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.

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. Although at first he objected to the idea of academic men getting married, fearing that it would be at the expense of the close scholarly fellowship of his beloved ancient college – he later changed his mind. Here’s why.

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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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)

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

This month Wikipedia included a detailed article about the Ladies’ Dining Society. 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 Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, and student (later vice-principal) Helen Gladstone. Several other lecturers from Newnham College were members of the Ladies’ Dining Society, including Margaret Verrall, Mary Paley Marshall and Ellen Crofts Darwin, who had 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 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.

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 university wives helped to make Cambridge a much better place.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 January 2019 (All rights reserved

Great Lives

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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 through the eyes of her 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, of course. 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 (my blog piece on it is 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, including Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag (there’s a great review by Rachel Cooke here).  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. Although published over fifty years ago, Hayter’s book is still essential reading for today’s biographers.

Another book that got me interested in biography is Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Penguin, 1983). It’s an insightful, thought-provoking evocation of the troubled marriages of Dickens, Carlyle and Ruskin and Rose 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.

A public space: Kathleen Lyttelton’s campaigning journalism

In my recent guest post for Something Rhymed, Emily Midorikawa’s and Emma Claire Sweeney’s inspiring blog on women’s literary friendships, I described how Kathleen Lyttelton was the first editor to publish Virginia Woolf’s writing, beginning a warm professional relationship. Here I take a closer look at Kathleen’s work as a journalist.  

In June 1903, when she was 47, Kathleen Lyttelton became the editor of a new supplement of a long-established Anglican clerical newspaper called The Guardian. It seems that it was her idea to start a special section of women’s pages in a publication that otherwise was aimed squarely at clergymen, with articles such as ‘The Church at Home and Abroad’ and advertisements for prayer-books and suitcases that were suitable for cassocks. Arthur Lyttelton, Kathleen’s husband was the Bishop of Southampton, and she had been reviewing books anonymously for The Guardian for years (she was a published short-story writer). After his death in early 1903 she moved to Bloomsbury with her daughter Margaret, and began to earn her own living as a journalist.

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Mary Kathleen Lyttelton (née Clive) by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), platinum print, 1890s: NPG Ax68772 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Editorship of the Guardian woman’s pages allowed Kathleen to cover issues that had a direct impact on women’s lives, and to bring them directly into the homes of respectable clergymen and their families. From the beginning, her focus was on the new opportunities opening up for women of different social classes to study and work, as it had been since co-founding Cambridge’s first women’s suffrage association in the 1880s. There were articles on women as school managers and, in the field of public health, much-needed sanitary inspectors. Or what about a career as a nurse, an elementary school teacher or in the printing trade? The ‘well-educated gentlewoman’ who read The Guardian was encouraged to consider a professional occupation other than teaching, and to cater for the working woman’s needs, there was a feature on ‘A restaurant for busy women’ that had recently opened in Manchester Square, London.

By 1904 Kathleen was writing editorial leader columns every week. She was outspoken about the need for women to earn money on the same terms as men, including in her own profession of writing. She was aware that, as she put it, ‘in spite of Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen’ women writers were still seen as overstepping a boundary if they were paid on equal terms to men. ‘Even when Charlotte Yonge achieved her first success, it was not considered the right thing for her to receive a pecuniary reward for her labours’, she noted with asperity, ‘and the difficulty was overcome by handing the proceeds to a charitable society.’ Lyttelton did not envy the limited life choices of Jane Austen’s women characters:

We wonder how these unemployed young women managed to while away the long weary hours of the day. Had Elizabeth Bennett been born in our happier time she would certainly have left the family home…to carve out a career for herself. Mary, the learned, would have been sent to college to have been cured or not, as the case may be, of her priggishness.

At the turn of the twentieth century, ‘in our happier time’, things were different for the daughters of the middle- and upper-classes: they did not have to wait at home for a suitable gentleman to propose, but had opportunities to go to university and earn a salary in a range of professions. Lyttelton put her principals into practice by hiring an inexperienced twenty-two-year-old writer to review books for the paper: and for the rest of her life Virginia Woolf never forgot the thrill of receiving her first pay cheque from the woman she called ‘My Editress’ (see my post about their working friendship in Something Rhymed here).

In a series of specially commissioned articles, Lyttelton also directed her readers’ attention to financial and legal issues affecting women in other countries. One article called ‘What women are doing in Germany’ described the growing call for women to have equal access to professions: ‘In Germany the woman question – as it is in England- is no mere matter of abstract right; considerations of daily bread come into the account… There are in the Empire a million more women than men’.

Her friend Millicent Garrett Fawcett (writing as Mrs Henry Fawcett) contributed an article on ‘Women’s Suffrage in the Australian Commonwealth’, and in March 1904 Kathleen published ‘Indian Women’ by Cornelia Sorabji, who had studied at Somerville College in Oxford, then taken law qualifications in London and Bombay. Sorabji described how she wanted to use her training to ensure the legal rights of purdanashins, women prohibited from communicating with men, but she was not permitted to represent them in court. Three months later, however, Kathleen was happy to report that Sorabji had been appointed as the Indian government’s legal adviser on the issue; later she would go on to win the right for purdanashins to train as nurses.

Injustices closer to home were also highlighted. In July 1904 Lyttelton reported on Mrs Higgs who, as a precursor of George Orwell, had published a series of articles about her experience of spending five days as a tramp, sleeping in workhouses and grim common lodgings known as ‘tramp wards’. After the tramp ward, men and women no longer fear prison,’ Mrs Higgs wrote, and as a direct result of her articles, Lyttelton wrote, local governments in Lancashire and Yorkshire took action to improve conditions.

In another report, Kathleen wrote about the ‘crying need of an ambulance service in London’ rather than the usual practice of calling a cab to take people injured in the street to hospital, and she passionately supported the cause of Dr Ethel Vernon, a competent and well-liked doctor who was sacked from Westminster Hospital simply because one male consultant did not want to work with a woman. In another leader column, she argued for a greater knowledge of the laws that existed to protect working women and girls, instead of the fund-raising philanthropic approach favoured by her well-meaning, wealthy friends. Lyttelton’s work as a campaigning journalist threw light on issues affecting women of all classes, and when she died after a short illness in 1907, at the age of 51, her friend and fellow suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett described it as ‘a grave loss… to every cause which concerns the welfare and the progress of women… it is hard to lose such a companion and fellow-worker.’

Lyttelton Room

Kathleen Lyttelton’s campaigning work began when she moved to Cambridge in 1882 as the wife of Selwyn College’s first Master, Arthur Lyttelton: she was one of the founders of the Cambridge Association for Women’s Suffrage in 1884, and became President of the National Union of Women Workers in 1899. Her book Women and Their Work was published in 1901, and her portrait  is included in the portraits of 74 influential ‘Suffragettes and Suffragists’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London. In autumn 2018 Selwyn College in Cambridge renamed a room in the tower as the ‘Kathleen Lyttelton Room’ (photo above with Lyttelton’s descendants; with thanks to Andrew Wallis) marking both the centenary of the extension of the women’s franchise in 1918 and Kathleen’s twenty-five years of campaigning for political equality. She is the first Master’s wife to have been honoured by a Cambridge college in this way.

More about Lyttelton in ‘A testament to friendship’ here, and ‘Clubs of their own’ here.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 2018, all rights reserved

K Lyttelton Room

With thanks to  Andrew Wallis, Jean Chothia and Carolyn Ferguson for additional research, and to Selwyn College archivist Elizabeth Stratton for all her generous help.