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 skilful, experimental and very funny: the best sort of unreliable memoir.
  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.

Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures

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Portrait of Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1889; (c) Newnham College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

During the 1890s Eleanor Sidgwick (always known as ‘Nora’ as by her friends) loved taking part in the regular Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society discussions. ‘I have never anywhere else seen her more alive & interested,’ her friend and fellow-member Louise Creighton recalled. ‘She used to quite flush with excitement.’ (Creighton, 97) It’s a delightful image that seems to contradict the serious face of the woman in James Jebusa Shannon’s portrait that hangs in Newnham College, Cambridge today. Sidgwick was the college’s first Vice-Principal and its second Principal from 1892. ‘We had immense respect for her,’ one student later recalled, ‘she was soft-voiced, slight in figure and generally pale in colouring, but in her grey eyes shone the light of the pure intellectual, quite unconscious of itself, but making one painfully aware of one’s own amateurish inferiority.’ (Phillips, 54)

Although she was known for her ‘fastidious austerity’ (Fowler, 7), Eleanor Sidgwick’s students knew that she could take a joke. One college production in 1895 featured a lively song with the lines: ”Mrs Sidgwick she up an’ sez ‘Look at the fax…the one thing we ax, is – do treat a girl as a rational creature.” (Fowler, 20) Her marriage to Newnham’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick in 1876 was from the outset an affectionate and rational (rather than romantic) partnership, based on working together to promote equal higher education opportunities for women. They did share a lifelong passion for psychical research, however, and probably met during a séance at her brother Arthur Balfour’s house. Both Sidgwicks were founder members of the Society for Psychical Research (est. 1882): see Jane Dismore’s excellent guest post here.

Growing up in the Balfours’ stately home in East Lothian, Eleanor Sidgwick had always been treated as a rational creature herself. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics, and her mother Lady Blanche insisted that she should be taught Euclid alongside her brothers Arthur, Gerald and Frank. While her brothers went off to study at Eton and Cambridge, Nora stayed at home to manage the three large family estates, which gave her a practical education in finance. This came in useful at Newnham, where she personally micro-managed the college accounts (‘chasing twopences’ as she called it) and she had the far-sighted strategy to ensure the future of its campus site by purchasing adjoining land and organizing a new road, Sidgwick Avenue, planted with plane trees that she paid for herself.

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Susannah Gibson’s The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019) reveals a less well known aspect of Eleanor Sidgwick’s work in Cambridge: as a physicist who contributed to Lord Rayleigh’s Nobel prize-winning discoveries. The subject of Gibson’s book is the Cambridge Philosophical Society, a scientific society for the University’s graduates founded 1819 that came to have worldwide influence. For well over a hundred years it did not accept women into the Society as members, because they were not permitted to hold Cambridge degrees. In my Times Literary Supplement review of Gibson’s book I wrote that my favourite chapter in the The Spirit of Inquiry is ‘A Workbench of One’s Own’ about the scientific work that Cambridge women carried on doing in segregated, poorly equipped laboratories when they were not permitted access to the University’s labs. But they also worked, often unacknowledged, alongside their male counterparts, for the sake of scientific discovery. 

In 1904 Lord Rayleigh became Cambridge University’s first Nobel Prize winner for his study of the density of gases and the discovery of Argon (see Katrina Dean’s blogpost here). In the 1870s and 1880s Rayleigh’s ‘closest collaborator’, according to Gibson, was his sister-in-law Eleanor Sidgwick, ‘a brilliant experimenter’, who co-published several papers with him and

‘worked painstakingly with Rayleigh and the others to set up the great spinning coils of wire, the scales and magnetometers, the Argand lamps, the looking glasses, and the telescopic eyepieces needed to record their measurements. The researchers often worked overnight, toiling away when the laboratory was silent and still, exhausting themselves in pursuit of the elusive numbers.’ (Gibson, 166)

This fascinating historical scientific work was highlighted in the ‘Discovery‘ exhibition at Cambridge University Library (see blog here) with photographs of Rayleigh’s hand-crafted bird whistles and other apparatus that he devised to detect ultrasonic waves, including a box full of bright green iridescent beetles and even a delicate blue butterfly wing used in his experiments on light waves. The exhibition featured Newton’s own annotated copy of the Principia, a letter that Darwin wrote from the Beagle and an early typescript of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (intriguingly with a different title). Also on display, for the first time ever, was the 1967 pulsar chart reading made by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who as a PhD student rolled out her experimental charts on the long floor of the old Cavendish Laboratory. Seven years later it was her supervisor Anthony Hewish – not her – who was awarded the Nobel Prize, but despite this, Bell Burnell’s continuing work and influence have made her a role model for female scientists throughout the world. In 2018 she donated her $3 million Breakthrough Prize to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics.

