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Maureen Duffy

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Maureen Duffy


King's College London

Maureen Duffy Monire Childs Photographer

Full Name
Maureen Patricia Duffy

21 October 1933 (age 90) (
Worthing Sussex, United Kingdom

Novelist, poet, playwright, nonfiction author, activist

The microcosm, The passionate shepherdess, The Erotic World of Faery, THAT'S HOW IT WAS, The Orpheus Trail

Payments To Authors: Past Campaigns & Future Possibilities: Barbara Hayes and Maureen Duffy

Maureen Patricia Duffy (born 21 October 1933) is a contemporary British novelist, poet, playwright, nonfiction author and activist.


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Duffy's work often uses Freudian ideas and Greek mythology as frameworks. Her writing is distinctive for its use of contrasting voices, or streams of consciousness, often including the perspectives of outsiders. Her novels have been linked to a European tradition of literature which explores reality through the use of language and questioning, rather than through traditional linear narrative. James Joyce in particular, and Modernism in general, are significant influences on her fiction, as is Joyce Cary. "Duffy has inspired many other writers and proved that the English novel need not be realistic and domestic, but can be fantastical, experimental and political." Her writing in all forms is noted for her 'eye for detail and ear for language' and "powerful intense imagery".

Maureen Duffy Maureen Duffy event King39s Alumni Online

Her early plays often depict working class life, with humour and evocative language, and she joined the Royal Court writers' group at a time when the social realist school, associated with such playwrights as John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, was transforming British drama. Some of her plays have been described as "anarchic...dealing with taboo subjects...'total theater' reminiscent of the ideas of Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet, employing Brechtian techniques". Jean-Paul Sartre is also an influence on her drama.

Duffy's affinity to London, present and past, and of its cosmopolitan inhabitants, often features in her writing; which celebrates diversity, regardless of class, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or species. She advocates "an ethic of compassion" towards human and animal rights.

Early life and education

Maureen Duffy had a tough childhood, on which she draws in That's How It Was, her most autobiographical novel. Her working class roots, experience of "class and cultural division" and close relationship with her mother are key influences on her work. Her family came from Stratford in East London, where Duffy went to live at the age of 14, when her mother died. Her father was Irish, an important strand in her identity, but left when she was two months old. She developed an early passion for reading "stories of Ancient Greece and Rome, folk tales of Ireland and Wales, tales of knightly chivalry and poetry..."

Inspired by her mother, who, Duffy recalls, "early on instilled in me that the one thing they can't take away from you is education", she completed her schooling; and supported herself - before she went to university - by teaching in junior schools. At King's College London, she gained a degree in English in 1956; then taught in Naples till 1958, and in secondary schools in the London area till 1961.

Career beginnings

Duffy's earliest ambition was to be a poet. She won her first poetry prize at the age of 17, with a poem printed in Adam magazine; soon followed by publication in The Listener and elsewhere. She later edited a poetry magazine called the sixties (1960–61).

While at King's she completed her first full-length play, Pearson, and submitted it to a competition judged by Kenneth Tynan, drama critic at the Observer. This resulted in an invitation to join the Royal Court Writers Group, which she did in 1958, when the members included Edward Bond, Ann Jellicoe, John Arden, William Gaskill and Arnold Wesker.

Duffy started writing full-time after being commissioned by Granada Television to write a screenplay Josie - broadcast on ITV in 1961 as part of the Younger Generation series - about a teenage girl, hoping to break out of factory work, by pursuing her talent for fashion design. The advance of £450 enabled Duffy to buy a houseboat to live in. Pearson won the Corporation of London Festival Playwright's Prize in 1962, and was performed, under the title The Lay Off, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The play drew on Duffy's student experience of vacation jobs in factories, and Pearson / The Lay Off, a modern reworking of Piers Plowman, is also an early example of Duffy's inclusion of black characters in prominent roles, and of her opposition to racism. The set for Room for Us All recreates a small block of flats, with the residents interacting, and the audience looking in as each one is lit up. Two and Two Makes Five is about a teacher, disillusioned by the constraints of school culture at the time, deciding to quit the profession.

Maureen Duffy's play, The Silk Room, about a male pop group, was produced at the Palace Theatre Watford in 1966 An episode of TV drama Sanctuary was commissioned by Associated Rediffusion and broadcast on ITV in 1967.

Becoming a novelist

Her first novel, written at the suggestion of a publisher, That's How It Was (1962), was published to great acclaim. While many reviewers focused on its vivid depiction of a working class childhood, Duffy also emphasised that her goal was to show the influences which could form a writer, and those which could encourage a preference for same-sex love.

Duffy's first openly gay novel was The Microcosm (1966), set in and around the famous lesbian Gateways Club in London (renamed the House of Shades). It was the first novel to depict a wide range of contrasting gay women of different ages, classes and ethnicities - and historical periods - to make its point that "there are dozens of ways of being queer". Widely reviewed, it became a bestseller, and was also inspiring to lesbian readers, including U.A. Fanthorpe and Mary McIntosh.

