Aug 22, 2010

The Sunday Salon - Literary Biographies: A Reading List

The Sunday Salon.com

I’ve never been much of a reader of biographies, but a couple of recent reading experiences have left me suspecting that I might be missing out. The biographies of Dorothy L. Sayers and Rosalind Franklin I read in the past few months were informative, wonderfully written and difficult to put down. And more importantly, they were both fascinating and very personal accounts of periods of history that are of great interest to me. That’s what made me realise I might be more interested in biographies than I ever suspected, really – they’re a way to get up close and personal with history; of understanding how individuals experienced Big Events and how abstract social questions touched the lives of real human beings. It’s one thing to read, for example, about the history of feminism in the abstract; it’s quite another to read the life story of a woman who was directly involved in it all and whose private life was shaped by her beliefs. (Note to self: get that Josephine Butler biography asap.)

Since I can’t currently acquired any new books, I did the next best thing, which is to make myself a reading list. I’m not exclusively interested in literary biographies, but many of the historical figures I’m curious to know more about were writers, so this seemed to me as good a place to start as any. If you’ve read any of these, I’d of course really love to hear your thoughts:

 Literary Biographies: A Reading List
  • Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee – This has to be the most frequently recommended literary biography out there, and I assume it’s with good reason. The sheer size of this book intimidates me slightly, but I’m sure it’s a fascinating portrait of Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, and I’d love to get to it before the end of the year.

  • D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage by Brenda Maddox – I love Lawrence and I loved Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, so I’m very curious about her take on his relationship with his wife Frieda von Richthofen. From her previous work, I can tell that she’ll bring a perspective and sensibility to this book that will greatly interest me. (Also, I’ve just noticed that she has a new book coming out called George Eliot in Love – I think I’m adding that to my wishlist too.)

  • The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell — Part of me feels bad reading a third party account of the Mitford’s lives, when there are books of letters and memoirs out there I could pick up instead. But Lovell’s group biography does sound like a fascinating bird’s eye view of the lives of these six sisters, who were involved in some of the major political and literary events of the 20th century.

  • The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin – I want to read this both because it’s about Mary Wollstonecraft and because it’s by Claire Tomalin. Tomalin’s name always seems to come up when I ask for recommendations of biographies, and as for Wollstonecraft, she’s of course an unavoidable name for anyone interested in the history of feminism.

  • The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell – I realise this will tell me as much about Gaskell as it will about Charlotte Brontë, but that’s actually part of why I want to read it. I’m also curious to see how the Victorians approached biography. However, I’ve yet to read a book on the lives of the Brontës, and would love to complement this with a contemporary perspective. Suggestions?

  • Learning Not To Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti by Kathleen Jones – How sad a title is that? But I suspect it’s very apt too. I love Rossetti’s poetry, and have been meaning to look for a biography of her for years. The fact that she lived as a woman in Pre-Raphaelite circles is in itself enough to make me want to read more about her life. Also, apparently Kathleen Jones “looks at her life alongside that of other nineteenth-century women writers, notably Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson”, which makes it sound even better.

  • Edith Nesbit: A Woman of Passion by Julia Briggs – Another excellent title, don’t you think? Edith Nesbit was an unconventional woman who lived in a time period I find fascinating, and who moved in Fabian and Bohemian circles. Add to this the fact that she inspired Olive Wellwood from A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and how could I not want to read this?

  • Capote: A Biography by Gerald ClarkeTea Lady recommended this to my recently, when I first mentioned that I wanted to read more biographies. She said it was the best one she’d ever read, and as Truman Capote is one of my favourite authors I added it to my wishlist immediately.
Are you a fan of biographies, literary or otherwise? If so, what are your favourites? Anything you think I absolutely need to read? If not, do you find them tedious, are they just not your cup of tea, have you had any bad experiences with them ,or have you (like me until recently) just never considered reading them before?

48 comments:

  1. I love biographies, but it's been ages since I *read* one, and I haven't read a ton. When I went in search of Bronte bios a while back, the most frequent suggestion was Juliet Barker's biography. As if you want a Gaskell one as a additional complement I've heard good things about Jenny Uglow's.

    Right now, the biography calling my name is Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy bio, which I picked up for just a few dollars a few weeks ago.

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  2. I actually don't think I've read a "proper" biography, although I've read the occasional autobiography. (I particularly recommend Sean Astin's There and Back Again, and not just because I'm a giant Ringer- the guy's just a great storyteller.) It's not that I don't like the genre- indeed, it offers a structure that nonfiction can often lack- but simply that I haven't gotten around to it. I'm sort of dying to read a good biography about Lord Byron, as well as one about Napoleon's Josephine.