It’s not hard to imagine Nora Sidgwick’s serious face lighting up at this news. How interested she would be to see, and hear about, the scientific discoveries that male and female Cambridge scientists have made – and continue to make – by working together. Women were doing important work even during a time when their contribution was not formally acknowledged by membership of prestigious scientific clubs and associations. Eleanor Sidgwick’s own ‘hidden figures’, like those of other women scientists, are part of that story.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019 (Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures’: https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman ed. J. T. Covert (1994); Katrina Dean, ‘Discovery: 200 Years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society’ blog post at https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=17330 (accessed 11.5.2019); Helen Fowler, ‘Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in Cambridge Women: Twelve portraits, eds. Edward Shils and Carmen Blacker (1996) & ‘Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019); Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Ladies Dining Society 1890–1914’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2016); Phillips, Ann (1979), ed., A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge: CUP); E. Sidgwick, Mrs Henry Sidgwick: a memoir by her niece (1938)

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.

Ann Kennedy Smith

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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Pesky feminists

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“And I’d have got away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky feminists!”, or so Caroline Criado Perez imagined Sir Neil Thorne saying this week. Thorne is the former Conservative MP who attempted this summer to move the Grade 2 listed statue of Mrs Pankhurst from its present location in front of Parliament, to an obscure corner in the grounds of a private university in Regent’s Park.

In August the author and suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford used her informative ‘Woman and sphere’ blog to draw attention to plans to dismantle the statue. Even though the online petitions protesting against it had raised thousands of signatures, Crawford explained that Westminster city council was under no obligation to take notice of them, but it did have to pay attention to complaints made to them via their planning applications procedure.

Thanks to the efforts of Crawford and Criado Perez, who helped to publicize the campaign, in less than a month Westminster city council received 896 comments on the proposed move, of which 887 were objections (including mine). It was slightly more time-consuming than clicking on an online petition, but it seems to have done the trick, as last week it was announced that the proposals have been withdrawn.

Mary Ward (Martin) copy

 

Mary Martin Ward (Newnham Hall 1876-1879), photograph reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College Cambridge

Last year the ODNB asked me to write an entry on one of Cambridge’s longest serving ‘pesky feminists’, the Irish suffragist Mary Ward (1851-1933). I knew that she was one of the original members of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in the 1880s, so I turned to Crawford’s landmark reference work, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide to find out more. That led me to the Cambridgeshire Archives and to the archives at Newnham College (where she was a star student) and finally to the Women’s Library at the L.S.E., to consult the papers of Olwen Ward Campbell (Ward’s daughter).

My blog about Mary Ward is here, but I have been thinking about her again this week because on October 4th I’m giving a talk about her suffrage work at the Museum of Cambridge. It’s part of events supporting the  ‘At Last! Votes For Women’ exhibition that has come fresh from the LSE, and runs until 11 November. With sashes, badges and documents telling the story of the fight for equal voting rights, the campaign methods of the three main groups for women’s suffrage in the years 1908-14 are explored.

The WSPU headed by Mrs Pankhurst believed in ‘deeds not words’, and the militant actions by its members made headlines in 1913. Mary Ward, then 62, belonged to the much larger NUWSS which condemned violence and believed that the vote would be won using the ‘peaceful and constitutional methods’ it had been deploying for almost fifty years. Ward may have disagreed with the tactics of the suffragettes, but in 1913 she co-signed a letter to the Cambridge Daily News protesting against the continuing focus of ‘the sensational Press’ on the militant actions of the WSPU, and she resigned her membership of the Liberal Party in protest against the government’s treatment of militant suffrage prisoners.

That summer of 1913 saw the Great Pilgrimage, a six-week march by the many thousands of suffragists who believed in non-violent protest from all over England and Wales to Hyde Park in London (the author Jane Robinson wrote about it in her excellent recent book, Hearts and Minds). Mary Ward was one of the leaders of the Cambridge suffragists, ‘marching through unfriendly crowds from Barnwell junction to Midsummer Common’, as Crawford puts it, before setting off for London.

You might say that Ward believed in deeds and words – a stinging letter, a well-timed resignation, walking with her head high through hostile crowds to make a point about women’s rights. It’s good to know that even today words (and emails sent to the correct authority) can make things happen too. But we have to make sure we don’t assume, as feminists today, that the fight has been won by women like Mary Ward and Mrs Pankhurst, and we can let our guard down. As Elizabeth Crawford wrote last week:

‘The proposals to remove Mrs Pankhurst’s statue and re-erect it in the grounds of Regent’s University have just been WITHDRAWN… However, we would be wise not to be too complacent…this may be some kind of tactical move. Be vigilant.’

