How to write a biography

Virginia-Woolf

 

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) had already overturned accepted conventions that all biographies should be serious, worthy, and long; before that, the Dictionary of National Biography, co-founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen, also introduced a new approach to writing short lives. Today there are lots of inventive and imaginative ways to write a biography. As Michael Holroyd, the great biographer of Lytton Strachey, said in 2011: “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

About a year ago I started compiling a list of the biographies that changed my own thinking about what biography and life-writing can do. Now I have put together my personal ‘top twenty’ out of these, in a strand I called ‘Life of the day’: here they are listed in no particular order. At Number 20 is the revived digital edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, constantly updated, illustrated and with more focus on women’s lives than ever (available online in public libraries; information about the latest update here). Leslie Stephen might not recognize his original Victorian creation that was published in multiple heavy volumes, but Virginia Woolf would surely approve.

  1. Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997), showing new ways of combining scrupulous research,  brilliant writing and inventive structure: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” (Lee)
  2. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial, 1985) – a highly influential and inspiring book about travelling in the footsteps of your biographical subject: “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway.” (Holmes)
  3. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983) is a classic study of love and power, soon to be reissued by Daunt Books: ‘If we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’
  4. A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (Faber& Faber, 1965) by Alethea Hayter is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes the searing personal crises of a group of writers and artists over one suffocatingly hot summer.
  5. A Suppressed Cry by Victoria Glendinning (1969; reissued by Virago with a new introduction in 1995): the heartbreaking story of Newnham College, Cambridge student Winnie Seebohm’s short life. ‘I could, had I waited, have written a longer and different book. It might not have been a more telling one. Too much information can blur the issues.’ (Glendinning)
  6. Marianne Thornton, 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) by EM Forster. A biography of the great-aunt who helped him to become a writer, and Forster’s only published memoir: my Slightly Foxed essay is here. The Times critic observed that ‘Mr. E. M. Forster, one of the most reticent of authors, has adopted an unusual way to tell us something about himself’
  7. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1990): “This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air.”
  8. Janet Malcolm’s brilliant and acerbic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993): “The biographer at work… is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house.”
  9. Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber& Faber, 1996) opened my eyes to the fascinating woman overlooked by most of Tennyson’s biographers: ‘I have always been interested in the lives of nineteeth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.’ (Thwaite)
  10. Frances Spalding’s sensitive, imaginative and scrupulously researched Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill, 2001): ‘running through her work, both her art and her writing, is a deep sense of the importance of life, and a reverence for the texture and fabric of the everyday world.’ (Spalding)
  11. Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber 2008): ‘Dorothy walked out of the life that she and others expected of her.’
  12. Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Cape, 2003): ‘Darwin was one of the most human of men … his biography is in part the biography of Victorian family life – of what it was like to make and live with science.’
  13. Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2010) is about the tragedy and triumph of great economists’ lives 1850-1950 (especially good on Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall and Beatrice Webb).
  14. John Aubrey, My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2016) by Ruth Scurr: “Because I chose to write Aubrey’s life in the form of a first person diary, I had to get as close to him as I could, despite the passage of time”
  15. Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (Virago, 2017) Lyndall Gordon’s group biography of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: ‘All were readers before they became writers, which is to say each heard the one before her in a chain of making.’
  16. A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is an enjoyable, beautifully written book; I wrote about it here. Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work.’
  17. Jenny Uglow’s delightful, beautifully illustrated Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, 2017): ‘If we follow him across land and sea, to the borderlands of self, can we see where the art and nonsense are born?’
  18. Combining research, parody, diaries, interviews, lists and wicked gossip, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is a skilful, experimental and very funny biography.
  19. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (HarperCollins 2005), the heartbreaking life of a homeless “chaotic” Cambridge man, told with sympathy and humour: ‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes.”‘
  20. The revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now in its 58th update with 61,184 articles and 11,724 portraits, researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London. The ODNB has an increasing number entries on women (making up past oversights), and I’m proud to have contributed three of these (about the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Martin Ward) in the past three years.

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