Duffy's other early novels deal with the life of creative artists. The Single Eye (1964), is about a talented photographer, who gradually realises that his wife has become his rival, a restriction which is holding back his life and his art, and that for the sake of his creativity and his identity, he must leave her. The Paradox Players (1967), about a writer, draws on Duffy's experience of living on a houseboat. It shows the attractions of the freer life of this alternative community, together with the shortcomings that go with it (including rats in the food cupboard). The paradox lies in the difficulty of sustaining this as a permanent lifestyle, as the pressures of the outside world break through.


In 1968, Maureen Duffy was one of five women novelists commissioned by Joan Plowright to write a play for the National Theatre with an all-female cast. Duffy's play Rites was selected for a second run at the Old Vic, then home of the National Theatre and has been frequently performed since. Set in ladies' public toilets, it climaxes with an attack by a group of women on a "male" who is discovered, too late, to be a woman in a suit. It is described by the author as "black farce...pitched between fantasy and naturalism". Rites was performed with Old Tyme and Solo at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge in 1970. Its sequel Washouse, was set in a launderette run by a male to female transsexual. All these plays had contemporary settings, but drew for their themes on Greek or Roman myths (the Bacchae, children of Uranus, Narcissus, Venus and Diana).

In 1971 Duffy was commissioned to write the second episode of ITV series Upstairs Downstairs. Her play about the last hour of Virginia Woolf's life, A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square, was performed in 1973 at the Hampstead Theatre Club and also featured Vita Sackville-West and Freud, as imagined by Virginia.

Duffy's radio plays, broadcast by the BBC, include The Passionate Shepherdess about Aphra Behn (1977), and Only Goodnight (1981), about Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Martin Ross). Family Trees (1984) dealt with family history research. Afterword, a witty two-hander about a writer under pressure from a benefits officer (written as a response to Vaclav Havel's play Conversation) was performed by Manchester University Drama Society in 1983. Megrim, set in a mythical matriarchy in the Welsh mountains, was performed at King Alfred's School of Speech and Drama, Winchester in 1984. The Masque of Henry Purcell was staged at Southwark Playhouse in London in 1995; and Sappho Singing was performed in London in 2010 and in Brighton in 2011.

Rites and A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square have been published. Typescripts of other plays are accessible to researchers in the King's College London [KCL] Archive. A survey and analysis of Duffy's drama is available in Kay, Lucy (2005).


Duffy's first volume of poetry was published in 1968, with nine books appearing in total, including Environmental Studies (2013), which was long-listed for the Green Carnation Prize; and, most recently, Pictures from an Exhibition (2016). Her Collected Poems, 1949–84 appeared in 1985.

Her poetry ranges widely: varying in form from the villanelle to free verse, and in content from erotic and lyrical love poetry to a humanist mass; family memories to political comment. Her work often references earlier poets from a contemporary angle, as in "Piers Plowless". Alison Hennegan credits Maureen Duffy with "the first modern lesbian love poems, unabashed and unapologetic. They showed what was possible." The "major concern" of Duffy's poetry is "sympathy for the human (or animal) condition, devoid of sentimentality or condescension".


Wounds (1969) creates a mosaic of London life through interweaving the voices of a wide range of characters including a black mother, a local politician, and a gay theatre director, whose lives are contrasted to the uplifting experience of two passionate lovers, whose encounters recur throughout the book. Love Child (1971) features a narrator whose gender is unstated, Kit, a child whose deep jealousy of its mother's relationship with her lover Ajax (also of unknown gender) has tragic consequences: an Oedipal theme. Kit has also been identified with Cupid, and the mother with Venus.

Duffy's trilogy about London continues with Capital (1975). The lives of a professor, Emery, and the self-educated homeless eccentric Meepers are intertwined around 'Queen's' (a fictionalised version of King's College), and interspersed with narratives of Londoners of various periods, including 14th century prostitutes and Stone Age hunters. Capital was seen by many reviewers as her most impressive novel to date: and Lorna Sage noted that "her writing was becoming altogether more carnivalesque - more deadpan and more comic". The third of the trilogy, Londoners: an Elegy (1983), deals, often with dry humour, with the challenges of the contemporary writing world, through the eyes of a narrator of unspecified gender, who is writing about Francois Villon. Londoners is also inspired by Dante's Inferno, and draws parallels with Villon's medieval Paris; and is also notable for its depiction of gay pubs and characters.

Change (1987) is set in World War II, and includes a group of apes as one of the sets of narrative voices, along with a mosaic of stories of a wide range of ordinary people. Many of Duffy's subsequent novels make use of contrasting and complementary narratives from past and present, a technique she first employed in The Microcosm. Restitution (1998) (which was long-listed for the Booker Prize), eventually brings the past and present narratives together, as a young London woman gradually discovers that her identity is unexpectedly altered because of events in Nazi Germany half a century before.

Some of Maureen Duffy's novels also deploy the storytelling techniques of thrillers, including I want to go to Moscow (1973), Housespy (1978), Occam's Razor (1991), Alchemy (2004), The Orpheus Trail (2009) and In Times Like These (2013).

