The Writer Who Willed Herself Into Oblivion

William Boyd, “The Writer Who Willed Herself Into Oblivion,” The Times (Saturday Review), 30 April 2022, p. 18

Writers deliberately don’t seek oblivion — for very obious reasons — it’s oblivion that seeks them out. The case of Rosemary Tonks (1928-2014) is a different matter, however; unique in English literature, I believe. A successful poet and novelist, at some time in the late 1970s she wilfully ran into the arms of oblivion and effectively disappeared.

Tonks had published two collections of poetry and six novels between 1963 and 1972, when she made the decision to quit her life as an increasingly acclaimed writer and leave it behind. Round about 1977 she had some kind of a breakdown — a combination of ill health coinciding with a profound crisis of faith. She abandoned her nom de plume, her maiden name, and became a religious recluse, living out the decades that remained to her in Bournemouth under her married name, Lightband, although she and her husband were divorced. She turned her back irrevocably on her former self and the literary life she had been leading. . . .

. . . Tonks is, I suppose, a kind of English version of Arthur Rimbaud, perhaps the only other writer who determinedly junked his literary career; in the 1870s he stopped writing and eventually set himself up as a merchant in what is now Ethiopia. There is nothing quite so exotic and romantic in Tonks’s example, but there is still definitely something Rimbaldian and strangely heroic, in a very English way, about how she lived out her years of dogged seclusion in a provincial seaside town.

Tonks resisted every attempt, when encouraged, to tell her story and step back into the literary limelight. . . .

. . . Paradoxically, the story of Tonks’s astounding efforts in seeking oblivion, ensuring the non-existence of her literary self, and being so successful in achieving it, has brought her a degree of posthumous fame that her shade would deeply resent. . . .

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