Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War

Book review

By Dana Greene; reviewed by Dee Cornwallis-Doran, published 11th June 2019

Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War, Dana Greene, Oxford University Press, 2018, 258p, £25-00. ISBN 978-0-19-882084-0.

This biography contains much detail on Elizabeth Jennings’ life and poetry. Jennings (1926-2001), born into a Roman Catholic family in Oxford, was often depressed, guilt-ridden, needy and lonely. However, for long periods of her life she was fortunate in having understanding friends, including some literary ones, some of whom assisted in getting some of her work published. Dana Greene comments more than once on the small number of women poets included in British anthologies from the 1940s to 1990. Jennings also had several long friendships with Roman Catholic priests.

Among themes on which Jennings wrote were religion, love, guilt, fear, friendship, childhood, politics, jealousy, social issues and nature. She also produced several partial autobiographies. Greene writes that, in order to raise money, Jennings sold parts (or possibly all) of her personal archive to (mostly American) institutions. In her ‘Prologue’ Greene notes that in addition to 48 published volumes, Jennings also left over 30,000 unpublished poems.

Soon after graduating from St Anne’s, Jennings began work as a library assistant in Oxford, which job she pursued for some years. It seems that amongst her happiest times were her visits to Rome. These contrasted strongly with several periods of severe depression. Even so, later in life she came to be recognised as a nationally significant poet.

While much research and work have obviously gone into the production of this interesting but mostly unhappy biography, one would question Dana Greene’s in her opening paragraph, in which she writes of the day in 1992 when Jennings received a CBE from the Queen, with the description of Jennings as ‘this ramshackle woman’. In United States English is the definition of ‘ramshackle’ different from that in British English? In the relevant photograph (on p162), while Elizabeth Jennings is not attired as a fashion model, she is, even if a little casually, warmly and comfortably dressed for a late October day in London.