he taught English as a foreign language. In 1970 his third novel, "The Hide", was published. Although his first three works were acclaimed by critics, they were financially not very lucrative. It was his fourth novel, "Mooncranker´s Gift" (1973), which was really successful and won the Heinemann Fiction Award.

Working for two years as a visiting literary fellow at the University of Newcastle gave him the opportunity to return to the north-east of England where he was born and had spent his youth. In 1982 Barry Unsworth gave the following description of his early situation as a writer : "One way or another, either in advance royalties, commissions or fellowship or Arts Council grants, I´ve managed to work and pay my way with occasional teaching thrown in through the years".

"The Stick Insect" was written as a short TV play and produced on BBC 2 in August 1975. In 1976 he published his fifth novel,"The Big Day". However, there is no doubt that it was "Pascali´s Island" (1980), a spy novel set on a remote island in the Aegean Sea at the end of the Ottoman Empire, that laid the foundation of his popularity. In the summer of 1908 Bazil Pascali, a second-rate spy of the Turkish Sultan, gets involved in a deadly game of betrayal, love, and avarice. The book was critically acclaimed, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and finally filmed in 1988 under the direction of James Dearden.

The plot of "The Rage of the Vulture" (1982) is also set in the Ottoman Empire in the days of its decline during the reign of Abdul Hamid II. Three years later "Stone Virgin" (1985), whose setting is Venice, was published. The hero of the novel, Raikes, a young London conservationist is obsessively concerned with the restauration of the stone statue of a late-medieval madonna which is modelled from a prostitute. Working on this statue, which is seriously impaired by environmental pollution through the centuries, induces Raikes to make inquiries about the identity of its creator and to trace back its eventful history.

A turning point in his literary career came in 1985 when he worked as a writer-in-residence at Liverpool University. It was the time when his first marriage went on the rocks and he underwent a short period of writer´s block. At the same time he experienced the decay of a city which had been renowned for its economic and commercial prosperity. He was so deeply affected by these experiences that he confessed: "The whole situation brought out my guilt that as someone from a Northern working-class background, I have been writing about remote, exotic subjects".

"Sugar and Rum" (1988), a novel that was conceived as a critical work about the slave trade, finally ended up as a book about a writer who is unable to write a novel about the intended subject. The book was not generally acclaimed by critics but had mixed reviews. However, "Sugar and Rum" prepared the ground for "Sacred Hunger" (1992) a successful and vast work about the slave trade in the 18th century.


  Morality play Cover  

Barry Unsworth, Morality Play


1. Plot (synopsis)
2. Selection Principle

3. Author and Works


In 1752, Mr Kemp, a Liverpool wool merchant decides to trade in black Africans in order to save his family from financial ruin. He has his own ship built in order to transport slaves from Africa to the West Indies where he intends to barter them for sugar which will then be sold at a high price in England. However, his calculation does not work, for the slaver´s doctor, an honourable white man, sides with the 200 black slaves packed in the ship´s hull. The book was winner of the 1992 Booker Prize.

Though "Morality Play" is a short book it had been four years in the making before it was published in 1995. The novel is set in the north-east of England in the second half of the 14th century, at a fictitious moment when the strictly religious purpose and plot of the medieval Morality Play was given up and substituted by secular subjects. The novel is in essence a murder mystery in the form of a Morality Play which centres on a band of strolling players who decide to play the murder of Thomas Wells a twelve-year-old boy who has been murdered in the town they happen to pass through on their way.

This sophisticated and fascinating historical crime story was highly praised by the great majority of reviewers. Thus Peter Kemp, for example, wrote in The Sunday Times that "this bleakly glittering novel offers freezing insight into human nature and human society". The book was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize.

To some extent Barry Unsworth´s book "After Hannibal" seems to be the fictional expression of the author´s own bad experiences when acquiring a house in Umbria, an event he reported on in a newspaper article. However, they are merely the background to a novel, whose basic subject is the omnipresence of betrayal and treachery as they are frequently to be found in the field of the property business.

Barry Unsworth is one of the major English writers of highly atmospheric historical novels each of them resulting from many years of careful research with regard to their historical settings. However, he is first and foremost interested in creating and depicting characters and in moral aspects as e.g. the problem of good and evil. Nearly all his novels are written in a concise yet vivid and vigorous prose for which he is generally admired.



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