Political passion often animates Duffy's work. The Microcosm makes the case for acceptance of lesbians, Gor Saga challenges assumptions about the gulf between humans and other species, and In Times Like These warns of the dangers of possible Scottish independence and the withdrawal of England and Wales from the European Union.

Scarborough Fear (written under a pseudonym in 1982) is a horror story with a modern setting and Gothic elements, which engages its young narrator in a psychological battle for survival.


Duffy's literary biography of Aphra Behn (1977) led to the rediscovery of the 17th-century playwright, the first woman to earn a living by her writing, and established fresh facts about her life. Maureen Duffy has also edited the plays of Aphra Behn, and the novel Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and has written introductions to other works of Behn's.

Duffy's other nonfiction books include The Erotic World of Faery (1972) a Freudian study of eroticism in faery fantasy literature; Inherit the Earth, (1979) a social history of her family and their roots in Thaxstead, Essex; a biography of composer Henry Purcell (1995); and a historical survey of how the myths of English identity came to develop, England: The Making of the Myth (2001).


A lifelong socialist, Duffy was involved in the early CND marches. A longstanding humanist, she has regularly taken a lead in standing up for her beliefs.

Gay rights

Maureen Duffy was the first gay woman in British public life today to be open about her sexuality. She "came out publicly in her work in the early 1960s" and made public comments before the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in 1967. In 1977 she published The Ballad of the Blasphemy Trial, a broadside against the trial of the Gay News newspaper for "blasphemous libel".

As the first President of the Gay Humanist Group from 1980 (renamed GALHA - the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association - in 1987) she spoke out on numerous issues, including the human rights of those with HIV and AIDs. At the TUC conference in 1988, as President of the Writers' Guild, she successfully proposed a motion deploring the passing of Section 28 "as an infringement of the basic right to free speech and expression". Duffy has been a patron of the British Humanist Association since GALHA became part of the BHA in 2012.

Duffy is often invited by LGBT groups to read her work. In 1991, she took part in 'Saturday Night Out', on BBC 2, saying that progress in gay rights since her earliest TV appearances had been more limited than she had hoped. In 1995 she was chosen by Gay Times as one of the 200 most influential lesbian and gay people in Britain. She was also included on the Independent on Sunday′s Pink List in 2005 In 2014, she received an Icon Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement from Attitude magazine.

Animal rights

A vegetarian and a campaigner for animal rights since 1967, who signed a letter to The Times in 1970, along with Elizabeth Taylor (among others) promising never to wear fur, Duffy's thinking is explained in her book Men & Beasts: an Animal Rights Handbook (1984).

Animal rights form a central theme in two of her novels: I Want to Go to Moscow (published in the US as All Heaven in a Rage) in 1973, and Gor Saga, the 1981 story of Gor, born half gorilla, half human, which was televised in 1988 in a three-part miniseries called First Born starring Charles Dance. Maureen Duffy became Vice President of Beauty Without Cruelty in 1975.

Authors' rights

Together with Brigid Brophy, Maureen Duffy founded the Writers Action Group in 1972, through which they mounted a sustained campaign for Public Lending Right (annual payments for authors based on the number of library loans of their printed books), until the law was passed in 1979. The campaign eventually had a membership of over 700 authors, and involved Duffy in successfully proposing a motion in support of PLR at the TUC conference in 1978, and being part of a delegation to meet Prime Minister, James Callaghan, in 1977. She continues to be an internationally respected authority on copyright, intellectual property law and secondary rights for authors.

"For almost as long as she has been writing for a living, Maureen Duffy has worked to protect the rights of writers, which have been jeopardised by successive changes in technology and in the book market." As well as continuing to defend PLR, Duffy has also been part of a successful campaign for authors to be paid when their work is photocopied, helping to found the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, which she chaired for 15 years, and is still its president. She has also held senior positions for many years in the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, the British Copyright Council, the European Writers’ Congress (renamed European Writers Council in 2008) and the Royal Society of Literature. She represents the International Authors Forum at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (a branch of UNESCO).


  • President of Honour of the British Copyright Council
  • President of ALCS
  • Vice President of Royal Society of Literature
  • Fellow of Kings College, London
  • Awards and honours

  • 1985 - Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
  • 2002 - CISAC gold medal - International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers
  • 2004 - Benson Medal - Royal Society of Literature
  • 2009 - Medal of Honour - Portuguese Society of Authors
  • 2011 - Honorary Doctor of Literature - Loughborough University
  • 2013 - Honorary Doctor of Literature - University of Kent
  • 2015 - Fellow of the English Association
  • Drama

    Plays published

  • "Rites" in New Short Plays 2 (Methuen, 1969), and published on its own by Hansom Books 1969, & in Plays by Women, edited by Michelene Wandor (Methuen, 1983).
  • "A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square", in Factions, edited by Giles Gordon and Alex Hamilton (Michael Joseph. 1974).
  • Art exhibitions

    1969 Prop Art (with Brigid Brophy). London.

    2014 Paper Wings - a collaboration with Liz Mathews. London

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