1 October 2023 Susannah

Claire Harman’s Biographies

Claire Harman, All Sorts of Lives

I was lucky enough to grow up in one of the world’s most beautiful countries, New Zealand. I was also incredibly lucky to have parents who read books, took us weekly to the library, and who read aloud to us. And at school I was, like most Kiwi kids, given the short stories of Katherine Mansfield to read.

This year is the centenary of Mansfield’s death (she died from tuberculosis at the tragically young age of 34) and to mark this anniversary, various new books are appearing. One is quite exceptional! Claire Harman’s All Sorts of Lives came out this year and is a superb mixture of biography, literary analysis and introduction to some short stories that are not so well known, as well as a few that are. This was one of those books I simply wanted to devour – I feared to hurry with it, as that would bring the end too quickly, but I wanted to race on to the next exciting new insight. I have enjoyed several of Claire Harman’s other books, but this one will take some beating.

Claire Harman is an award-winning critic and biographer. I have read almost all her books – biographies of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Brontë, the excellent book Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (isn’t that a great title!) which is about Jane Austen’s posthumous reputation, and then the fantastic Fanny Burney: A Biography. I have read some of Fanny Burney’s books and find them rather dated and wordy, but her life was incredible as Fanny always managed to be where the action was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was in Belgium when the Battle of Waterloo took place, in Paris when Napoleon escaped from Elba, at court when King George III went mad, and she famously underwent a mastectomy (without anaesthetic because it did not yet exist) and left a horrifically vivid account of undergoing that operation. I can really recommend that book as a most interesting read. Claire Harman has also written a biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, which I have not yet read, and Murder by the Book about a real-life Victorian murder mystery.

She is an author whose latest work I eagerly anticipate. I hope you can find time to read some of her books.

Have you read any of Claire Harman’s books? Can you recommend other great biographies? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- Interview: Claire Harman, 2015 Forward Prizes Best Single Poem Winner, YouTube, https://youtu.be/_9L8Vhe2VJ4; & All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the art of risking everything by Claire Harman, https://amzn.to/3ZoaBs2

Comments (6)

  1. Heather

    I JUST HAVE TO BUY THIS BOOK. We don’t have many Book Shops in Port Macquarie. However, my husband is travelling to Sydney next weekend so I will definitely add this book of Katherine Mansfield and also Claire Harman’s biographies on Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Murder by the Book, plus the little list of books I have already written out (which he doesn’t know about yet!!).

    Thanks Susannah.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You won’t regret the purchase. My cope is currently in NZ as I lent it to a friend there.

  2. Anne Williams

    I happened to be in Berkelouw Paddington after watching an Italian film the day before yesterday and wandered upstairs where second hand books are shelved. The cover of Claire Herman’s book caught my eye on a table, then I noticed the photo of Katherine Mansfield. I cannot wait to begin to read this book now.

  3. Chris Browne

    I agree with you Susannah that Claire Harman is a terrific literary biographer, one of the female triumvirate with Victoria Glendinning and Claire Tomalin, to my mind the three most consistently readable literary biographers. I particularly liked her RLS and Charlotte Brontë. I have yet to read her Katherine Mansfield or herJane’s Fame, but will get round to them. I strongly recommend Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, brilliantly titled A Life of My Own. Not all biographers are so good at writing about themselves.
    Best wishes
    Changi Airport

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t Claire Tomalin’s memoir wonderful! She is one of my favourite biographers of all time, and I also agree about Victoria Glendinning. Do read Claire Harman’s books on Mansfield and Jane Austen, as I am sure you will enjoy them.

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