In the lectures I give, I love to provide background to a novel or poem by telling my audience something about the life of its author. I find it fascinating to know about the man or woman behind the work, to discover how they came to write, what their love lives were like, what interesting quirks of personality they displayed. I read many literary biographies as part of my research for lectures, but also for pleasure. And in my view the best biographer alive today is Claire Tomalin, so I was delighted to see that she has just written a memoir which is a biography of herself, called A Life of My Own. I once had the privilege of meeting Claire – she was working on her Pepys biography at the time, and it was fascinating talking to her. Her own life has not been an easy one, including the deaths of two of her children, and the death of her first husband, leaving her working as a journalist to support the children. As a writer she has gained huge praise and won major literary awards.
Claire told me that when she works on a biography she does an enormous amount of walking, literally following in the footsteps of her ‘subject’. I loved the image of Claire traipsing the English countryside, trying to see what someone who had lived a few centuries before might have seen, getting a feel for the landscape that shaped that writer. Her Jane Austen: A Life is the best biography available on Jane Austen, her Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self won the Whitbread Biography Prize, and I really love her Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man because she is so good on Hardy’s poetry. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens involved ground-breaking detective work, and her biography of Dickens is particularly good on the women in his life (poor things!). Her other biographies include one on NZ writer Katherine Mansfield, one on Shelley and his world, another on Mary Wollstonecraft, and the excellent Mrs Jordan’s Profession. Sadly, it seems she is not planning to write more biographies (she is 84), but she has left the world of literary biography much richer for her efforts.
There are of course other fabulous biographers who have tackled the lives of writers – Richard Holmes, Victoria Glendinning, Richard Ellmann, Claire Harman, Andrew Lycett, Juliet Barker, just to name a few. Do you have any favourites? I’d love to hear your suggestions of good biographies of authors. Tell me by leaving a comment.
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin
Thomas Hardy, The Time-torn Man by Claire Tomalin
The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin
Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Susannah Fulleton Finding Katherine Mansfield: Audio CD
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