Authors: Anna Kavan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and short-story writer.

April 10, 1901

Cannes, France

December 5, 1968

London, England


Born Helen Emily Woods, the only child of a well-to-do English family, in 1901, Anna Kavan spent most of her childhood and adolescence unhappily living in various boarding schools. Some scholars believe that she inherited a lifelong tendency to depression from her father, who committed suicide in 1911, when Kavan was ten years old. Despite her misfortunes, she did well at school and had the opportunity to attend Oxford University, but she declined because of her mother’s opposition.

In 1920 Kavan married Donald Ferguson, though she did not love him, and went with him to Burma, where he worked as an engineer. Two years later, after giving birth to a son, Bryan, she returned to England, effectively escaping from a miserable relationship that later ended in divorce. Regularly depressed, she began to use heroin, to which she would be addicted for the rest of her life. In 1926, she fell madly in love with a wealthy painter named Stuart Edmonds, and the two were married two years later.

Kavan published her first novel, A Charmed Circle (1929), under her first married name, Helen Ferguson. She would publish five more books under that name, the most noteworthy of which was Let Me Alone (1930), a thinly fictionalized account of her life in Burma. In 1935 she gave birth to a daughter, Margaret, who died as an infant; soon after, she and Edmonds adopted a daughter named Susanna.

Despite Kavan's early achievements as a writer, the 1930s proved to be a difficult period in her life. Her second marriage disintegrated in 1938, and her last novel as Helen Ferguson, Rich Get Rich (1937), was a failure. She attempted suicide several times, tried unsuccessfully to break her heroin addiction, and was twice institutionalized because of mental breakdowns. During this time, however, she also became acquainted with the works of Franz Kafka, which would later have a fruitful impact on her fiction. She then decided to transform herself into a new person, changing her hair color from auburn to blonde and adopting the name Anna Kavan, after her protagonist in Let Me Alone.

In the early 1940s, Kavan traveled to California with writer and conscientious objector Ian Hamilton and later stayed with him in New Zealand; her adventures during this time are fictionally recounted in her posthumously published novella My Soul in China (1975). The first book she published under her new name was Asylum Piece, and Other Stories (1940), a series of brilliant sketches, some linked by the character of a tormented young woman and the setting of a mental institution. It was very well received, as was a second anthology along similar lines, I Am Lazarus (1945). After returning to England Kavan worked and wrote for the avant-garde magazine Horizon. Even during this period of new success, however, misfortune struck: her son was killed in 1944 while serving with the Royal Air Force.

After World War II Kavan's career again seemed in decline, though she published another interesting novel, The House of Sleep (1947; published in Great Britain as Sleep Has His House, 1948). Less than a decade later, she had to partially finance the publication of A Scarcity of Love (1956) herself. She had also ceased traveling and became a recluse of sorts. In 1957 she met a supportive publisher, Peter Owen, who would publish almost all of her later works. She began to rebuild her reputation with two fine works, Eagles’ Nest (1957) and A Bright Green Field (1958), and attracted further attention with an extraordinary short novel, Who Are You? (1963). Like Let Me Alone, Who Are You? fictionalizes her experiences in Burma, although in more dark and surrealistic tones. She also wrote a number of evocative stories, published posthumously in the collection Julia and the Bazooka (1970).

Kavan's true triumph came when she took a draft of a novel about a man obsessively pursuing a mysterious woman (the original version was eventually published as Mercury in 1994) and recast it in the new framework of a future world careening toward war and chaos as a global cooling brings massive glaciers threatening to cover and freeze the entire planet. The resulting novel, Ice (1967), won universal acclaim; writer and critic Brian W. Aldiss called it the year's best science-fiction novel, and it was accepted for mass-market publication in the United States. Unfortunately, not long after, in December 1968, Anna Kavan died suddenly of heart failure induced her lifelong addiction to heroin.

After Kavan's death, a number of her earlier books were republished, attracting considerable critical attention. Several short-story collections and three novels—Mercury, The Parson (1995), and Guilty (2007)—were also published posthumously.

