An invasion of croquet

A new version of one of my first blogposts – about the father of Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen’s years as a fellow at Cambridge. He objected to fellows getting married, but later changed his mind.

The Ladies' Dining Society

Long before he became famous as the co-founder of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885 (and as the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell), Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a teaching fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge from 1854 until 1864. During his ten years there, he wrote a series of affectionate and sardonic essays about university life, published anonymously in 1865 in a little book called Sketches From Cambridgeby A. Don.

In the first chapter, Stephen describes Trinity Hall as ‘the ideal of a college’, with its ancient cloisters and courts surrounded by tall trees, organ music drifting through the air and the sounds of high-spirited young men making their way to lectures, as they had done for centuries. Now this scholarly idyll was under threat: women were encroaching on its hallowed ground.

We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls…

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Caroline Jebb’s calculations


It was a bright morning in late March 1875, and sunlight slanted into her bedroom. Caroline Jebb had woken early, thinking about the roll of carpet from Thomas Tapling’s in London that had been delivered to their new house the day before. She and her husband Richard, a classics don, would soon be moving into St Peter’s Terrace, a row of seven tall houses near the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It was fashionable address, but the owners, Peterhouse College, had allowed the interiors to fall into disrepair and pear trees to colonise the back garden. Caroline advised Richard to refuse to sign the lease until the college agreed to take the garden in hand and redecorate the house from top to bottom.

Six months on, the work was almost finished, with Caroline supervising every step of the process, from the most flattering shade of grey on the drawing room walls to the culling of the pear trees. The carpet was the last thing to be fitted. It was a ‘tapestry Brussels’, not expensive at only two shillings eleven pence a yard, and certainly good enough for the upstairs rooms, she thought. She had ordered a hundred yards which was plenty for three bedrooms, but after ordering it she realized that she had forgotten about the dressing room. She told Mr Burnett, her upholsterer, that she was sure that if he cut it a certain way there would enough leftover strips to cover the dressing-room. He had shaken his head and said that she would need another ten yards at least. There was always waste with carpets like that, he told her, it was to be expected. His wife might be able to do something with the off-cuts, he added, as if he was doing Caroline a favour. He was coming to cut the carpet that day and would bring his cart.

Caroline had always prided herself on being careful with money, as she had to be, with an itinerant preacher for a father. The family had lived in several American states as she grew up, but only Nashville was as cold as a English winter, she told her sister Ellen. Caroline was good with figures, even though she had left her school in Philadelphia at fifteen; calculations came naturally to her. She decided that she would get to the house before Burnett and the other workmen got there and see for herself. As she let herself out of the front door onto their quiet Cambridge street, she thought about her husband Richard, who was spending his Easter vacation visiting his elderly parents in Ireland. He would not have liked her walking through the streets at six o’clock in the morning (or indeed any time), and would have insisted on ordering a carriage for her. The expense of such a thing was ridiculous.

Parker’s Piece stretched green and fresh into the distance. Delivery boys pushed heavy barrows across the paths, and a handful of young men were up early to play football before their working day began. Outside St Peter’s Terrace, the cherry trees were in glorious blossom and inside the house smelled of fresh paint and sawdust; the decorators had been hard at work. Gardeners too, Caroline noted, looking out of the landing window, pleased to see that a dozen rosebushes had been planted around the planned croquet lawn as she had instructed and the pear trees had been forced into retreat at the bottom of the garden.

She turned from the window and walked up to her bedroom. The carpet lay rolled in its wrappings of brown paper and strings, Mr Burnett’s tool-bag on the floor nearby. I shall just have a look at it, she thought, taking his large scissors out of the bag.

Poppy Blue & Sage

‘I was very busy and very happy cutting off the lengths of carpet for my own room, when my upholsterer and factotum Mr Burnett came in, and caught me in the very act,’ she later wrote to her sister Ellen in Philadelphia. ‘He looked so shocked that I yielded my scissors and my position at once, and took on myself the harder work of putting my ideas into his head.’

Caroline was aware of how undignified she must have appeared, on her hands and knees cutting her way through carpet, with dust in her hair and smudges on her face. Whatever would Richard say? That this was not suitable work for a lady. He frequently reminded her that as an American she should take extra care in keeping up appearances in the highly traditional university town that was Cambridge.