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  3. Oh, now I want to read all of these! My Sunday Salon today is going to mention the literary biography I read and finished this week, "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women." Loved it.

    Would also recommend "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife" by Francine Prose.

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  4. I don't read many biographies ,the only one I have to read is Bruce Chatwins ,the marquez bio that came out a while ago also looked good ,all the best stu

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  5. You know, I think I would really enjoy reading biographies, but I don't actually do it. I've been sitting here wracking my brain, and I can't think of a single biography I've read since I was a kid. I do hope you get to read every one of these...it's unlikely that I'll ever read any of them myself, but I will unquestionably both enjoy your reviews and learn a lot from them!

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  6. I would't recommend the Mitford biography. As you pointed out, you'd be better off reading their letters. Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is wonderful but I always recommend it with what I see as its companion book, Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford since practically none of her letters are included in the former. I also strongly recommend Jessica's autobiography Hons and Rebels.

    I did find the Woolf biography okay, though I didn't learn much and it wasn't always an easy read.

    The best biography I've ever read wasn't a literary biography, it was a biography of Katharine Hepburn (entitled Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn by William Mann). I also mildly enjoy historical biographies but I tend to forget everything once the book is closed so it's not very helpful. I like everything Antonia Fraser has written and greatly enjoyed Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana of Devonshire.

    Good luck with your literary biographies endeavour!

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  7. It's funny the way we dismiss genres at times without really thinking about it. I've never read any of the books you've listed, but a couple of them look really appealing to me.

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  8. I don't read many literary biographies either, but Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee has been calling out to me all week. Despite the massive size, I almost bought her Woolf bio several weeks ago... must read the one I own first.

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  9. I cannot think of a single literary biography that I have ever read. I wonder why.

    I am especially intrigued with Edith Nesbit. Thank you for sharing these.

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  10. I'm not much of a biography fan, but I prefer the Quentin Bell biography of Virginia Woolf because of the personal/family connection. He knows her better than any other biographer could, and he doesn't let bias get in the way, w hich i like.

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  11. I'm a huge fan of biographies though I generally prefer memoirs. I actually think the Mary S. Lovell biography of the Mitfords is an excellent compliment to all of the primary sources available. It gives a great context and background to what was going on and certainly includes more on Unity.

    Literary biographies that I've enjoyed include: Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, and The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge.

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  12. Really enjoy literary biographies, and I see two I especially enjoyed here - the Virginia Woolf and the Mitfords. Just recently wrapped up the new bio of Muriel Spark and that was wonderful too. Left me with a whole, new expansive view of her work. Oh, and Richard Ellmann's work on Joyce though dated to some still works for me too.

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  13. I like biographies but I can't remember if I have any favorites. I'd have to look through my reading list again...

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  14. Somehow, I've ended up reading biographies about artists. I've read two excellent ones lately focused on how each artist made their most significant works. Becoming Judy Chicago and Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol.

    I'm not a big fan of either, though I do like their work. But each book was very interesting, I think becuase they did not try to cover the artists entire life in detail, but focused on one sifnificant period.

    Too many biogpraphies cover the entire life for scholarly reasons, when very few people have interestig lives from birth to death.

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  15. I used to read a lot of biographies but don't read as many these days. Those all look really interesting!

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  16. I've never really given biographies a chance, but have decided recently to give them a try. I've got just two on my shelves: one about Georgia O'Keefe, the other about Susan B. Anthony. You're reading list looks great :)

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  17. What a wonderful list. I don't typically read biographies, but you have definitely chosen some very interesting subjects here. I can't wait to hear what you think of the Mitford biography.

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  18. What I really enjoy is the multiple biography, when an author explores a whole set of literary relationships. I very much enjoyed Jeffrey Meyer's Married to Genius, (content evident from title!), Rachel Cohen's A Chance Meeting, about friendships between artists (this was brilliant) and Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont. Sometimes a whole book on one person can drag, with too much detail in the middle section or that awful slide into depressing downfall in the final third. These books pick out the good bits, if you see what I mean!

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  19. I second Savage Beauty about Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was fascinating and incredibly well written.

    I haven't read any of these but would like to read more bios - it's just difficult to discern the good ones from the ones that make me want to zzzz....

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  20. Nymeth, I have The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell (on my TBR shelf). I can recommend Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, which is one of my favourite biographies. I have the one of Virginia Woolf on my to-get list (Bybee was reading it recently) too. And now I really want the Mary Wollstonecraft and Christina Rossetti books, added to my list, thanks to you! :-D I need to find a good one of George Eliot now too. Great post!

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  21. Love love LOVE The Sisters. Great book about an even greater family!

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  22. To be honest, I can't remember ever reading a biography! Sure, I've watched a lot on TV, but that doesn't compare at all. I'd really like to start, so I'll keep your reading list in mind!

