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.

 

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.

Ladies' Dining Society 1890-1914

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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Writing Lives: the Jebb marriage

Richard_Claverhouse_Jebb MP, known as 'Ajax'. Vanity Fair, 1904

Bacchylides was of placid temper; amiably tolerant; satisfied with a modest lot; not free from some tinge of that pensive melancholy which was peculiarly Ionian’ (‘The Life of Bacchylides’, Richard Claverhouse Jebb, 1905)

In 1905 Cambridge University Press published the first English translation of poems by Bacchylides, with an introductory essay about the Greek lyric poet’s life. The author and translator, Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, was considered by many to be the most brilliant classical scholar of his time, and his seven-volume edition of Sophocles was widely celebrated. He was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and its Member of Parliament  (where he was nicknamed ‘Ajax’ after Sophocles’s tragic hero); he accepted a British knighthood in 1900, and was appointed to the Order of Merit in June 1905. A month later he and a group of academics sailed to South Africa with the British Association to promote its scientific and literary work. It was an exhausting and demanding lecture tour, and Richard’s health was not strong. He returned to Cambridge in October with a high fever, and died on 9 December 1905 at the age of sixty-four.

13 December 1905, Wednesday. Funeral. Sunshine through a veil of mist… Ah, my dearest.’ (Diary of Caroline Jebb)

Richard’s death came as a shock to his American wife Caroline Jebb, then sixty-five, but her next move was obvious: she would write her husband’s biography. In this she was following in the footsteps of two of her friends, both members of her ladies’ dining club. Louise Creighton’s two-volume biography of Mandell Creighton, published in 1904, was praised by many, including Lytton Strachey. Eleanor (Nora) Sidgwick was busy co-authoring a memoir of her husband Henry, who had died in 1900. In January 1906 Caroline set to work. Richard had done much of the preparation for her already, having compiled scrapbooks in which he pasted letters, reviews, excerpts from his speeches and newspaper cuttings about himself. All she had to do was to choose what to include.

Weighty biographies of great men were plentiful throughout the nineteenth century, and in many cases they were written by people who were close to their subjects, such as a wife, sibling, son or daughter. This presented the home-grown biographer with a paradox. The ideal biography was, it was believed, conscientious in its gathering of documents and deeply respectful in tone. It should be heavy on its subject’s achievements, and light on their personal failings. Undignified anecdotes were avoided, and most of all, the biographer’s own personality and feelings should be suppressed at all times.

‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory’ Disraeli, 1832

To modern readers, the apparently respectful, authoritative ‘Lives‘ that fill the library’s dustier shelves reveal, on closer inspection, interesting hidden narratives about the people who wrote them. Mandell Creighton’s biography was written partly to defend his posthumous reputation from his critics and yet, almost accidentally, his widow lets slip his shortcomings as husband and father. Although Eleanor Sidgwick seems to choose humble self-effacement in her memoir of her husband (by never directly referring to herself), her absence only reinforces the reader’s sense of her supreme self-confidence in the central role she played in their shared life and work towards women’s education in Cambridge.

From her family letters we know that Caroline Jebb was a discerning and enthusiastic reader of literary biographies, and she was influenced by Leslie Stephen, the Dictionary of National Biography’s first editor and, until his death in 1904, a friend of both Jebbs. Like Stephen, she wanted to avoid what Thomas Carlyle called a ‘Dryasdust’ approach to biography, in which the traditional biographer was at pains to present his or her subject in the most reverential light. J.A. Froude’s edition of Carlyle’s posthumous Reminiscences (1881) was criticized for being too revealing about the Carlyles’ unhappy marriage, but Caroline found it fascinating. ‘I can’t help thinking Froude must have slipped in thing or two unmarked by Carlyle for publication’, she told her sister.  ‘Would I have mended his trousers while he was off amusing himself with Lady Harriet Baring? I would not.’ She had misgivings about John Cross’s ‘not altogether attractive Life’ of his famous wife but it gave her an insight into George Eliot’s ‘enormous mental industry. To read about her work took my breath away’.

In her Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, published in 1907, Caroline did not attempt to disguise her own authorial presence or her less than perfect marriage. She places herself in the first paragraph by adding a detail that only she could know. Describing Richard’s happy childhood in County Dublin, she depicts him as a boy who was both quick-tempered and highly sensitive. ‘A look of disapproval from his mother made him miserable: to disappoint anyone who loved him was all his life intolerable to him. “Dick sorry; forgive your Dick” was a phrase not confined to childhood.’ Instantly we have an insight into the Jebbs’ marriage: his quick temper and remorse; her amused tolerance. She suppresses information about his tendency to drink too much (which contributed to his poor health), but later in the book she  is humorous about his inability to manage money. ‘He never knew how much he had with him, or counted his change at railway stations’ she writes. ‘It filled him with a sort of disgust when less high-minded people – his wife to wit – assumed the existence of dishonesty’.

We get the impression of a real marriage with real arguments, and a man who, for all his achievements, was not always easy to live with. As Richard himself wrote in 1905, even Bacchylides suffered from ‘pensive melancholy’ sometimes, and some people might have considered Sophocles’s Ajax to be a bad loser.

Sources: Caroline Jebb, Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (Cambridge University Press, 1907); Mary Reed Bobbitt With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Kathleen and Virginia

kathleen-lyttelton-portrait-older

‘I don’t in the least want Mrs L.’s candid criticism; I want her cheque!’