Caroline listened politely, but suited herself. That evening she took off her street dress and instead of dressing for dinner as she did when Richard was at home, put on a loose jacket and warm woollen skirt and had her supper on a tray, sitting comfortably by the fire with her book. There was enough carpet to fit all the rooms, as long as it was cut the right way, as she knew there would be. ‘Burnett will never think so well of me again,’ she told Ellen. ‘Luckily, I don’t care.’

Ann Kennedy Smith, March 2019

Information for this scene is based on Caroline’s letter to Ellen Dupuy, 21 March 1875 from the Lady Caroline Lane Reynolds Slemmer Jebb Papers held at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Better Known

Rathlin Island

What does the Ladies Dining Society have in common with Rathlin Island, or adult education with Teddy Robinson?

Well, they’re just some of my choices for things I think should be better known, on this week’s episode of the ‘Better Known’ podcast series by Ivan Wise.

I recommend the interviews with Catharine Morris, Imogen Russell Williams and Emily Midorikawa & Emma Sweeney (and a whole episode dedicated to things that should be less well known) – it’s a lovely, entertaining and informative series and it was great fun taking part.

Click on the link below to listen:

Ann Kennedy Smith

An Unusual Lexicographer

Foxed 61

In the early 1980s, my summer job was helping out at the local newsagent’s in my home town, a small seaside resort in Northern Ireland. Apart from dusty tourist guides and Old Moore’s Almanack, there weren’t many books for sale. Tidying the shelves one day, how­ever, I came across a slim volume with an important-sounding title. Something told me that The Spoken Word: A BBC Guide was the book I had been wanting for a long time, without realizing it. I handed over £2 of my hard-earned wages, and took it with me when I went back to university that autumn.

Ever since then, books about words have piled up on my desk, including Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a Roget’s Thesaurus and the 1987 ‘Compact Edition’ (still huge) of the Oxford English Dictionary which came with its own magnifying-glass. But over the years Robert Burchfield’s little book – you might even call it a booklet – is the one that I have turned to most often. It helped me to learn how to write.

The Spoken Word, published in 1981, was produced in response to a wave of complaints to the British Broadcasting Corporation about falling standards in spoken English. A new era of broadcasting had begun in the 1970s, as the BBC changed from being the Reithian home of ‘received pronunciation’ to something broader, permitting more regional accents and informal language. Many people felt that the move towards linguistic diversity had gone too far, resulting in what the critic Anne Karpf so eloquently described in 1980 as ‘English as she is murdered on radio’.

The BBC felt that its broadcasters needed help in deciding what was acceptable and what was not, and commissioned a brief, no-nonsense guide from Dr Robert Burchfield. There was probably no one who knew the English language better, or how it had changed in recent times. Burchfield was the editor of the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, the great twelve-volume dictionary that had been published between 1879 and 1933. When he first took charge in 1957, Oxford University Press estimated that the work would produce a single volume within seven years. Instead the Supplement comprised 60,000 new entries, took up four large volumes and was not completed until 1986.

Robert Burchfield was, on the face of it, an unlikely lexicographer. Born in Waganui, New Zealand, in 1923, he later claimed that his parents had just one book in the house, a socialist tract. In 1944, while on wartime service in Italy, he stumbled across Frederick Bodmer’s The Loom of Language: A Guide to Foreign Languages for the Home Student. It was a book that changed his life, sparking off a fascination with words and their origins. After the war, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and moved to Oxford, where he was taught by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Burchfield might easily have opted for a quiet, scholarly life working on Old Norse poetry, but instead he accepted the challenge of bringing the Oxford English Dictionary into the twentieth century.

Updating the OED was a monumental task, requiring dogged patience and a team of dedicated workers, one of them the young Julian Barnes. The first two volumes of the Supplement (A–G and H–N) appeared in 1972 and 1976 respectively and, to his surprise and delight, Burchfield became something of a celebrity. He was a genial figure who featured on Desert Island Discs and regularly appeared on radio and television to give his views on current trends in spoken English. ‘I can’t understand what the young are saying any more,’ the former Prime Minister Edward Heath grumbled to him on the BBC’s Nationwide in the summer of 1979.

