Twelve of the biographies and memoirs I have enjoyed reading and reviewing in 2021. Thank you for reading the blog this year, and wishing you a very Happy New Year for 2022.
Burning Man: The Ascent of D. H. Lawrence (Bloomsbury, 2021) by Frances Wilson is a picaresque and immersive biography that paints a brilliant cinematographic picture of a decade of D.H. Lawrence’s life, from 1915 to 1925. (I wrote about the book, and Lawrence’s women friends and supporters, in my blogpost here). I also enjoyed re-reading Frances Wilson’s passionate and brilliant early biography, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber), reissued in a beautiful paperback edition earlier this year. It’s timely as Dorothy Wordsworth was born 250 years ago this month, and a recent Guardian editorial celebrated her life and writing as a ‘rare achievement’, not just for inspiring her famous brother’s poems, but as a first-rate nature writer in her own right.
Dorothy Wordsworth was a great walker in her younger days and walked for miles in the Lake District, Scotland and mainland Europe. I enjoyed Windswept: Walking in the footsteps of remarkable women by Annabel Abbs (Two Roads Books) a powerful memoir-biography about how walking in nature changed the lives and inspired the writing of writers including Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir, Gwen John and the author herself. Another book about women who travelled far from home is Undreamed Shores (Granta) by Frances Larson. ‘They went from the periphery into the unknown’, Larson writes, ‘and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again.’ It’s a compelling group biography tracing the lives of five pioneering anthropologists who were among the first to study anthropology at Oxford University. My TLS review is here. I also loved Emily Midorikawa’s Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint Press, 2021), a beautifully written, absorbing group biography that offers new insights into how six enterprising women succeeded in making spiritualism the means of gaining power, money and influence. More on this book, and the American Caroline Jebb’s trenchant views of the Cambridge University spiritualists of the 1870s, in my blogpost here.
Ding Dong! Avon Calling! by Katina Manko (OUP, 2021) is a well-written and perceptive American business history that takes seriously the ambitions and achievements of Avon Inc.’s vast, all-female network of saleswomen from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Avon celebrated these women as entrepreneurs, while systematically excluding them from the company’s senior management. I wrote about it for the 24 September TLS here. I highly recommend Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Men by the Swedish economist Katrine Marçal (Harper Collins). Wittily translated by Alex Fleming, Marçal’s book is a fresh and highly readable account of how women’s brilliant ideas (from the wheelie suitcase to bra technology for spacesuits) have been overlooked through history until men decided to make these ideas their own, at a cost to the world’s economy. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s multi-volume series Such Friends: The Literary 1920s presents colourful, diary-like snippets, skilfully woven together, from the daily lives of writers, poets and artists of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table in New York. There are excerpts on her ‘Such Friends’ blog here.
My favourite literary memoir this year was Marina Warner’s evocative Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir (Harper Collins; published as Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir in the USA). It’s a richly detailed, sharp and sympathetic memoir, beautifully illustrated by Sophie Herxheimer, that uses treasured mementoes to connect family secrets to Britain’s colonial past, and offers insights into how Warner became a writer. My review is in the 26 March TLS here; I also wrote about Warner’s Cambridge connections in my March blogpost, ‘The Cambridge bookshop’. In November 2021 there was a welcome reissue by Faber of Virginia Cowles’s Looking For Trouble, a wonderfully fresh and vivid memoir of this remarkable, but nowadays little-known, woman war correspondent. A bestseller when it was first published in 1941, Looking For Trouble showcases Cowles’s great courage and ability to write, no matter what dangerous situation she found herself in. She is one of the six women wartime reporters featured in Judith Mackrell’s new group biography Going With The Boys (Pan Macmillan; published in the USA The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II), an entertaining and well-researched book highlighting the lives and work of Martha Gellhorn, Clare Hollingworth, Helen Kirkpatrick, Sigrid Schultz and Lee Miller. Mackrell, a Guardian journalist, is the guest in the latest ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast, a wonderful series about ‘forgotten’ women writers which I can thoroughly recommend (I was honoured to be a ‘Lost Ladies’ guest myself in April this year, discussing Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs).
Last, but certainly not least, is Constance Ruzich’s International Poetry of The First World War (Bloomsbury Academic; forthcoming in paperback in April 2022). As I noted in my previous blogpost, it’s an anthology that draws together a diverse range of often overlooked poetic voices, revealing a more complex picture of the First World War and its aftermath. I particularly valued the careful research that went into the biographical notes accompanying each poem, revealing the personal stories of women and men, combatants and noncombatants and those for and against the war. There is more on Ruzich’s blog ‘Behind Their Lines’, here: and it would be wonderful if, in future years, there might be a film or play about the early jazz musician, bandleader and war hero, Lieut. James Rees Europe, pictured below.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, 28 December 2021