So wrote the 22-year old Virginia Stephen in November 1904 about an essay she had just sent to the Guardian, a weekly clerical journal for governesses, maiden ladies and high-church parsons. It was not the ideal vehicle for Virginia’s strong views, but she badly wanted to be published and to be paid for her writing. ‘Mrs L.’ was Kathleen Lyttelton, pictured left, the 47-year old editor of the Guardian‘s women’s pages. Although her name is little known today, we should pay tribute to her as the woman who set Virginia Woolf on her published writing career.

Kathleen, formally known as Mrs Arthur Lyttelton, was a social reformer, writer, suffrage campaigner and one of the founder members of the Cambridge Ladies Dining Society. She was a practical person with a mission to help the female sex. In 1884 she co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association (C.W.S.A.) and served on its executive from 1885–1890. In 1888, encouraged by her friend Millicent Fawcett, she joined the executive committee of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage to work for suffrage at a national level.  A committed Anglican with high ideals, she felt compelled to engage in the struggle for women’s franchise and to help the poor, women in trouble and women workers, and to use her writing as a means of educating them. In 1901 she published her views in her book Women and their Work, intended as a manual for women at a time when society was changing. In February 1903, her husband Arthur, then Bishop of Southampton, died prematurely, and Kathleen was forced to move, but she was determined to continue with her writing career. She joined The Guardian as editor in June 1904 after the paper amalgamated with The Churchwoman, a journal she is likely to have written for beforehand.

1904 had been a traumatic year for Virginia. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, died from cancer in February, and she had her second serious nervous breakdown followed by a slow and painful recovery between April and October. In the autumn she and her siblings, Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian moved to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. Bills needed to be paid, and Virginia’s close older friend and mentor Violet Dickinson encouraged her to try to publish her work as a way of making money and, more importantly, establishing herself as a writer.

It was Violet who suggested that Virginia send an essay to Kathleen Lyttelton. Violet knew the Lyttelton family well through her clerical connections, and had already introduced Virginia to Margaret, Kathleen’s daughter. Virginia had not warmed to Margaret, and was doubtful that her mother would like her writing. ‘I dont in the least expect Mrs Lyttelton to take that article’, she told Violet on 11 November 1904. She was right in one sense. Her essay on Manorbier was never published and has since been lost, but Kathleen offered something better: she invited  Virginia to contribute 1,500 words on any subject she liked, a remarkably generous offer to such a young and unknown writer. ‘Mrs Lyttelton must be a very sensible woman’ Virginia wrote gratefully to Violet on 14 November, ‘she is very generous to allow me any subject… D’you think Mrs Lyttelton will let me write fairly often?’ She did. In December 1904 The Guardian published Virginia’s review of W.D. Howell’s novel The Son of Royal Langbrith, and an essay ‘Haworth, November 1904’, written after her visit to the Brontë parsonage in November that year, in which she wrote: ‘Haworth expresses the Brontës; the Brontës express Haworth…They fit like a snail to its shell.’

In January 1905 Virginia told Violet how well she was getting on with ‘My Editress’. ‘Mrs Lyttelton has just been – she is a delightful big sensible woman. I wish she would pet me! I think she has possibilities that way!’ Her friendship with Kathleen’s daughter Margaret, even though they were the same age, was much less cordial, as Virginia wrote a month later: ‘We had Margaret L. yesterday, who did her best to talk, but she is a rather stiff and starched young woman.’ (Curiously, the editors of Virginia Woolf’s Letters and Essays, along with subsequent Woolf biographers, have merged the Lyttelton mother and daughter’s identities, wrongly referring to Margaret as the editor of the Guardian‘s women’s supplement.)

Although Virginia liked and respected Kathleen, she was understandably frustrated when she wielded her editor’s red pen too heavily. ‘I could wish that she had a finer literary taste sometimes’ Virginia complained to Violet in December 1905, ‘she sticks her broad thumb into the middle of my sentences and improves the moral tone. If I could get enough work elsewhere I dont think I should bother about the Guardian.’ There was worse to come. Kathleen insisted on reducing the word count of her review of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl so much that she made it ‘worthless’ in Virginia’s eyes.

Unlike the Brontës and Haworth, Virginia and the Guardian never did fit like a snail to its shell, and she would find a more natural home for her essays at the Times Literary Supplement. But she continued to write regularly for the Guardian for two years, earning an estimated £17, 10 s.0d, a respectable sum. Whatever might be said about her over-zealous editorial cuts, Mrs L.’s cheque – and her acceptance of the young Virginia Woolf as a writer – reveals Kathleen Lyttelton to have been an editor of some distinction.

Carolyn Ferguson and Ann Kennedy Smith (Please reference as follows: Carolyn Ferguson and Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Kathleen and Virginia’ (November 25, 2016) https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: All quotations from letters are from The Letters of Virginia Woolf eds. Nigel Nicolson & Joanne Trautmann, Volume 1 (The Hogarth Press, London, 1975). The essay ‘Haworth, November 1904’ is included in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. Andrew Mc Neillie Volume 1, 1904-1912 (The Hogarth Press, London), and his estimate of her earnings is on p. xviii. See also James King, Virginia Woolf (Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1994); Hermione Lee Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997); Frances Spalding Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (National Portrait Gallery, 2014). With thanks to Andrew Wallis for his generous assistance, and his permission to reproduce the photograph of Kathleen Lyttelton.