In The Spoken Word, Burchfield managed to offer soothing reassur­ance to the querulous while politely confirming that the English language was in flux, just as it always had been. ‘In what follows’, he says at the beginning of the book,

it is assumed that the speaker uses received Standard English in its 1980s form. The form of speech recommended is that of a person born and brought up in one of the Home Counties, educated at one of the established southern universities, and not yet so set in his ways that all linguistic change is regarded as unacceptable.

Although I hadn’t at that time set foot in England (and I was a ‘she’ not a ‘he’) it was clear that The Spoken Word was aimed at anyone who was interested in speaking and writing more clearly. Rather than strict rules of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, the book has ‘preferences’. Burchfield is like a knowledgeable friend who keeps a steady hand on the tiller, pointing out the occasional treacherous current and rocky outcrop while reassuring us that the boat is sea­worthy and safe. You feel you can trust him.

Much of his advice on pronunciation is still pertinent: ‘be careful not to garble words’, ‘avoid the use of reduced forms like “gunna, kinda, sorta, wanna”’. Other recommendations are showing their age, as you might expect. Who now places the stress on the first syllable of ‘despicable’ and ‘temporarily’, or makes the final ‘t’ in ‘restaurant’ silent? And, for that matter, does anyone now worry about the correct pronunciation of ‘contumely’? (Three syllables, not four, if you’re wondering.) Burchfield is sanguine about such changes, pointing out that ‘the pronunciations that are not recommended may well prevail, as time goes on, within a period of about half a century’.

In the things that matter, The Spoken Word has stood the test of time well. Burchfield recommends avoiding clichés (‘at the end of the day’) and using an unnecessarily long word when a short one will do (‘severe, harsh, cruel are better than “Draconian”’). Be precise, he advises broadcasters: instead of ‘industrial action’ ‘specify the type: strike, work to rule, overtime ban, etc’. Such echoes of long-ago bat­tles can be heard in his advice on how to pronounce ‘dispute’ (noun and verb). Burchfield prefers the stress on the second syllable for both but notes that ‘the influence of usage by northern trade union leaders is tending to bring the form with initial stress into prominence’. It is a reminder of how our spoken language is a reflection of our times, in this case the early 1980s stand-offs between the trade unions and Margaret Thatcher’s newly elected Conservative government (‘first ‘n’ fully pronounced and never ‘guv-ment’).

As a lexicographer, Burchfield was aware that the English language was becoming increasingly informal. ‘Slang is the language of the future,’ he told those who questioned its inclusion in the OED. Some uses of vocabulary were less negotiable than others, however. He notes that using disinterested to mean uncaring ‘attracts more comment from listeners than any other word in this list with the possible exception of hopefully’. In the sense of ‘it is to be hoped [that]’ this dangerous word is deployed ‘only by the brave or by young people unaware of public hostility to the use’, he warns. And even the bravest or most informal speaker should be aware of grammatical gaffes such as false concord. ‘Every one of those present were members of the union’ (Correctly: ‘Every one of those present was a member of the union’).

It is hard to disagree with this (did broadcasters really need reminding?), but one wonders how necessary it was in the 1980s to be able to carry through a sentence with ‘one’ as a subject. Just in case, Burchfield quotes Iris Murdoch to show how it should be done.

One’s best hope is to get into one of those ‘holes’ where one’s two neighbours are eagerly engaged elsewhere, so that one can concentrate upon one’s plate.

Relevant or not, such quotations make The Spoken Word a con­tinuing pleasure to read. Although the guide is ostensibly about the spoken language, Burchfield’s examples show how writers like George Bernard Shaw make anything possible. ‘If it doesn’t matter who any­body marries, then it doesn’t matter who I marry and it doesn’t matter who you marry.’ Language, in the right hands, can do any­thing it wants.

The duality of his approach can be seen in the section in which Burchfield sides with Fowler in making the case for the occasional split infinitive, and offers his own preference:

Avoid splitting infinitives wherever possible but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the natural and unambiguous completion of a sentence already begun.

Then the schoolmaster gives way to the romantic, and he gives Iris Murdoch’s words as a ‘model example’ of a perfectly deployed infin­itive: ‘I wanted simply to tell you of my love.’

