This was one of the books I picked up in Hay-on-Wye last year, and it’s going to be more or less impossible to write about in detail – so I’ll start with saying that it’s a fantastic book and anybody interested in biography and biographers should hunt down a copy.
It’s a collection of essays written about biography by the great and the good of that world. I won’t list them all, but Lyndall Gordon, Hermione Lee, Margaret Forster, Hilary Spurling, Claire Tomalin, Antonia Fraser, Frances Spalding, John Sutherland, Michael Holroyd, Jenny Uglow, Claire Harman… even, rather surprisingly, Beryl Bainbridge. It’s quite an impressive collection (originally compiled for the launch of a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) – I’m not sure how many were written especially for this, but it’s absolutely fascinating.
The essays that work best are those that look at particular issues with the process of biography – whether that be antagonistic relatives, unearthing unexpected manuscripts, or racing against another biographer of the same subject. These glimpses behind the curtain are sometimes gossipy, sometimes moving, and always extremely interesting. #
There are a handful of essays that don’t work so well. The editor, Mark Bostridge, has rather bizarrely given himself 17 pages when everybody else gets around 6 – it feels rather vain, and his chapter isn’t especially interesting – and the essayists (notably Hermione Lee) who write about their subjects rather than writing the biography seem to have missed the point. We don’t need an abridged version of findings from the biography; much more interesting is how they chose the topic or the obstacles they faced.
Luckily, most of the chapters do just this – and whether or not you are particularly interested by the subjects or the authors themselves, I think you’ll find it almost all extremely engrossing. An invaluable accompaniment to any biography bookcase!