Ivor Gurney (1890–1937) wrote some of the most anthologized poems of the First World War and composed some of the greatest works in the English song repertoire, such as “Sleep.” Yet his life was shadowed by the trauma of the war and mental illness, and he spent his last fifteen years confined to a mental asylum. In Dweller in Shadows, Kate Kennedy presents the first comprehensive biography of this extraordinary and misunderstood artist.
A promising student at the Royal College of Music, Gurney enlisted as a private with the Gloucestershire regiment in 1915 and spent two years in the trenches of the Western Front. Wounded in the arm and subsequently gassed during the Battle of Passchendaele, Gurney was recovering in hospital when his first collection of poems, Severn and Somme, was published. Despite episodes of depression, he resumed his music studies after the war until he was committed to an asylum in 1922. At times believing he was Shakespeare and that the “machines under the floor” were torturing him, he nevertheless continued to write and compose, leaving behind a vast body of unpublished work when he died of tuberculosis. Drawing on extensive archival research and spanning literary criticism, history, psychiatry and musicology, this compelling narrative sets Gurney’s life and work against the backdrop of the war and his institutionalisation, probing the links between madness, suffering and creativity.
Facing death in the trenches, Gurney hoped that history might not “forget me quite.” This definitive account of his life and work helps ensure that he will indeed be remembered.
Kate Kennedy has held Research Fellowships at Girton College, Cambridge; Wolfson College, Oxford; and is the Associate Director of the Oxford Centre for Life-writing. She lectured in both Music and English at Cambridge University until 2016, and specialises in interdisciplinary biography. Her biography Dweller in Shadows: A Life of Ivor Gurney was published by Princeton University Press in 2020, and she is currently working on a triple biography of Rupert Brooke and composers FS Kelly and William Denis Browne, entitled The Fateful Voyage. She has published widely on British composers and writers in the early twentieth century, co-editing The Silent Morning: Culture and Memory after the Armistice (Manchester University Press, 2013), The First World War: Literature, Music, Memory (Routledge, 2011) and contributing numerous chapters for books and journal articles. She is the editor of Literary Britten, a compendium of scholarship on Benjamin Britten’s use of text, to be published by Boydell and Brewer in 2017. Both her biographies have been featured on BBC Radio 3, and she is a regular broadcaster and academic consultant to the BBC, directing the commemorations for the First World War and for International Women’s Day for Radio 3, among other projects. She is particularly interested in developing biographical research as performance, her opera libretto Out of the Ruins was a Royal Opera House commission in 2014, and her dramatized recitals for singer, pianist and actor have been performed in Literary and Music Festivals across the UK, and commissioned by the Wigmore Hall and Southbank Centre. Kate is interested in developing the concept of the recital, experimenting with blending biography and archival research with elements taken from the theatre and the concert platform. Her dramatized recitals The Fateful Voyage, A Music of One’s Own, The Dark Pastoral, Literary Britten and To His Love are performed regularly throughout the UK by leading actors and singers including Fiona Shaw, Sarah Connolly and Simon Russell Beale. The Dark Pastoral has also been recorded as a CD (Altara Records). She writes for BBC Music Magazine, and gives talks at literary and music festivals around the country, and at venues such as the Wigmore Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and the Southbank Centre, and is a regular guest on BBC Radio 3. She is the consultant to Radio 3 for their First World War programming, and has appeared on BBC 2 and 4 television. https://drkatekennedy.com