Robert Burchfield’s job as a lexicographer was to be dispassionate about language, but The Spoken Word reveals him to be a lover of words and literature. He quotes from writers as disparate as Fielding, Carlyle and Jowett, and Dryden rubs shoulders with Graham Greene and Martin Amis. His enjoyment in writing the book is plain to see, and it is infectious. He would have agreed with Virginia Woolf who said that words are, by their nature, impossible to pin down:

you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabet­ical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.

Her own spoken words – the only known recording of her voice – were captured by a radio broadcast in 1937, when the BBC still saw itself as a guardian of the language. In The Spoken Word Burchfield reminds us that words, like butterflies, should never be imprisoned. They will always escape in any case.

Ten years after I bought The Spoken Word, I replied to an adver­tisement requesting ‘a harmless drudge’ and soon afterwards joined a team of lexicographers at Cambridge University Press. The first edi­tion of the Cambridge International Dictionary of English, aimed at students of English as a second language, appeared in 1995 and was, I am pleased to say, a modest success. Nowadays, most people tend to consult an online dictionary or thesaurus, and it’s easy to find free advice on grammar and ‘good English’ via the Internet. But for some of us, there will always be room on our desks for books about words.

Ann Kennedy Smith is a writer and researcher in Cambridge. She is no longer a harmless drudge, but still loves words.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 61 © Ann Kennedy Smith 2019

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 61, Spring 2019.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £12; annual subscriptions from £48. For more information please visit



Looking back at the Ida Darwin

Ida Darwin siteThese are the last days of the Ida Darwin site, next to Fulbourn Hospital a few miles south of Cambridge. I went to have a look around there recently. It was a cold Sunday afternoon, and the wintry sun was just setting, throwing long, soft-edged shadows across the frosty grass and lighting up the low redbrick buildings dotted about the complex. A small plane glinted silver as it buzzed overhead, and the branches of the tall trees glowed apricot against the bright blue sky. At my feet, tiny red and green flags on the lawns showed the way for the bulldozers that will soon be arriving.

The original hospital was built in the 1960s, commissioned as a series of inpatient wards for the care of 250 children and adults with learning disabilities and named after Ida Darwin in recognition of her pioneering, but little known, work in mental welfare. She died in 1946, the year that the NHS was formed, and years before mental health services  became the national organization known as Mind today. “Reform of the legislation around mental illness had to wait until the Mental Health Act of 1959” as one informative website puts it. In 1965 the Ida Darwin was hailed as a progressive establishment, but by the 1980s the model of institutional care that it provided had become outdated. Residents moved in increasing numbers to supervised domestic housing in the community, and it was decommissioned as a hospital. Over the past twenty-five years the site has continued to operate, instead, as a collection of separate clinics, day-care centres and community services.

There are still three NHS mental health inpatient units for children and young people based there: the Darwin Centre for Young People, the Phoenix Centre and the Croft Child and Family Unit. On my walk that Sunday I could see a faint curl of smoke from a chimney from the Darwin Centre, one of the larger and more recently renovated buildings on the complex, and cars parked outside. The rest of the site looks as if it was abandoned long ago. High fences protect empty buildings from vandals and intruders, and weeds are already twining green strands through the metal bars.

I followed the path towards Block 10, the former home of Headway Cambridgeshire, the charity for brain-injured adults that moved to the Ida Darwin in 2012. It was never likely to be their permanent home, because that was the year that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT) sold the entire site to Homes England. The 1960s redbrick buildings were no longer considered ‘fit for purpose’ and were too expensive to renovate, and it was argued that the money raised by selling the estate would be used more usefully to develop NHS services elsewhere. Outline planning permission has now been granted for two hundred new houses to be built there, and the services based on the Ida Darwin site are one by one moving to new locations.

During the six years it was based at the Ida Darwin, Headway Cambridgeshire made Block 10 a pleasant and comfortable space, with a much-loved garden, small gym and bright day rooms with large windows giving views of the changing colours of the many trees on the site. In 2017 I spent an afternoon there, invited to give a talk to a group of service-users and staff who had been researching a project about the life of Ida Darwin and why the site was named after her. Along one wall was a brightly coloured mural marking the stages of Ida’s life, up to and after she co-founded the Cambridgeshire Mental Welfare Association in 1908, one of the first organizations of its kind. It formed part of the research group’s exhibition and timeline presentation, and the excellent short film ‘Looking Back at Making Headway’ (2017).