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  23. If you do find a good contemporary biography of Charlotte or any of the Brontes, I'd be interested to know what it is. I just got through reading Lynne Reid Banks's fictionalized account of the Brontes' lives, and they sound completely crazy sauce. I can't say I enjoyed the book, really. Fictionalized accounts of things often stress me out because I want to know what bits are True and what bits not. :p

    Have I recommended you that biography of Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell Is This? I really liked that one.

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  24. I really enjoy biographies, not just about literary people, but people in general. I find humanity interesting. I think my favorite is My Life in France about Julia Child. But then I also swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and read one about Monica Lewinsky (!). And I actually liked it!

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  25. A lot of the biographies I read also tend to involve writers... One of my favorites is Peter Ackroyd's Blake: A Biography, mostly because I love Blake's ideas and Ackroyd makes him really approachable. One biography I've been meaning to get around to is Gay Daly's Pre-Raphaelite's In Love because I love the Pre-Raphs and their curious relationships intrigue me in a steamy, Tabloid sort of way :)

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  26. I really like the biographer Claire Tomalin - I did actually read part, and enjoy that part of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft before I went and lost the bloody book and it was really good.

    I have read two others of Tomalin - and as you've already heard - she is really, really good. I haven't really read any other biographies other then ones by her but she writes so incredibly well you feel like you really do know the person she's writing about.

    I read her one on Samuel Pepys the diarist (very very good) and on Jane Austen which was really really lovely.

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  27. I like biographies, but I haven't read one in years. I like the list you've developed. I'm particularly interested in the biography of Virginia Woolf.

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  28. I highly recommend Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Daphne-Du-Maurier-Margaret-Forster/dp/0099333317/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1282500428&sr=8-1

    I don't read many literary biographies, but they are pretty much the only biographies I DO read. I'm not into them in general, but if I love an author I will occasionally try a biog. Especially if it's written by a novelist - as the du Maurier one is.

    I currently have Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (Claire Tomalin) sitting on my scary TBR stack. I'll let you know what I think! :)

    Cheers,
    Kaz

    p.s. Great post!

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  29. I've never been a fan of biographies. I don't really know why. They just don't interest me, even though when a book or other work of art connects with the author/artist's life, I find that very interesting. But a whole book about one person's life? Eugh. Just the thought kind of exhausts me.

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  30. I love biographies. John Adams was excellent. I have the Mitford one, but I haven't read it yet. I like Weir and Fraser. Ummmmmm. I'm drawing a blank now. Yikes. Oh the Einstein biography was good. There is a good one about Isak Dinesen. Oh I'm no help.

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  31. You know...I often say things like "I'm not a fan of biographies" but every one that I've read I've been a huge fan of. One of my favorites ever is Dream Homes...that one that my professor wrote about being a gay sephardic jew in the US. So beautiful. I've read so many other great ones too. I really would like to read more of them...Including that Capote biography! That sounds awesome.

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  32. I tend to shuffle biographies to the bottom of my TBR pile. I need to stop this habit, first with Lives Like Loaded Guns. I am adding Virginia Woolf and Capote to my list.

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  33. I haven't read very many biographies at all, and some of the ones on your reading list look really good. I am going to sit back and glean a little from your reviews on some of these and see which ones I might like!

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  34. I love lierary biographies. I've read about Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Edna St Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath. Hmm, a lot of those are kind of dark

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  35. wow.. It's strange but I've had the book The Sisters in my hands more than once at bookstores but I keep leaving it there.. I know one day I will walk home with it!

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  36. Add me to the list of huge Hermione Lee fans - I adored both her Woolf and Wharton bios. (Oddly, the same family connection between Quentin Bell & Woolf that Amanda likes is a big turn-off to me, especially since Woolf's family was key in establishing the "delicate lady suicide" image that still plagues her image and which I went off about in your post about The Hours, haha.)

    I've heard fantastic things about that Capote bio, and I also very much enjoyed Ellman's book on Oscar Wilde.

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  37. Thanks for this list, I've been wanting to add some more biographies to my TBR pile. I am particularly intrigued by the Christina Rossetti and Mary Wollstonecraft ones as both are authors I admire a great deal.

    I would also like to second the recommendation of John Adams by David McCullough, I've just started reading it and I can't speak highly enough about it. I wish McCullough would write a biography about Abigail Adams, it would be excellent.

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  38. I've never been a big fan of biographies although I do read quite a bit of nonfiction. My mother on the other hand reads biographies almost exclusively. I'm not sure if she's read any of those you've listed but I will have to ask her.

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  39. These biographies look great. Woolf and Capote are of special interest to me.

    Hope you have a great week!

