Lying in His Cot with His Dead Mother and Sister


Anthony Burgess

At age one, lying in his cot, his mother, Elizabeth, and his sister, Muriel, lay dead beside him, both victims of the Spanish flu pandemic. His maternal aunt and later his stepmother raised him. He detested his stepmother and included a caricature of her in Inside Mr. Enderby quartet of novels.

Learning about an author’s background is one of the reasons that I believe it is valuable to read biographies and autobiographies of successful people. We can gain much by understanding their challenges and methods of overcoming sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

One of these people is author, Anthony Burgess. He had always attracted acclaim and notoriety in roughly equal measure, perhaps from his traumatic childhood. He was a British novelist, critic and composer. He was also a librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist.

Anthony Burgess was born John Burgess Wilson on February 25, 1917 in a small house in Harpurhey, Manchester in northwest England. His father, Joseph Wilson, had a variety of jobs including an army corporal, a bookkeeper, encyclopedia salesperson, butcher and part-time pianist. His mother was a musician and dancer. He described his father as “a mostly absent drunk who called himself a father.” His father died of flu in 1938.

During his lifetime, Burgess had a knack for annoying people and, therefore, frequently criticized for writing too much. In a 1972 interview reprinted in the Paris Review, he said, “I’ve been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly. I’ve always written with great care and even some slowness. I’ve just put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem able to.”

Burgess studied at Xaverian College and Manchester University, where he read English language and literature, graduating in 1940. During World War II, Burgess served in the Royal Army Medical corps, leaving the army as a Sergeant Major.

In 1942, he married Llwela Isherwood Jones. In 1943, GI deserters allegedly attacked her during the blackout. She was pregnant at the time and miscarried. It is widely speculated that this trauma may have influenced parts of A Clockwork Orange. Invalided at home in 1959 and diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and, therefore, a terminal illness, he became a professional writer in the hope that in his final year he would provide some security for his wife.

Within a short time of his first wife’s death, Burgess married Italian contessa, Liliana Macellari, an Italian translator that created quite a scandal. They had begun an adulterous affair in London several years before Llwela’s death. Burgess and Liliana later settled in Monaco, taking occasional trips to America on the lecture circuit.

He outlived the doctors’ prognosis by 33 years, writing numerous novels and nonfiction books. He produced critical works on Joyce, Lawrence, Hemingway and Shakespeare. He wrote several well-known novels included The Wanting Seed, Inside Mr. Enderby, Earthly Powers and A Clockwork Orange published in 1962.

A Clockwork Orange was adapted into a popular 1971 Stanley Kubrik film. Burgess said in The Economist that he felt, ” … when the film was made the theological element almost completely disappeared.” The film was so violent that Britain banned it.

When successful authors give writers advice especially at writers’ conferences, they tend to say to write, write and write more. Anthony Burgess wrote and wrote and wrote. He produced over thirty novels. In 1978 he confessed, “I refuse no reasonable offer of work, and very few unreasonable ones.”

During his last years, Burgess and his wife settled in Monte Carlo and in Lugano, Switzerland. He loved to gamble and visited the casinos nightly. He knew the royal family well and frequently strolled with Princess Grace.

Wherever he was living, Burgess continued to work diligently from about 10 a .m. to 5 p.m. He produced a thousand words a day using a word processor for his journalism and a typewriter for fiction along with drinking strong tea, smoking small cigars.

Even when his health began to fail and he had to return to England, “I start at the beginning, go to the end, then stop,” Burgess once said. He revealed in Martin Seymour-Smith’s Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction (1980) that he would often prepare a synopsis with a name-list before beginning a project.

Seymour-Smith wrote, “Burgess believes over planning is fatal to creativity and regards his unconscious mind and the act of writing itself as indispensable guides. He does not produce a draft of a whole novel which he then revises, but prefers to get one page finished before he goes on to the next, which involves a good deal of revision and correction.”

Burgess died of lung cancer on November 22, 1993 in London at age seventy-six. At his death, he was a multi-millionaire.

2 comments on “Lying in His Cot with His Dead Mother and Sister

  1. healingbrain says:

    This fellow seems to be an example of what you wrote in the previous entry, “Death: A Curious Habit.” There you wondered what it would be like, if you were told you only had a short time to live, what would you do differently? Burgess, given his diagnosis of a year, began writing passionately and lived 33 more years.

    His writing process is also very interesting: complete one page before moving on to another. This would truly allow the subconscious to be the director of where the novel is going.

    My first exposure to “A Clockwork Orange” was through the satire in Mad Magazine, since it was rated X and I was only eight when it came out. I read my mad magazines over again each summer so I was quite familiar with the plot and purpose of the movie by the time I saw the movie as an adult. Setting the violence aside, the movie asks whether people who are violent criminals deserve punishment, or the nation’s efforts to rehabilitate and cure the criminal? At that time behaviorism was very strong and the cure was to condition the criminal to abhor violence. Now that I have read this short biography I intend to read the work as a novel. I am curious what he meant by saying the theological element was missing from the movie–I want to read that.

    Thanks for posting this!


  2. I agree with you, Patrick, it is an example of what I wrote in the previous entry, “Death: A Curious Habit.” This demonstrates what we can do under dramatic circumstances and how following our passion can change our lives in powerful ways.

    I also thought that it was intriguing about his writing process. I believe that you are correct that this allowed him to be guided by his subconscious. As writers, we each have our own style that when followed can lead to success.

    I’m pleased that this post has stimulated you to read “A Clockwork Orange” again from a different perspective. Please feel free to share your thoughts when you have completed the book.

    My pleasure!


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