John Burgess Wilson was born on 25 February 1917 in Harpurhey, Manchester to Elizabeth Burgess, a singer and dancer on the music-hall stage in Glasgow and Manchester, and Joseph Wilson, a piano-player in music halls and silent cinemas.
Burgess's mother and his 8 year old sister, Muriel, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The loss of his mother was to have a profound effect on his life and literary work. Following his mother's death, Burgess was sent to live with his maternal aunt, Ann Bromley and her two daughters on Delauneys Road in Higher Crumpsall, a suburb of north Manchester.
In 1922, his father, Joseph, married a widow, Margaret Dwyer (nee Byrne), who had two daughters from her previous marriage, Agnes and Madge. The newly conjoined families moved into a series of rooms above a pub, the Golden Eagle, on Lodge Street, in the Miles Platting area of Manchester, which Joseph and Margaret (known as Maggie) were to run jointly for a couple of years. The family later moved to 21 Princess Road, Moss Side, Manchester, where they lived above the tobacconist's shop they ran downstairs, and where Burgess was to write his earliest poems and short stories.
From the ages of 6-11, Burgess attended Bishop Bilsborrow Memorial School in Moss Side. He joined his secondary school, the Xaverian College in Lower Park Road in the Victoria Park district of Manchester, on 15 September 1928, and stayed to complete his School Certificate examinations, leaving on 23 July 1935.
Burgess went on to read English Literature at the University of Manchester between 1937 and 1940, graduating with a 2:1 BA degree. In 1940 he was conscripted into the Royal Army Medical Corps and posted to various locations throughout the UK, serving both at a military hospital in Winwick and as part of the mobile Entertainments Section of the 54th Division. This touring concert party - for which Burgess was pianoplayer - was established by the Division's commanding officer, General John Priestland, and the musicians were therefore known as 'JPs' or Jaypees. .
On 28 January 1942, he married his first wife, Llewela (Lynne) Jones in a Register Office in Bournemouth, while he was visiting her on leave from the army. This first marriage was followed by two more: a Welsh Protestant wedding in the winter of 1942 to satisfy Lynne's parents, and a Manchester Catholic ceremony the following summer for Burgess's remaining relations. In late 1943 Burgess transferred to the Army Education Corps in Gibraltar and was principally involved in teaching a course entitled "The British Way and Purpose" to the troops. In 1945 he composed a Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, which is his earliest surviving musical work.
In August 1946, Burgess moved to Brinsford Lodge, a residential college near Wolverhampton, in order to take up a teaching post there. In 1948, he moved to a second teaching post, a lectureship in Speech and Drama at Bamber Bridge Emergency Training College near Preston in Lancashire. On 21 June 1950 Burgess was offered the post of English master at Banbury Grammar School, Oxfordshire, and moved with Lynne to 4 Water Lane, Adderbury, near Banbury. His first full-length stage play was completed in 1951 and, around this time, he wrote his first two novels, A Vision of Battlements, which drew upon his experiences in Gibraltar, and The Worm and the Ring, although neither were published until several years later.
In 1954 Burgess was posted to Malaya (now Malaysia) by the Colonial Service and he moved with Lynne to Kuala Kangsar in the Perak province of Malaya, where he taught at the Malay College, and later the Malayan Teachers' Training College in Kota Bharu. In 1956, his first published novel, Time for a Tiger, appeared under the pseudonym Anthony Burgess: "Anthony" being Burgess's confirmation name, and "Burgess" his mother's maiden name.
After a brief return to the UK in 1957, Burgess took up a teaching post at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin College in Brunei Town in January 1958. He continued to balance his teaching and writing careers throughout this period, completing his Malayan Trilogy with the novels The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1959). Writing as John Burgess Wilson, he published a history of English literature in 1958. In September 1959 he collapsed in the classroom and was discharged from the Colonial Service and flown back to England with a mysterious illness. Burgess remained under observation at two hospitals in London, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, and the Neurological Institute on Queen Square in Bloomsbury, for 8 weeks, and he and Lynne subsequently moved to a flat in Hove. In the early spring of 1960, they moved to a house called Applegarth in Etchingham, East Sussex, which was to be Burgess's principal home for the next 8 years.