‘We’ve made this amazing project’, as Nick says. ‘So look.’

The Headway Cambs research group’s work will continue in 2019 with a centenary project, aided by National Lottery funding, exploring and interpreting the history of people with brain injuries in Cambridgeshire as a result of the First World War. It will focus on the untold history of the soldiers of the Cambridgeshire Regiment who received brain injuries, and the hospitals in Cambridge where they were treated. The work will be presented in an exhibition and book and all progress will be reported in a podcast run by Cambridge 105 Radio Station. I wish Headway Cambs all the best for their new research project, and their new home.

A testament to friendship

The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society was “ a testament to friendship and intellectual debate at a time when women’s voices went largely unheard” (Ann Kennedy Smith)


Kathleen Lyttelton; photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Andrew Wallis

This month Wikipedia included a detailed article about the Ladies’ Dining Society (although the apostrophe is missing from their version). It’s based on, among other sources, an entry that I wrote last year for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and written by one of Wiki’s experienced editors. In the future, other editors and readers may add to the article, and it would be nice if, in time, more information emerges about the group, including what they discussed during their dinners.

Given that the twelve women met regularly from 1890 until 1914 it’s not difficult to make some guesses. Women’s higher education, suffrage, the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and reality – they were all hot topics at the time. But probably the most debated issue in 1890, when the group formed, was ‘the marriage question’. In August 1888 the novelist Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’ and calling for equality of marriage partners. The Daily Telegraph took up the issue, and began a series called ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ Over the following three months the newspaper received an astonishing 27,000 letters on the subject, an avalanche of opinions that filled its columns week after week. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s, and I think it is very likely that these friends would have discussed it. (I imagined an early meeting of theirs in a previous post.)

Marriage was what brought most of them to Cambridge, or made them choose to stay on there after their studies. One of the attractions of marrying a man from Oxford or Cambridge was the chance to access the educational opportunities that were denied to the majority of women at the time. Many lectures were open to married women, and in the 1870s Caroline Jebb attended lectures in zoology, moral philosophy, law, and German literature. She did not want to appear a bluestocking, though, and claimed that she enjoyed Alfred Marshall’s lectures in political economy because they supplied ‘such good after-dinner conversation’.

Ida Darwin’s husband Horace worked on designing measuring instruments for the university’s new scientific laboratories. After she married him and moved to Cambridge in 1880 they both became involved in supporting the new women’s college at Newnham. Together they helped to galvanize votes for the successful Senate statute in 1881 that allowed female students the right to sit for the university’s final year exams. Horace’s father Charles Darwin called it ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’ describing proudly how ‘Horace was sent to the Ladies’ College to communicate the success and was received with enthusiasm.’

Ida was also close to Anne Clough, Newnham’s first principal, and vice-principal Helen Gladstone, and later this year I will be discussing their connection in a talk for Literature Cambridge’s summer course, ‘Fictions of Home‘. Several other lecturers from Newnham College were members of the Ladies’ Dining Society, including Margaret Verrall, Mary Paley Marshall and Ellen Crofts, who married Ida’s brother-in-law Frank Darwin. Newnham’s second principal was Eleanor Sidgwick, whose marriage to the college’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick was a working relationship that helped to establish women’s education at Cambridge.

So, as far as Cambridge was concerned, marriage (which was only permitted for most college fellows after 1882) was a good thing. It brought a wave of women who were passionately committed to improving life for the less privileged people of the town, and for giving equal rights to women workers of all classes across Britain. Louise Creighton was a co-founder of he National Union of Women Workers in 1885, while Kathleen Lyttelton began The Cambridge Association For Women’s Suffrage alongside Millicent Fawcett. The American Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Cambridge, and Fanny Prothero and Eliza von Hügel were active in finding homes for Belgian refugees in the town during the First World War.