More words from me (spoken this time) at the Museum of Cambridge on October 4th. I hope you can come.

 

Sources: H.M. Lawson Dodd and others, ‘Mrs James Ward (Mary Jane Martin), Newnham Hall 1876-1879’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter, January 1934, pp. 38-47‘Ward, Mrs Mary’ (1851-1933) in E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); ‘A Petticoat Pilgrimage’ Cambridge Daily News (21 July 1913); Cambridgeshire Archives CWSA Papers 1884 –1919. With thanks to Newnham College for permission to use the photograph of Mary Ward.

Best of Friends: Fanny Prothero and Henry James

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(C. W. Furse, 1898. Collection unknown; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London)

She was, according to Henry James, “the minutest scrap of a little delicate black Celt that ever was – full of humour & humanity & curiosity & interrogation – too much interrogation”. In 1906 Fanny Prothero, 52, and her husband George Prothero, 58, the historian and editor of the Quarterly Review, took a weekend cottage in Rye in Sussex, close to where Henry James (63) lived in Lamb House. Although only part-time residents, both Protheros soon became part of James’s trusted innermost circle of friends there. However, it was with Fanny that he could talk most openly.

“James did like a yarn”, as the Irish writer John Banville wrote recently in the TLS.  “He was fortunate in having a large number of female friends who were lively, clever and inquisitive observers of the comédie humaine. It was mainly from these sharp-eyed and sharp-eared women, and most often at the dinner table, that he had many of the instances and ideas for stories that he recorded in his notebooks.” Sharp-eyed and sharp-eared as she was, Fanny Prothero was also excellent company. Over the next ten years James would write over a hundred letters to her, warmly addressing her as “Dearest Fanny” or “Best of Friends!” In 1912 he looked forward to inviting her to his new flat in Chelsea for tea “and perhaps another opium pill at (say) 4.30. Then there will be such tales to tell!”

Fanny was born Mary Francis Butcher in 1854, and grew up in County Meath, where her father was a Church of Ireland Bishop. Both of her brothers attended Trinity College in Cambridge and Fanny herself settled there in 1882 after her marriage to Prothero, a fellow of King’s College. (Caroline Jebb, who always denied being a matchmaker, was delighted to have introduced them). Fanny became good friends with Ida Darwin and in 1890 they were both invited to join the select discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society. In its early days at least, the group had strict rules about sticking to the set topic of the evening – champagne and personal conversations were forbidden – an approach that suited some more than others. “Fanny Prothero never really liked it,” the group’s organizer Louise Creighton recalled, ‘she at that time always wanted intimate talk with one person.”

Talking intimately was something that Fanny did very well, with both men and women. Horace Darwin, recovering from illness in 1889, told his sister Henrietta that “I honour a few ladies by allowing them to come and see me, the sprightly and vivacious Mrs Prothero and the gentle, charming and refined Mrs Sidgwick”. Fanny kept up her energetic nature well into her sixties, and when she became friends with Henry James she was useful to him in all sorts of practical ways – helping him to sort out furnishings for his London flat, finding him a reliable cook and popping into the kitchen at Lamb House to sit with her feet on a chair, chatting to his servants. “It was her way of keeping an eye on them,” James’s biographer Leon Edel writes – it seems likely that it was also because she was so interested in other people. She was as good at listening as she was at talking, although in 1913 Henry James confessed to his sister-in-law that Fanny’s vivid interest in what he was saying occasionally irritated him.

She has a tiresome little Irish habit (it gives at last on one’s nerves) of putting all her responses (equally), at first, in the form of interrogative surprise, so that one at first thinks one must repeat and insist on what one has said… It is her only vice!

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, both Henry James and Fanny (now Lady Prothero) threw themselves into charitable work for Belgian refugees and visiting wounded soldiers in hospital. By now, though, he was increasingly struck down by bouts of poor health, and Fanny became his devoted nurse. “She is as wonderful as ever in her indefatigability,” a grateful James told his niece Peggy on 1st December 1915. It was the last letter that he would ever write. The next morning, as he was dressing, his legs gave way beneath him and he fell to the floor. Although the doctor described it as a minor stroke, it seems that James had a premonition that his death was imminent. Later that day, he told Fanny that as he fell, he heard a voice distinctly say, “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!” He knew that she would want to hear all about it: it was quite a tale to tell.

Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2018 (all rights reserved)

Sources: I am delighted that my entry on ‘ The Ladies Dining Society’ is now included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (May 2018 update).

Henry James letters:  Dear munificent friends: Henry James’s letters to four women, ed. Susan E. Gunter (1999) 192, 228, 193; Horace Darwin, Cambridge University Library archives, Add. 9368.1.5204; Leon Edel, Henry James, A Life (1987); “So here it is at last…” Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934)