His prolific literary output as a novelist began at this time. By the end of 1962 he had published seven novels, including The Doctor is Sick, The Worm and the Ring, A Clockwork Orange, and The Wanting Seed. Working collaboratively with Lynne, he translated three novels from the French originals: The Olive Trees of Justice by Jean Pelegri (1962), The New Aristocrats by Michel de Saint-Pierre (1962), and The Man Who Robbed Poor Boxes, a translation of Deo Gratias by Michel Servin (1965). He also adopted another pseudonym, publishing two novels, One Hand Clapping (1961) and Inside Mr Enderby (1963), as Joseph Kell. In December 1963, Burgess and Lynne took possession of 24 Glebe Street, Chiswick, London and, between 1964 and 1968, they divided their time between Chiswick and Etchingham, spending most of the year in London but returning to Sussex for the summer months and at Christmas. It was during 1963 that Burgess met Liliana (Liana) Macellari Johnson, an Italian linguist and translator, who was to become his second wife.
On 20 March 1968, Lynne died of liver failure and, on 9 September 1968, Burgess married Liana Macellari Johnson. Together with their son, Paolo Andrea (later known as Andrew Burgess-Wilson), they soon left England for Malta, beginning a peripatetic existence that was to last the remainder of Burgess’s life. Having sent their belongings on to Malta, they travelled to their new home in a Bedford Dormobile. Between October and December 1968, the family drove through France and Italy, breaking their journey in Avignon and Rome, and eventually sailing to Malta from Brindisi. By 19 December 1968, they had arrived at their new home, 168 Main Street, Lija.
In 1970, Burgess and his family moved on to Italy, to the shore of Lake Bracciano a few miles north of Rome, to a small fifteenth century fortified house, 1 and 2 Piazza Padella, on the shore of Lake Bracciano, a few miles north of Rome. This was to be Burgess's main house and workshop for the next four years, although there would be frequent excursions to the United States and Canada. (Between 1972 and 1973, Burgess held a teaching post at City College, New York, and travelled around North America during this period, giving lectures and making appearances on television and radio.)
In 1975, Burgess and his family moved to Monaco, purchasing a top-floor apartment at 44 rue Grimaldi.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Burgess continued his prodigious output as a novelist, poet, screen-writer, broadcaster and composer. His television credits include Moses the Lawgiver, starring Burt Lancaster, Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and featuring Robert Powell as Jesus, and the epic mini-series AD: Anno Domini. Burgess also wrote the lyrics for the award-winning Broadway musical Cyrano, with music composed by Michael Lewis and featuring Christopher Plummer in the title role. His ballet suite about the life of William Shakespeare, Mr WS, was broadcast on BBC radio, and the University of Iowa commissioned and performed his Symphony No. 3 in C (1974-1975). He also wrote a song cycle based on his own poems, The Brides of Enderby, along with musical settings of texts by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Burgess’s most substantial novel, Earthly Powers, was published to international acclaim in 1980 and was awarded the Charles Baudelaire Prize and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France in 1981. Blooms of Dublin, his musical adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, was broadcast on BBC radio in 1982. He also provided new libretti for Scottish Opera’s Glasgow production of Oberon in 1985 (revived in Venice in 1987), and for the English National Opera’s 1986 production of Carmen. Two volumes of autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God and You've Had your Time were published in 1987 and 1990 respectively, and two published volumes of essays, Homage to Qwert Yuiop, and One Man’s Chorus, in 1986 and 1998.
After his diagnosis with lung cancer in New York on 8 October 1992, Burgess returned to the UK, living at 63 Bickenhall Mansions, London, and continued to write and compose music. His novel about the murder of Christopher Marlowe, A Dead Man in Deptford, was published in 1993. His stage play, Chatsky, starring Colin Firth and Jemma Redgrave, was produced at the Almeida Theatre in London in March 1993. He completed his St John’s Sonata on 12 November 1993.
Burgess died a few minutes before midnight on 22 November 1993 at the Hospital of St John and Elizabeth in St John's Wood, London, at the age of 76. At Liana's request, the news of his death was not announced until 25 November and his ashes were interred in Monaco. His last novel, Byrne, was published posthumously in 1995 and a selection of his poems, Revolutionary Sonnets, edited by Kevin Jackson, was published by Carcanet in 2002.
Burgess was survived by his adopted son Andrew (d.2002), and his wife Liana (d.2007).