Anna Kavan was born "Helen Woods" in Cannes, France on April 10, 1901 to wealthy expatriate British parents. Anna spent her childhood in several European countries, California and England.
She completed her education in England. She married (Donald Ferguson) and for a time lived in Burma. This marriage failed but it was during this period that she began writing.
She remarried (to Stuart Edmonds although no record of the marriage exists) and spent some time in various parts of Europe before settling in England. Several of her books were published (Helen chose to use the name of her detested first husband, 'Ferguson', for her early novels). At first she wrote traditional novels, but later achieved a unique and sophisticated style.
She became a heroin addict around 1926. Her addiction has been described as being, rather than recreational, her attempt at self-medication for her clinical depression, a condition barely acknowledged by the medical community at the time. Her intermittent mental illness, and the change of style in her work coincided with the premeditated change in her appearance and life-style after a breakdown. It was also at that time that she adopted the name of Anna Kavan, taken from a character in her novel Let Me Alone with whom she identified.
Self-portrait by Anna Kavan
(click portrait for larger version)
She went through detoxification many times before her death, but always returned to what she called her "bazooka".
She continued to write, even during periods of mental illness/depression which she spent in clinics in Switzerland
and in England. Her experiences there provided material for Asylum Piece.
Her life was also haunted by a remote, selfish and glamorous mother, on whom she based several of the mothers in her books. A dedicated writer, she was also a talented painter and interior decorator, and had acclaimed gallery exhibits in London.
She was a difficult personality all her life, but towards the end was even more anti-social and reclusive. She had a small collection of friends whose devotion overlooked her problems and eccentricities. Ironically, after a life of suicide attempts and heroin addiction, she died of natural causes in London on December 5, 1968.