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  40. I don't read too many biographies, but I did read and enjoy L.M. Montgomery's biography (the one by Mary Henley Rubio - The Gift of Wings).

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  41. You've picked a great crop for your reading list. So many interesting people on here and lots of biography writers I've heard great things about.

    As you've maybe guessed I am bad at getting round to reading non-fiction, but I have good intentions. And the Christina Rossetti biography sounds really good (that is a sad title isn't it, does it refer to her brother being first?). Adding to the list.

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  42. I love reading literary biographies, although I haven't read any on your list. I guess I tend to read more autobiographical essays, but anything to do with writers is fine by me. I look forward to your posts on them.

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  43. My mom got me started on biographies as a kid. I still love them. I appreciate your list. I have one for you I think you will love. The Bolter by Frances Osborne. I did a review for some magazine last year. Here is the link to Amazon...

    http://www.amazon.com/Bolter-Vintage-Frances-Osborne/dp/0307476421/ref=sr_1_1/188-4724153-2175207?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1282654162&sr=8-1
    Idina Sackville was a hoot!!!

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  44. Nymeth...I found the link to my review on The Bolter.

    http://bookwormsdinner.blogspot.com/2009/09/book-review-bolter-by-frances-osborne.html

    Hope you'll read this one. If you do, let me know what you think. :)

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  45. I'm not a fan of biographies, and last year's experience (I read some in an attempt to widen my usual reading patterns) just confirmed that, although I have the highly recommended Paris to the Moon on my tbr pile.

    But E. Nesbit is one of my favorite children's authors ever--I want to hear what you think about that one. Maybe I'll even look it up myself.

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  46. I quite enjoy some biographies, but usually only after the person is dead, horrible as that sounds, and generally long enough ago so that they're more academic/historical and not sensational. I started Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf but then moved before I finished and had to return it to the library. It was excellent, but so in depth that it was slow going. I've also meant to read one of Clare Tomalin's biographies, as she is reputed to be quite good.

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  47. Teresa: Thank you for the recommendations! And enjoy the Hardy bio. I'd love to read it some day if only because he lived in a time period that interests me so much, but I suppose I should read him first :P

    Clare: I didn't know about Astin's biography, but it does sound like a great read. And I'd love to read one of Byron too. And Shelley, and Keats. I find the whole romantic gang fascinating to read about.

    Melissa: I didn't know Prose had written about Anne Frank! And the Louisa May Alcott bio sounds excellent too.

    Stu: I have Marquez's Living to Tell the Tale but have yet to get to it... someday, someday.

    Debi: I hope you do enjoy the posts!

    Sibylle: I guess I was hoping the primary and secondary sources on the Mitfords to complement each other. But I will read their own books before anything else. and thank you for the good luck wishes!

    Kathy: It is funny! And always slightly alarming when I catch myself at it :P

    JoAnn: I'd love to get my hands on the Whaton bio too. But I should probably read more of her books first.

    Readerbuzz: You're most welcome!

    Amanda: I want to read the Quentin Bell biography too - he sounds like he himself was interesting, so I'm hoping it'll be like Gaskell on Brontë. But I'd also love to complement it with Lee's for historical perspective.

    Claire: That's exactly what I was hoping to hear about the Lovell bio. And thank you so much for the recommendations!

    Frances: I've yet to read Muriel Sparks, but I'll keep the biography in mind for after I do - she's an author I think I'll really, really like.

    Alice: No worries - after this post I have recommendations to last me a while :P

    C.B. James: Thank you for the suggestions! And that's an excellent point you make about a whole life not being necessarily interesting to read about. A more limited scope does have its advantages.

    Amy: Don't they? I hope I can get my hands on some soon!

    Emily Jane: I hope you'll enjoy yours and I'll enjoy mine!

    Trisha: Hopefully the library at my new location will have it *fingers crossed*

    litlove: Now that I think of it, I think Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians classified as a group biography, and it's one of my favourite non-fiction reads of the year. I loved it for the very reasons you pointed out, and I love the sounds of the ones you mentioned!

    Pickygirl: Yes, it can be difficult. I always hope that a biography of an interesting person will be good, but that's not necessarily true.

    Susan: Tomalin on Jane Austen sounds like something not to be missed! Thank you for all the recommendations, my dear :)

    Stephanie: It sounds like it!

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  48. What a terrific list! I really enjoyed the Gaskell biography, for the exact reason that you've mentioned wanting to read it. I also did just what you said and read it alongside a modern bio of the sisters, that by Juliet Barker that's also recommended above. A wonderful pairing! For a biography with a very different kind of feel, I'm very fond of Carol Shields' Jane Austen, one of those slim Penguin Lives bios. Enjoy your reading!

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