Later this year, Girton College will celebrate the beginning of 150 years of women’s education at Cambridge. Virginia Woolf once called Cambridge “that detestable place” because of the university’s long history of preventing female students’ rights to education. Marriage – like women’s education – was an unfair institution in 1890 and for many years afterwards, but the work of the married women associated with the university helped to make Cambridge a much better place. Wikipedia is helping to spread the word about the Ladies’ Dining Society, and I’m looking forward to hearing more in the future.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 January 2019 (All rights reserved

Great Lives


A study of Strachey reading, by Dora Carrington

Just over a hundred years ago, in 1918, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was published and biography changed forever. To celebrate the centenary of this groundbreaking book, I decided last year to compile a list of 100 of my favourite biographies and memoirs that have been published since then, and post each one on Twitter as my ‘Life of the Day’, with the hashtag #lifeoftheday. My list is not in any particular order or organized by theme, but as I have now reached the halfway mark, here’s a selection of a few of them.

The first biography I chose was Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1933), an imaginative account of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s mischievous little cocker spaniel. All her life Woolf experimented with different forms of biographical writing, but even before Flush was published she regretted it, believing it would prevent her from being taken seriously as a writer. Yet after her friend Sibyl Colefax praised it, Woolf said: “I’m so glad that you liked Flush. I think it shows great discrimination in you because it was all a matter of hints and shades, and practically no one has seen what I was after.”

One of the first biographies that made me want to write about ‘forgotten’ women was Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber 1996). In her preface Thwaite wrote: “I have always been interested in the lives of nineteenth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.” She showed that Emily Tennyson was musically gifted and independent-minded, something that biographers of her more famous husband had failed to notice.

Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 2012) ‘is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air,’ Tomalin writes. I included Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber 2008) for its vivid opening pages (“I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings, past, present and future which will come upon me on the wedding morning”) that instantly reveal the passionate inner life of William Wordsworth’s sister.

download.jpgNot all overlooked lives are female: I love The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock (Yale, 2015) for its fascinating story of the “intimacy, possessiveness, exasperation and love” of the close friendship between a former child slave and Dr Samuel Johnson. My own blog celebrates friendship, so it’s not surprising that several of the biographies I chose also take this as their subject.

Secret Sisterhood imageA Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney showed how these writers’ friendships with other women underpinned their lives and writing, sustaining and challenging them to greater creativity. I wrote a review of it here. Michelle Dean’s Sharp: the women who made an art of having an opinion (Fleet, 2018) is another engaging group portrait, in this case of the connections between ten 20th-century female thinkers and writers.  Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month (Faber, 1965) is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes a summer of fierce heat and personal crises for a close-knit group of writers and artists in 1846 London. It’s a book that still has a huge impact.

The book that got me interested in writing about marriage is Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Penguin, 1983) by Phyllis Rose. It’s an insightful, thought-provoking evocation of the troubled marriages of Dickens, Carlyle and Ruskin that’s a pleasure to read and Rose asks ‘if we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’ More recently, Daisy Hay wrote ‘a portrait of a marriage unobscured by mythology’ in her Mr and Mrs Disraeli (Chatto & Windus, 2015), which shows her biographer’s skills of ‘watching for alternative narratives, listening to things not said.’ I love Michael Holroyd’s explanation of how he ended up writing about the famous theatrical partnership of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in A Strange Eventful History (2008): “it was impossible to write about Ellen without Irving elbowing his way in and trying to upstage her – and once that happened the rest of the families crowded in and I was in for the long haul.” (The Guardian, 2008).

Some of the best biographies remind us of the pitfalls of life writing. In Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997) Hermione Lee shook up biography traditions by reminding us in the opening chapter that “there is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” In his equally influential book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (Harper Perennial, 1985) Richard Holmes showed the pleasures of ‘footstepping’ your subject, visiting the places they went to and seeing what they saw. “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway,” he warns. Yet the besotted biographer is not necessarily a good thing, as far as his or her subject is concerned. ‘The biographer at work,’ wrote Janet Malcolm provocatively in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993) ‘is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.’

In her prize-winning Aristocrats (Chatto, 2004) Stella Tillyard offers a more positive view of why life-writing matters: ‘biography (especially biography that deals, as this one does, with romance and royalty) often gives intimacy without context, and history without biography offers context without the warmth of individual lives.’ Craig Brown also deals with romance and royalty in his witty and irreverent Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017). It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize for Biography in 2018, and like Virginia Woolf’s Flush it’s a reminder to all biographers not to take themselves – or their subjects – too seriously.