Author Works Long Fiction: A Charmed Circle, 1929 (as Helen Ferguson) The Dark Sisters, 1930 (as Ferguson) Let Me Alone, 1930 (as Ferguson) A Stranger Still, 1935 (as Ferguson) Goose Cross, 1936 (as Ferguson) Rich Get Rich, 1937 (as Ferguson) Change the Name, 1941 The House of Sleep, 1947 (pb. in UK as Sleep Has His House, 1948) The Horse’s Tale, 1949 (with K. T. Bluth) A Scarcity of Love, 1956 Eagles’ Nest, 1957 Who Are You?, 1963 Ice, 1967 Mercury, 1994 The Parson, 1995 Guilty, 2007 Short Fiction: Asylum Piece, and Other Stories, 1940 I Am Lazarus: Short Stories, 1945 A Bright Green Field, and Other Stories, 1958 Julia and the Bazooka, and Other Stories, 1970 (Rhys Davies, editor) My Soul in China: A Novella and Stories, 1975 (Rhys Davies, editor) Miscellaneous: My Madness: The Selected Writings of Anna Kavan, 1990 (Brian W. Aldiss, editor) Anna Kavan's New Zealand: A Pacific Interlude in a Turbulent Life, 2009 (incl. stories, prose, letters; Jennifer Sturm, editor) Bibliography Aldiss, Brian. Introduction. Ice, by Anna Kavan, Doubleday, 1970. Discusses Ice as a work of science fiction and Kavan’s reaction to being regarded as a science-fiction writer. Also offers biographical details and interesting insights into Kavan’s character. Byrne, Janet. “Moving Toward Entropy: Anna Kavan’s Science Fiction Mentality.” Extrapolation, vol. 23, no. 1, 1982, pp. 5–11. Focuses on Ice, discussing it in the context of Kavan’s earlier works and providing valuable insights into Kavan’s fictional style and concerns in general. Callard, David Arthur. The Case of Anna Kavan: A Biography. Peter Owen, 1992. An excellent study of the life of Kavan. Crosland, Margaret. Beyond the Lighthouse: English Women Novelists in the Twentieth Century. Constable, 1981. Provides some biographic details on Kavan, followed by a commentary of her works. An appreciative study in support for Kavan’s experimental fiction and its importance in contemporary British writing. Davies, Rhys. Introduction. Julia and the Bazooka, and Other Stories, by Anna Kavan, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Reflection by a good friend of Kavan's on the close relationship between the circumstances of her life (particularly her drug addiction) and her fiction, especially the title story of the collection. Dorr, Priscilla. “Anna Kavan.” An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers, edited by Paul Schlueter and June Schlueter, Garland, 1988. Places Kavan firmly among literary modernists, citing her experimental novels as “cryptic and symbolic.” Garrity, Jane. “Nocturnal Transgressions in The House of Sleep.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 1994, pp. 253–77. Argues that The House of Sleep illustrates the critical need to reevaluate Kavan’s experimentalism within a context that foregrounds the conjunction of feminist literary discourse and modernist practice. Lessing, Doris. “Ice-Maiden Stung by a Spider.” Review of Change the Name, My Soul in China, and Ice, by Anna Kavan. The Independent, 4 June 1993, Accessed 7 Aug. 2017. Provides a short biographical sketch of Kavan and briefly discusses three of her novels, with comments on the relationship between fiction and autobiography. Nin, Anaïs. The Novel of the Future. Macmillan, 1968. Claims that Kavan has entered the world of the divided self in Asylum Piece, and Other Stories, which Nin considers equal to the work of Franz Kafka. Refers to Kavan as one of the new American novelists who have been neglected. Contains some valuable insights into Nin’s sparkling style. Owen, Peter. “Publishing Anna Kavan.” Anais, vol. 3, 1985, pp. 75–76. Offers interesting personal insights and a valuable insider’s look at Kavan’s publishing history. Stuhlmann, Gunther. “Anna Kavan Revisited: The Web of Unreality.” Anais, vol. 3, 1985, pp. 55–62. An overview of Kavan’s life and career, with some discussion of her literary influences and fiction. Also discusses Anaïs Nin’s interest in Kavan and her work and includes a photograph of Kavan in her garden. Vannatta, Dennis P., editor. The English Short Story, 1945–1980: A Critical History. Twayne Publishers, 1985. Examines Kavan’s short-story collection I Am Lazarus; considers her stories of mental illness and so-called treatments valuable but hampered by a lack of range and depth.

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