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Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald is an English academic and writer best known for their non-fiction novel, H is for Hawk (2014). There’s a trend with Macdonald’s literary work – all of it is about the natural world! 

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Helen Macdonald

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Helen Macdonald is an English academic and writer best known for their non-fiction novel, H is for Hawk (2014). There’s a trend with Macdonald’s literary work – all of it is about the natural world!

Helen Macdonald identifies as non-binary and goes by she/they pronouns.

Helen Macdonald biography

Helen Macdonald was born in Surrey in 1970. She was raised in Camberley, a place which they describe as a traditional and conservative town. Both of Macdonald’s parents worked in journalism. Their father was a photojournalist for the daily mirror, while their mother was a writer for local papers in Camberley.

Commenting on their childhood in a 2018 article, Macdonald discussed a park near her childhood home. This park was named Tekels Park and, according to Macdonald, ‘indelibly shaped’ their writing life.1

Macdonald was a self-proclaimed 'child naturalist' in their younger years. They would spend hours in Tekels Park after school, writing down sightings of moths, foxes, slow worms, and other animals in their diaries. When Macdonald entered their teen years, they began painting the wildlife they found, further developing their interest in the natural world.

Macdonald's parents moved to Basingstoke when they began to attend university. However, they still imagine themself to be back in Tekels Park when struggling with writer's block.1

After completing their secondary education, Macdonald attended Cambridge university, where they studied English. Later in their life, Macdonald became a Research Fellow at Jesus College in Cambridge between 2004 and 2007. Currently, Macdonald is an Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge.

In conversation with journalist Kate Kellaway, Macdonald commented on their academic background and journey to becoming a writer, stating that they;

wanted to be a biologist... my maths was execrable... so books were the next best thing2

Helen Macdonald's personal life

Currently, Macdonald lives in Suffolk. Macdonald does not have a partner. However, they previously lived with their goshawk, Mabel, who died in 2014 and parrot, Birdoole, who died in 2021. Remarking on the death of Mabel, Macdonald stated;

I was in pieces – I miss her tremendously, she was such a partner.2

Helen Macdonald, image of a Hawk, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Helen Macdonald's goshawk was called Mabel

Helen Macdonald author

Macdonald published their first book in 2001, a collection of poetry titled Shaler’s Fish. However, it was their work H is for Hawk (2014) that brought them critical acclaim. Alongside their writing career, Macdonald has narrated and written a number of radio programmes. They also appeared on Bird Britannia (2010) and presented The Hidden Wilds of the Motorway (2020), two BBC Four documentaries.

The natural world is the centre-point of Macdonald's writing. Although Macdonald's work often considers the concept of grief, they consider the subject of their writing to be 'love of the world and the things in it'.3 However, they acknowledge that 'writing about love means you are also writing about death.

One of Macdonald's great loves is the natural world, and therefore, to them, 'it is hard to write about the natural world without writing about grief'.3

Let’s take a look at the books which Macdonald has written so far.

Helen Macdonald books

Macdonald has published four books during their lifetime:

  • Shaler’s Fish (2001)
  • Falcon (2006)
  • H is for Hawk (2014)
  • Vesper Flights (2020)

Alongside these books, Macdonald published Falcon, a new edition in 2016. They have also published several newspaper articles; for instance, in April 2020, they published an article in the New Statesman titled ‘Learning from the Birds’.

H is for Hawk (2014)

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is a memoir in which Macdonald recounts how they trained a goshawk whilst mourning the death of their father. Macdonald wrote this book as part of their journey through grief. In their own words, they were 'broken and trying to stitch the world together by keeping a journal'.2

In 2007, Macdonald travelled 400 miles from their home to Scotland, where they met their goshawk. Describing their first meeting with this bird in chapter five ('Holding Tight'), Macdonald wrote;

the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box…My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

Although H is for Hawk is a non-fiction work, Macdonald employs a notable amount of descriptive writing to convey this first meeting. Their use of short metaphorical sentences to describe the Hawk as a ‘reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon’, ‘something bright and distant’, and ‘a broken marionette of wings’ indicates to the reader that this creature and The Hawk’s beauty is mythical yet challenging to pin down and describe since multiple references are being used.

H is for Hawk was both critically and publicly acclaimed following its publication, winning the Samuel Johnson award and the Costa Book of the Year award.

Vesper Flights (2020)

Macdonald's latest work, Vesper Flights, is a collection of essays which continues the trend of Macdonald's work focusing on the natural world. However, while H is for Hawk (2014), centred on Macdonald's own personal journey of grief, Vesper Flights discusses what animals can teach us about ourselves.

Climate change is a centre-point of Macdonald's essays, as they consider humankind's relationship with the natural world and how we can protect our planet.

Helen Macdonald - Key takeaways

  • Helen Macdonald (1970 - present) is an English academic and writer.
  • Macdonald has a considerably secluded personal life, living alone in Suffolk.
  • Macdonald is best known for their work H is for Hawk (2014), a memoir following Macdonald's journey through grief after the death of their father.
  • Macdonald's work most commonly focuses on the themes of love, death, and nature, with the natural world at its centre.
  • In 2001, Macdonald's published work was a collection of poetry titled Shaler's Fish (2001). Other works by Macdonald are; Falcon (2006), H is for Hawk (2014), and Vesper Flights (2020).

References

  1. Helen Macdonald, 'Helen Macdonald on Camberley, Surrey', The Guardian, 2018.
  2. Kate Kellaway, 'Helen Macdonald: 'I was feral, I identified with the hawk, took on her character', The Guardian, 2014.
  3. Lisa Allardice, 'Helen Macdonald: 'It is hard to write about the natural world without writing about grief'', The Guardian, 2020.
  4. Fig. 1 - Falcon Young Hawk Birds of Prey Raptor Free Living (https://pixabay.com/photos/falcon-young-hawk-birds-of-prey-5350832/) by WFranz (https://pixabay.com/users/wfranz-7477911/) licensed by Pixabay License (https://pixabay.com/service/license/)

Frequently Asked Questions about Helen Macdonald

Helen was raised in Camberley, Surrey.

Helen Macdonald was born in Surrey in 1970.

Helen Macdonald currently lives in Suffolk.

Helen Macdonald is an English writer and academic, best known for their work H is for Hawk (2014).

Helen Macdonald is 52 years old.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

When was Helen Macdonald born?

Where did Helen Macdonald grow up?

True or false: Helen Macdonald called her younger self a 'child naturalist'.

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